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This phenomenon is known as overtourism, and like breakfast margaritas on an all-inclusive cruise, it is suddenly everywhere. A confluence of macroeconomic factors and changing business trends have led more tourists crowding to popular destinations. That has led to environmental degradation, dangerous conditions, and the immiseration and pricing-out of locals in many places. And it has cities around the world asking one question: Is there anything to be done about being too popular?
Locals have, of course, complained about tourists since time immemorial, and the masses have disrespected, thronged, and vandalized wonders natural and fabricated for as long as they have been visiting them. But tourism as we know it was a much more limited affair until recent decades. Through the early 19th century, travel for personal fulfillment was the provenance of “wealthy nobles and educated professionals” only, people for whom it was a “demonstrative expression of their social class, which communicated power, status, money and leisure,” as one history of tourism notes. It was only in the 1840s that commercialized mass tourism developed, growing as the middle class grew.
If tourism is a capitalist phenomenon, overtourism is its demented late-capitalist cousin: selfie-stick deaths, all-you-can-eat ships docking at historic ports, stag nights that end in property crimes, the live-streaming of the ruination of fragile natural habitats, et cetera. There are just too many people thronging popular destinations—30 million visitors a year to Barcelona, population 1.6 million; 20 million visitors to Venice, population 50,000. La Rambla and the Piazza San Marco fit only so many people, and the summertime now seems like a test to find out just how many that is.
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The root cause of this surge in tourism is macroeconomic. The middle class is global now, and tens of millions of people have acquired the means to travel over the past few decades. China is responsible for much of this growth, with the number of overseas trips made by its citizens rising from 10.5 million in 2000 to an estimated 156 million last year. But it is not solely responsible. International-tourist arrivals around the world have gone from a little less than 70 million as of 1960 to 1.4 billion today: Mass tourism, again, is a very new thing and a very big thing.
Business trends have also contributed to turning paradise to paradise lost. Cruise vacations are vastly more popular than they once were, with the diesel-belching vessels disgorging thousands of passengers at a time onto port towns. Supercheap airlines using satellite airports have dramatically cut the cost of hopscotching around Europe, the Americas, and Asia, encouraging travelers to take 1 billion flights on budget airlines every year. And platforms such as Airbnb have increased the supply of rentable rooms in cities from Rio to Delhi, reducing search friction for travelers, boosting cities’ carrying capacity, and bumping up rents for existing residents—an estimated 4 percent in Barcelona, for instance.