When destinations are too popular for their own good

michael galvin

NANTUCKET — On the first Friday of each December, this little island is transformed into a Currier and Ives vision of the holidays for its festive Christmas Stroll.

A stylishly decorated 20-foot tree already is awaiting next week’s crowds of visitors, who will squeeze into bright, warm stores that serve them hot mulled cider and sugar cookies. There will be caroling and other entertainment, craft shows, and holiday-themed specials at packed island restaurants. Even Santa and Mrs. Claus are expected, delivered to Straight Wharf at midday by Coast Guard cutter.

It’s a welcome off-season boost for local businesses, and a singularly New England holiday experience.


But there’s one other thing the wildly popular Nantucket Christmas Stroll will bring that’s much less welcome: cars.

Just 14 miles long and famous for having not a single traffic signal, Nantucket sinks beneath an estimated 25,000 vehicles at the peak of its summer season, a gridlock-inducing scourge Selectman Matt Fee says “is now bleeding into Stroll and other times of the year.”

It’s a close-to-home example of the tightrope being walked by popular travel destinations as they try to balance the charms that attract visitors in the first place with the damage that results when too many people come.

Worldwide worries about overtourism are intensifying as it starts to trigger local antagonism in, and curbs on access to, some of the world’s most popular places.

“If you constantly talk about sustainable tourism but don’t do anything and the growth continues, at some point you tip over into a crisis,” said Harold Goodwin, managing director of the Responsible Tourism Partnership and the International Centre for Responsible Tourism. “And that’s been going on across the world.”

Some 1.2 billion tourists per year travel internationally, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, or UNWTO, a figure expected to rise to 1.8 billion by 2030. The surge is being driven in large part by cheaper airfares and massive growth in the number of Chinese from that country’s emerging middle class who can afford to journey abroad. The number of Chinese tourists traveling internationally has tripled in the last decade, to an estimated 127 million this year, the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute reports.


“The first thing people want to do when they get money and leisure is travel. So this has been coming for a long time,” Goodwin said.

Among the results: The popular Milford Track hiking trail in New Zealand, which draws people from around the world, now lets in only 90 of them per day. Some American national parks, overwhelmed by visitors, are considering requiring limited, time-specific reservations. Peru has capped the number of tourists who can go inside the citadel of Machu Picchu.

Ever since its densely built, red-roofed Old Town starred as King’s Landing in the HBO series “Game of Thrones,” Dubrovnik has been so buried in gawkers it’s considering restricting the number of them allowed inside the walls of its medieval district. In trendy Iceland, where the number of annual tourists has quintupled since 2010 to 2.3 million, hotels fill to capacity, roads are clogged with tour buses, and there are fears about damage to the natural beauty that lures people in the first place.

Staggering under the weight of eight times that many visitors, Amsterdam — population 850,000 — has blocked new hotels in some neighborhoods and cut its tourism marketing budget. Venice has imposed fines on dawdling sightseers, and its residents in June voted almost unanimously to ban cruise ships from passing in front of the city’s St. Mark’s Square.


Cruise ships are a point of controversy in Bar Harbor, too. The Maine town is embroiled in a dispute over whether to allow more than the estimated 165 visits that disgorged 226,000 passengers this year into its little downtown and the already heavily congested Acadia National Park.

“I never want to tell someone you can’t go somewhere, because travel and tourism is one of the most wonderful things in life,” said Benjamin Altschuler, an assistant professor in the School of Tourism and Hospitality Management at Temple University. “But we have to come to grips with the fact that if we have too many people going to these places, it’s going to destroy what makes them special.”

Elsewhere overtourism has resulted in more drastic action than proposed constraints or debates at town council meetings.

Largely overshadowed by the Catalan independence movement, there’s been a violent backlash in Barcelona against the 32 million visitors per year who inundate the famous La Ramblas and Barri Gotic. “Tourism kills neighborhoods,” vandals scrawled in August on the windshield of a tour bus whose tires they slashed. Under pressure from angry local residents who in a government survey ranked overtourism as Barcelona’s second-biggest problem — just after unemployment — the city has imposed a moratorium on new hotels.


“This is a wake-up call,” said UNWTO secretary general Taleb Rifai, in a speech to hospitality industry executives at the World Travel Market in London this month, about the growing hostility toward unrestrained tourism. The annual conference has already announced that the problem will be its main topic next year.

Travel operators are also beginning to respond to overtourism, taking customers to heavily visited places in the slower seasons and opening up new destinations with characteristics similar to those of the most congested ones.

“We definitely know there’s an appetite for Americans to go to Europe,” for example, said Leigh Barnes, regional director for Intrepid Travel. So the company now offers tours to decidedly uncrowded Moldova. “They still get a great experience with wine, still have that European feel. We really started to look at what was popular and what other places had similar attributes.”

Barnes witnessed his own tourist deluge while in Havana quietly sipping a rum and listening to music. “A cruise ship pulled up and it was like lemmings coming ashore. All of a sudden, it was packed. I thought, ‘What just happened?’ It makes you take stock.”

Goodwin fears another outcome: that only the rich will get to see these precious places.

“Rather like big sporting events, if you’re prepared to pay more you can always get a ticket,” he said. “Of course, that’s depressing. But the reality is that when goods get scarce, the price goes up.”

Back on Nantucket, Fee is advocating improved public transit and bicycle and pedestrian paths that make it easier for visitors to leave their cars at home.


“It ends up being a philosophical argument,” the longtime selectman said. “Some people are philosophically opposed to any restrictions of any type. But they have to accept that sometimes there are limitations. There are only so many miles of roads and so many parking spaces.”

Tourists and locals alike share one thing, he said: “People love Nantucket. Let’s be careful not to ruin it.”

Jon Marcus can be reached at jonmarcusboston@gmail.com.