WHAT do Venice, Boracay, Machu Picchu, Mount Everest, Angkor Wat and Santorini have in common?

Sure, they’re all destinations that fill the top spots on many a traveller’s bucket list. But there’s something else linking these world-famous locations.

These spots – as well as a few other places like Iceland, Majorca, Dubrovnik, Iceland, Kyoto, Ko Phi Phi and the Galapagos – are regions around this rock we call home that have, at one time or another, suffered the effects of overtourism.

Before the COVID-19 crisis, overtourism was causing its own turmoil. It was driving up property prices so locals were forced out to make room for holiday accommodation, rubbish was turning once-pristine beaches into dumps, narrow roads were packed with tourist buses, and home-grown businesses were replaced by international corporations motivated by nothing more than money.

Awareness was increasing before the pandemic prompted travellers and the tourism industry to pause and reboot – an evolution that made sustainability and responsibility the top travel trends of this current recovery phase – but are we doing enough to repair the wounds inflicted by overtourism? And how do we ensure it is effectively, efficiently and empathetically managed?


The Responsible Tourism Partnership defined overtourism as “destinations where hosts or guests, locals or visitors, feel that there are too many visitors and that the quality of life in the area or the quality of the experience has deteriorated unacceptably”.

It’s a problem that surfaced since the middle of the past century when the new-found prosperity and advancing technology of the post-war era gave more and more people the means to see far-away lands.

The United Nations World Tourism Organization noted in its 2018 Understanding and Managing Urban Tourism Growth beyond Perceptions report that the number of international tourists gallivanting around the globe jumped from 25 million in 1950 to more than 1.3 billion in 2017.

“The growth of the tourism sector led by economic development, lower transport costs, travel facilitation and a growing middle class in advanced and emerging economies, made cities increasingly popular destinations for business and leisure tourists,” the report explained.

“As a consequence, we have witnessed a rise in negative attitudes among local populations towards visitors due to issues of perceived overcrowding, noise and other nuisances attributed to tourists, the emergence of protests in some cities and the spread of terms such as ‘overtourism’.”

But it’s a fine line to walk. We know visitors bring the bucks that provide a sustained economic boost to a community, and support industries that employ locals that would otherwise struggle to find enduring employment.


The detrimental effects of overtourism can range from the physical – green space filled with litter, animals scared away by crowds – to financial with small family-owned shops that once served the locals replaced by carpetbaggers peddling luxury items or tat to tourists.

Boracay, the Philippines’ picture-perfect island one travel writer described as “a screensaver brought to life”, saw tourism numbers jump to unsustainable and uncontrollable levels in just a few short years.

The 10km² plot, a 60-minute flight from Manilla, welcomed 260,000 visitors in the first year of the 21st century only for that number to skyrocket to more than 2 million travellers in 2017. Illegal guesthouses popped up along the sand, between 70 per cent and 90 per cent of the coral cover was destroyed by the spread of green algae and illegal fishing, and plastic pollution dominated the coastline.

While locals rapidly took up trades as beach vendors and taxi drivers, infrastructure upgrades were neglected. Unregulated businesses simply ran PVC pipes into the ocean to remove grey water and sewage rather than constructing an appropriate underground sewerage network.

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In 2016, The Phnom Penh Post reported those caring for Siem Reap’s iconic Angkor ruins were concerned the sudden and substantial spike in tourism was supporting a rapid and uncontrolled urban sprawl across a sleepy rural settlement. Civil engineers noticed the construction was stressing the environment, and decaying groundwater to a point it was feared the degradation “could trigger a sudden collapse of the ancient monuments”.

When the number of day-trippers exploring Santorini aboard cruise ships jumped from 15 million in 2010, to 32 million in just eight years, the hike in demand for water and power placed a strain on the island community. Locals feared the 75km² jewel in the Mediterranean Sea was simply not big enough to build the modern desalination plants and power stations required to meet the new levels of consumption.

Sinking into the lagoon, thanks to rising sea levels, was only one problem facing Venice. The dreamy Italian destination, that welcomed 30 million visitors a year before COVID-19, faced the very real consequence that the local population would drop to zero by the end of this decade.

Rising real estate rates put rentals out of the average Venetian’s reach, forcing the descendants of dynasties that had dwelled on the islands for centuries to move to the mainland, and the cruise ships bringing thousands of travellers every day during the high season were eroding the coastline. The destination’s personality was compromised by the arrival of take-away shops and the increase in foot traffic was putting unbearable stress on already crumbling foundations.


Most high-profile places that reported an epidemic of overtourism in the first decade of this new century, have already taken action towards positively turn the tide.

Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte closed Boracay for six months in 2018 – after proclaiming the destination was a “cesspit” – to initiate a rehabilitation process that saw illegal beachside buildings bulldozed, activity operators regulated, single-use plastic restricted, and hotels required to install eco-friendly waste-management systems.

After Dubrovnik witnessed a Game of Thrones-fuelled spike in arrivals – in one day in 2016, more than 10,000 people purchased tickets to scale the settlement’s fortifications – the unprecedented vibration caused by tramping tourists began degrading the foundations of buildings that had been standing for centuries.

The city was forced to limit the number of cruise ships that could visit in a day to just two at a time, as well as reducing the town’s souvenir shops and restaurant tables, after the number of residents living in the ancient address plunged by 80 per cent.

The Conversation proclaimed in a 2018 article that “dealing with overtourism must now be a priority”, but the process must be done carefully because a sudden decline in tourist numbers “would likely have considerable economic repercussions for those who rely on them”.

This is precisely what happened when COVID-19 put an almost-overnight stop to travel. Now, just as the industry shows the first green shoots of recovery, it would be carelessly cruel to again limit the livelihood of individuals who profit when holidaymakers visit their part of the planet.

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While it is iconic international destinations that get the most media when it comes to overtourism, Australia isn’t immune. Spots from Byron Bay to Kangaroo Island were experiencing a spike in visitor numbers before the pandemic, with the trend emerging again after international borders reopened in 2021.

Earlier this year Seal Rocks, on the NSW coast, made headlines when the council asked visitors to detour around the destination because a sudden spike in post-pandemic travel was “causing traffic and emergency access hazards”.

A recent news.com.au poll discovered 53 per cent of the readers that responded agreed overtourism was a problem for Australia, with a “slim majority” claiming influencers and tourists were at fault for “ruining our special beauty spots”.

But procedures to protect Australia’s natural wonders have long been in place and are now being strengthened. Tourist activities are now limited to only 7 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef, climbing Uluru was outlawed in 2019, and those looking to escape the beaten track to explore East Arnhem Land still require a permit to visit the Yolnu tribe’s Country.


There’s no doubt reducing overtourism is the shared responsibility of government, destination managers, travel operators, and the vacationers now more motivated than ever to encounter the points on their travel to-do lists.

“Tourism should be part of the wider destination management system, which must also consider transport and mobility, the preservation of public spaces, the local economy and housing, among other aspects of daily life,” The Conversation noted.

“Research, planning and a close and ongoing dialogue between city administrators, the tourism industry, civil society groups and local residents are essential.

“Tourists must also play their part by making travel choices that are sensitive to the places they visit and those who live in and around them.”

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While government and industry are undoubtedly accountable for reducing and eradicating overtourism, individual travellers can also do their part and make a meaningful difference.

If an already overburdened destination demands attention, visit outside the established tourist season when the location is less burdened by out-of-town bodies, and invest holiday funds in experiences backed by grassroots organisations that feed funds down through the whole community.

Design an itinerary that promotes slow travel, and takes several days to explore the address rather than hitting all the famous places in one day, and book overnight stays to explore once day-tripping tourists have departed for home and locals are emerging to reclaim their community.

Walk on established paths rather than forging new tracks across delicate terrain, resist climbing on centuries-old ruins, do exactly as the old saying states and leave only footprints while taking only photographs, and practice the principles of sustainable tourism to limit influence on the environment.

Another option is to find the hidden gems in the same region as the destination suffering overtourism. The Philippines boasts more than 76,000 islands, so avoid Boracay for a plot away from the tourist trail, and there are dozens of delightful villages around the Mediterranean equally as beautiful as Venice and Dubrovnik but sans the crowds.


AAT Kings – and its many sibling brands under The Travel Corporation umbrella – have long been innovating to implement sustainable tourism practices, with activities supporting the reduction of overtourism always given priority.

It’s never been enough to offer itineraries exploring the world-famous locations that top our traveller’s bucket lists, we had to guarantee it was done in a responsible way that would ensure regions remained pristine for those following in our footsteps.

To elevate that obligation, AAT Kings partnered with The TreadRight Foundation. The not-for-profit branch of The Travel Corporation family was created to promote responsible tourism practices, and adopted How We Tread Right which is the company’s five-year strategy for sustainability.

It’s our mission to include memorable moments in all itineraries that are not just culturally careful and environmentally accountable but support home-grown projects benefiting people, planet and wildlife.

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How We Tread Right, launched in 2020, consists of 11 objectives anchored to the United Nations Global Goals. These guide the way we are addressing climate change, sustainable food production, waste reduction, travel experiences, diversity and inclusion with this list the six main pillars our business is currently focusing upon.

To address overtourism specifically, goal eight stipulates we will achieve a 20 per cent increase of itineraries visiting developing regions.

As an example, our trips to Tropical North Queensland explore well beyond Cairns, Port Douglas, the Daintree and Great Barrier Reef to offer an adventure that explores all the way to Cape York and Thursday Island.

Cape York Frontier is a classic seven-day adventure across the Cape Country crowning Queensland that not only visits remote communities like Cooktown, Weipa and Horne Island but pauses to appreciate the Laura rock-art sites, the historic gold-mining settlement at Coen, and the infamous Old Telegraph Track.

By AAT Kings


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