Are Tourists Ruining Tourism?
During peak tourist season, cruise ships descend on Venice, Italy in droves. As cruise ships have grown ever larger, the propulsion systems required to move the behemoths threaten the delicate, centuries old balance between the canals and the man-made edifices that rise above them. Not to mention what the pollution from engine exhaust and wastewater is doing to the environment.
The Acropolis, perhaps Greece’s most famous ancient site, is host to so many tourists from the minute it opens, one can barely move. If you want to experience the wonders of the archaeological site beyond taking a selfie to post on Instagram you have to wait until after the cruise ships that dock at Athen’s port depart for the day. Which leaves precious little time to fully appreciate the wonders of such a magnificent site.
Popular tourist destinations in our own country are also suffering from over tourism. Residents of Bar Harbor, Maine are tired of the many day tourists that traipse through their quaint New England town. Bar Harbor isn't a product of the Renaissance like Venice, nor does it boast the same ancient history as Athens…the oldest structure is less than a 150-years young. But the press of day tourists is just as threatening to the thing that makes Bar Harbor such an in-demand destination...it's small town charm.
And then there is Juneau, Alaska. Unlike most destinations suffering from over tourism, it’s tough to get to Juneau. You can’t drive there unless you are willing to spend a fair bit of time on a ferry. Getting to Juneau by air is also an adventure, and getting there with your luggage is a 50/50 proposition. But cruise ships have made Juneau their gateway to Alaska and that has become a problem for Juneau’s residents. On any given day during peak season Juneau’s population of nearly 38,000 permanent residents can swell to twice that number with as many six or seven cruise ships carrying from 4,000 to 7,000 passengers and crew docking each day during the summer season. Many of the cruise ship day tourists don’t go any further than the pier side shops. The main attraction for those that do venture out is a tour of Mendenhall Glacier, after which cruise passengers return to the port for more shopping. And since most of the port shops are owned or operated under contract with the cruise lines, the economic benefit of tourism to the community is limited.
All of these destinations have one thing in common. Despite relying on tourism as an important contributor to their economy, local governments are struggling to find the proper balance. As a result, residents are adopting legislation and policies in an effort to restrict day tourists to more manageable numbers. If any of these destinations are in your future travel plans, it is important to understand what those newly imposed limits to day tourism might mean to your next trip.
Venice no longer allows cruise ships larger than 35,000 tons displacement to dock in the main port facility at the heart of the city. That rule affects all of the popular cruise lines. Cruise ships now have to dock outside of central Venice, in some cases at an industrial port that adds a two-hour drive to any shore excursions into Venice. There are plans to build a new cruise terminal outside of the main channel into Venice, allowing cruise ships to dock a short distance from the center of the city but without the risk of damage to structures. Those plans are still in the early stages of development and for the next few years at least, cruisers will have to deal with long bus rides if they want to experience Venice.
Tourists that seek to visit Venice by land are also impacted. The local government has implemented a new system designed to limit the number of land based day tourists. The new policy requires making an advanced reservation through a digital system and paying a modest fee of between 3-10 Euros. Tourists with bookings in Venice hotels are exempt from the new registration and fee requirement.
Athens has a more localized problem, with the impact of over tourism mainly being fetl by visitors to the Acropolis. Which is not to say the rest of Athens doesn’t feel the pain as well…it does, but there are plenty of attractions in this city of over 3 million people to spread the crowds around. Greece recently announced a system to cap visitors to the Acropolis to 20,000 per day. That sounds like a large number, but given the relatively compact size of the Acropolis archaeological site, it isn’t. If you’ve visited the Acropolis recently you’ll appreciate just how difficult the attraction’s popularity has made it to fully enjoy everything the Acropolis has to offer.
With a daily influx of more than 10,000-20,000 tourists from cruise ships alone, most Acropolis visitors arrive at the site during the morning hours, resulting in huge crowds during the first half of the day. Things get marginally better by afternoon after the morning cruise ship passengers return to their ships. To combat that problem, visitors to the Acropolis are now required to register online in advance to visit during an assigned time slot. The new policy is an effort to limit the total impact of crowds, and to spread tourist visits out throughout the day.
In New England, over tourism isn’t limited to Bar Harbor, but they are the first New England destination to take action. Several have tried to tackle the problem of over tourism by capping the number of cruise ship visitors...a referendum on just such a cap was narrowly defeated in Portland, Maine. A similar measure passed recently in Bar Harbor, putting a tight cap of just 1,000 passengers that cruise lines can deliver to the town on any given day. With Bar Harbor being such a popular destination for Canada/New England cruise itineraries, and with the ships that want to visit carrying three and four times that number of passengers, competition will be stiff, and the impact has already been felt by the cruise lines, who have turned to alternative ports in Canada.
When COVID travel restrictions lapsed, Juneau became the most popular port for Alaska cruises. After several years of work, Juneau’s government has negotiated an agreement with the cruise industry to limit the number of large cruise ships that make port calls to no more than five per day. Event with that limit, the size of today's cruise ships results in twice as many day tourists as local residents. We visited Juneau twice this season, both times with just 3 or 4 ships in port, and the main area around the port was wall to wall people. Rather than trying to limit the overall number of day tourists, Juneau’s government has worked with the cruise lines to space large cruise ship port calls out throughout the week.
These major tourist destinations are just the beginning. Japan is dealing with similar problems caused by over-tourism at Mount Fuji. What was once considered an almost spiritual pilgrimage has become more akin to a visit to Disneyland. The same thing can be said of iconic day tourist destinations around the globe, like India’s Taj Mahal or China’s Great Wall.
As tourism around the globe continues to press local infrastructure, as well as the patience of local residents, governments increasingly look to balance the desirable economic contributions of tourism against the less desirable impacts. Limits on day tourists are likely to become more common, as are access fees. It makes planning a trip to the most popular destinations, domestic and abroad, more complicated, which is just another reason to plan your trip with a travel advisor that keeps up with the latest changes.