3 Easy Ways to Combat Overtourism (and Still See the World)

Mar 2, 2020

In 2018, "overtourism" became one of the Oxford English Dictionary’s famous (or infamous) words of the year. In 2019, a landmark Travelzoo survey found that a clear majority of our global members wanted to be part of the solution. So in 2020, we’re exploring all kinds of ways to combat the problem—and three of the easiest are right here. Read on, then start planning your next adventure—far from the madding crowd.

Take a chance on lesser-known destinations 

There’s no disputing that blockbuster destinations are beloved for a reason—Venice, Paris, Amsterdam, we’re looking at you—but increasing numbers of locals are starting to fear that, well, you can actually love a place to death. 

Conversely, plenty of stunning towns and villages that lie ever so slightly off the mainstream tourism trail—and that have lost a lot of their population to urbanization—could be loved right back to life with a steadier influx of travelers. (Beyond the fact that any money you spend there has a greater impact, the locals will genuinely be happy to see you.)

Of course, we know we’re largely preaching to the choir—a full 89 percent of Travelzoo members would like to travel off the beaten path in 2020—but you still have questions about where, exactly, that should be.

One of our favorite answers right now: the South Caucasus, still emerging as a global travel destination decades post-Soviet rule. Among the best new ways to see the region is Trafalgar’s Georgia & Armenia Uncovered trip. Highlights include everything from making your own Georgian bread (the sublime staple that almost singlehandedly put the nation on the global foodie map) to seeing a performance of stirring Armenian spiritual songs in the UNESCO World Heritage-designated Geghard Monastery—all set against a backdrop of dramatic mountains, ancient villages and some of the wine world’s most talked-about vineyards. (Rest assured: There will be tastings.)

Another of our favorite off-the-beaten path tours right now? The new Colombia Rediscovered, which is worth doing for the Coffee Triangle alone. The region is so lush—and its agricultural claim-to-fame so flavorful—you’ll understand why UNESCO designated the Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia. But on that same trip, you’ll also discover why Shakira’s hips don’t lie in her hometown of Barranquilla (nor in the nearby colonial district of Cartagena, where there’s amazing music around every corner); explore the emerging art and gastronomy scenes of Medellin; and meet the people who are fighting to preserve Colombia's stunning Indigenous lands.

Travel off peak

If you are going to visit the A-List destinations, try to hold out for the off season. You’ll be doing yourself as much of a favor as you will the locals: With the heat turned down and the crowds halved, Europe is heaven in winter. And if there’s a gray day, so much the better for exploring the local museums, where you may actually find a bit of breathing room around even the marquee masterpieces. To say nothing of the amazing holiday market-hopping you can do—fortified, of course, by plenty of glühwein, raclette and christstollen. The bonus? It’s peak waltz season in Vienna, where every night brings a lavish new ball to attend.

For a radically different kind of off-season experience, visit Southeast Asia in monsoon season (June through September). Though you’ll surely find plenty of rain, it’s by no means endless—and it's often confined to a few hours in the afternoon (the perfect time for an after-lunch siesta or cocktail anyway). And when those beams of sunlight start to break back through, they land on the most glorious shades of emerald, because the region is never greener than during the monsoons. The season also happens to be full of festivals, none more beautiful than the so-called Buddhist Lent—celebrated with elaborate candles and wax sculptures in Thailand.

Make a positive impact on the communities you visit

The problem of overtourism goes beyond sheer volume. Not only are too many people pouring into the same few places during the same basic timeframes, but some are also—to put it bluntly—bad guests, taking up disproportionate resources, creating unnecessary trash, failing to give back…and the list goes on. So another way to combat the effects of overtourism is to be the best visitor you can possibly be.

Ban single-use plastics from your travels. Buy snacks in bulk at local markets rather than toting individual-serving bags. Patronize mom-and-pop shops. Travel with cloth shopping bags (or buy them in the cities you visit). Support local conservation efforts. Take short showers and decline fresh linens during your hotel stays. Visit an artisanal studio—and spend more than you think you should on the crafts that catch your eye (they’re always way more time- and labor-intensive than you realize, and many are dying arts). And wherever you can, use local  guides. Not only will their families (and economies) benefit from the income; you'll also benefit from the insider intel. 

In fact, one frequent upshot of using local guides is getting to experience the kinds of things you wouldn’t otherwise—from a insider tour of the tunnel under Sarajevo that funneled people out and supplies in during the Bosnian War to a master class in the 1300-year-old tradition of making washi paper in Kanazawa, Japan. (Unlike the artisans of yore, who had to thaw ice for the purest possible water, you won’t need to wait until the dead of winter to make your paper.)

And if you’re traveling on a guided tour, of course, you'll want to make sure the company you choose believes in—and acts on—all of the above.

How might that play out in real life? Consider this trip through Jordan, where female unemployment hovers at about 33 percent. While you're there, you can support the employees of Iraq Al-Amir Women Co-op in a gorgeous valley outside Amman, who make everything from za'atar-flecked bread to traditional shawls and scarves—a means of boosting personal income and keeping local traditions alive.

Then there's Kenya, where the impact of human activity has threatened survival of many species, not least, the magnificent local elephants. At the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s Orphans’ Project, which rescues and rehabilitates the world’s largest land mammal, your entrance fee goes directly to conservation efforts, and comes with such a megadose of cuteness (especially if you see the baby elephants bathing), you'll feel as smitten as you do edified.

And the off-the-beaten-path list goes on—to the point that wherever you want to travel and make a positive difference in the world, Trafalgar's probably got a trip for that.

Ready to put some of these ideas into practice? This story is brought to you by Trafalgar, which is working to combat overtourism by taking guests to lesser-known destinations and easing the strain in more popular places.

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