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Overtourism, what to do?

Posted by somtam2000 on 15/1/2017 at 23:55 admin

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"It is, quite simply, one of the most impressive and memorable sights in all of Kyoto." So read our Lonely Planet Japan guidebook. At the end of the listing, they added, "During the first few days in January, thousands of believers visit the shrine as their hatsu-mode (first shrine visit of the New Year) to pray for good fortune."

"Perhaps the single most impressive sight in all of Kyoto, bar none, Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine is the most important shrine in the entire city. Don’t miss it!" said our online guide of choice, Inside Kyoto.

We visited on January 3.


The scene was nothing short of bedlam—though organised bedlam, as this was Japan, after all. Seemingly tens of thousands of people made their way from Fushimi-Inari train station up to the shrine complex and then walked through the famous red torii (shrine gates), which snake up and around a hill. If you've ever seen a photo of Japan, in all likelihood it will be of these gates—they're very close together and deliver a tunnel-like impression. The photo will be most likely devoid of other people.

Japanese authorities had set up crowd control, trying to make the best of a bad situation, but the number of people was absurd. About a third of the way through, we angled out to go grab a coffee (Vermillion is excellent!), and went elsewhere. There was nothing pleasurable about the experience, perhaps other than the selection of festival food on sale (the kids loved the lolly selection).


Of course, yes, this was to be expected going to one of the most popular attractions in all of Japan on one of the busiest days of the year.

A few days later on a visit to the incredibly moving Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima, likewise I cut my visit short due to the crowds. Trying to read descriptions of atrocities while being bumped into and barged out of the way by thoughtless tour groups was all wrong.

This problem is only going to get worse. According to the ASEAN Tourism Statistics Database (PDF), total tourism in the region has grown from around 73 million people in 2010 to 105 million in 2015. Imagine 30% more people on your favourite beach hideaway... Dealing with this growth will make or break destinations.

Destinations need to get more hard-nosed with how they manage numbers, by weighing the interests and needs of both locals and visitors from afar, so lets get started with some of the low hanging fruit.

Popular museums and other enclosed points of interest could insist on travellers booking places beforehand, and allowing only a set number of people through per hour. These need not be fee-based (though they could be) but if a museum can responsibly handle say 500 visitors per hour, then you need to get a ticket in one of those slots. If you can't get in today, come tomorrow. Can't get in tomorrow, well, maybe you should have booked a bit earlier. Of the 500, the museum can set aside some portion for local visitors, so there's not a risk of not being about to visit and learn from your own heritage.

The Suntory Yamazaki Distillery near Osaka does this really well, and you know what, we left it too late and missed out.

Well there's another reason to return to Japan.

What do you think? Do you think sites (and destinations) need to limit visitor numbers? How?

#1 somtam2000 has been a member since 21/1/2004. Location: Indonesia. Posts: 8,089

Posted by flijten on 16/1/2017 at 08:00

This will remain a tough issue I'm afraid. One the one hand I dislike the busy places with their overcrowding, the slow but steady demolishing of what makes the place touristed in the first place (Thai Islands anyone?) but on the other hand, the tourist highlights haven't become highlights without reason.

For me personally, I try to find a mix. I will definitively tell everyone to be one of the millions of visitors to Angkor even though it is crowded and busy. I will definitely visit Borobodur when in Indonesia this summer, even if I have to share with thousands of people. But I will also encourage people, and try to myself, to also take a bus to a random village in Cambodia and explore a bit as well. I will skip Rinjani and find a different volcano that isn't being used as a giant trash can, Tambora for instance.

Everything I said above is reasoned with myself as focus. But we should also think about what tourism means for locals. I sincerely hope to never become "that guy". The one who frowns upon going to places where people have gone before. The one who'll tell you Cuba was so much better before it opened up, that Burma was more interesting in 1998. Guess what, the Cubans and Burmese will likely disagree.

That doesn't mean that tourism means only happiness and prosperity though. If you ever have the change to see "Banana pancakes and the children of sticky rice" do it. This is a documentary (that deals with exactly this situation. A small rural village in Laos where backpackers land to find peace and quiet, and collect a place that others haven't. As tourism grows, the backpackers get a bit more disappointed, but the locals get electricity, roads and money. And first world problems...

So as for the question "should sites limit visitors". Yes. Somehow :) Imposing limits for a museum is easy but time slots for Angkor or that beach where Leonardo di Caprio once walked around is a lot harder to actually execute. Too quick a regulation might destroy a local economy.

The huge amount of "illegal" resorts that are being planned to be destroyed on a Thai island will do wonders for the look of the destination (barring that they will actually clean up after the bulldozers passed, which remains to be seen) and sounds hugely sympathetic at a first glance. But why are those illegal resorts there in the first place. And what are all the employees going to do now that they're out of business?

In short, I've no clue what sites should do actually. For the smaller enclosed sites your proposed solution is perfect. For larger sites some official licensing system for guides, porters and business seems to be a good direction. This can only succeed with enforcement and honest regulation by local authorities though.

It is a complex problem with a lot of aspects. Governments, local governments, employees, tourists, nature; they all play a part. I just hope for the best and try to be responsible myself.

#2 flijten has been a member since 19/12/2016. Location: Netherlands. Posts: 80

Posted by somtam2000 on 16/1/2017 at 09:00 admin

Funny you mention that film - we featured the short a year or so ago here and I didn't realise the feature had been finished. Thanks for the headsup, will check it out.

Yes, true the museums are the easier ones, but when you think about travel, so much of it is already "space constrained"—flights, buses, boats (well not in Indonesia ha ha) all have limited availability... so it isn't that much of a leap to buy/prebook access to something else.

When I posted the same thing on Facebook, I got an interesting response from a friend focusing on Rome, she said:

"Overtourism is all over Europe - for example, 25,000 people a day in the Sistine Chapel (even with pre-booked tickets), snakelike queues at the Louvre, hordes at the Alhambra. Looking for more off-the-beaten-track destinations."

and when I asked what she thought was a "fair" number of visitors for the Chapel was, she said:

"Maybe a third. The human effects on the frescoes must be very deleterious. Every 5 minutes the guards yell out: SILENZIO! Also they are hawkish about photos as the Japanese own the copyright (as a condition for having paid for the most recent restoration). One can pay more for an early morning visit but most people are in tour group. People seem okay visiting the fake Lascaux. I was. But I love Baroque art which is largely dependent on illusionism, as all art is. Trompe l'oeil and all that stuff is great!"

So, yeah, this isn't just a Southeast Asian thing. It is a growing issue everywhere. Being at the shrine in Kyoto I felt, ahhh what the hell am I doing here, but in the same breath, it was the only day we could go, and I really wanted to see it, but when I got there, I really wished we hadn't gone!

I felt especially bad for the people who wanted to be there for belief reasons, and they're like AARRRGGHHHHHHHH BLOODY TOURISTS! There should absolutely be "days of faith" where punters with a camera who have no idea (ie., me) are not allowed in—please come back tomorrow...

But then at the museum, which was somewhere I really wanted to go, it really fell back to the museum management. Sort it out.

Yes, complicated.

#3 somtam2000 has been a member since 21/1/2004. Location: Indonesia. Posts: 8,089

Posted by flijten on 16/1/2017 at 10:09

Thats an important point indeed. This is not at all a SEA thing. Amsterdam is crowded as hell nowadays and Venice proper is nothing more than an overrun open air museum where locals hardly live anymore (120k in 1980 to under 60k in 2016). Money wins everywhere...

#4 flijten has been a member since 19/12/2016. Location: Netherlands. Posts: 80

Posted by alarcher on 17/1/2017 at 01:26

We were at the same temple in November and it was crowded then! There is a back way in that gets you to the top of the hill, we discovered this by accident when we took a small path to get away from the crowds. The steep climb was worth it.

Kyoto is a great city to visit but some of the big name attractions are crowded even in November. For me Kinkaku-ji was not worth visiting because the crowds made it impossible to enjoy the garden and I personally thought the gold coated pavilion was tacky.

On the other hand the best experience I had at a temple was Saijoji (Daiyuzan) Temple just out from a little town called Minamiashigara. I'm sure you have never heard of it and that's one reason why I enjoyed it so much, it was peaceful and we could take our time and enjoy the serenity.

So visit the big name places, but if they are too crowded for you then I'm sure there are other places no one has heard of. You just need to find them.

#5 alarcher has been a member since 7/3/2016. Posts: 10

Posted by fondo on 17/1/2017 at 05:23

Gee, takes me right back to some of the early tourism theory that compares tourism to pilgrimage. The Kumbh Mela - and all the other Melas - springs to mind as examples.

I certainly agree with comments about overtourism in Europe after my first ever visit in 2016. I couldn't believe the crowds at some of the major attractions in little old Lisbon. Interestingly, some of the quainter transport options such as the trams and a couple of the elevators are rendered useless as general public transport because hundreds of tourists queue to ride on them.

Oh well, at least the authorities have got the sense to rip 'em off for that!

#6 fondo has been a member since 23/6/2006. Posts: 185

Posted by exacto on 17/1/2017 at 19:18

I think you guys are right to note that there is a reason some of these places are so popular. And there is no doubt that as many countries in the world get wealthier, there are more and more of us out there having a look around. But even at some of the really popular places, there are options to avoid the crowds. For example, when I visited the Vatican, instead of queuing up for the Sistene Chapel, I lucked into the Cupola Tour instead. There were only a few of us up there and it was a pretty great time. In Venice, instead of heading straight to St. Mark's Square, we broke in the other direction and wandered some back streets that had almost nobody but locals. It was fun.

Tourist arrivals continue to climb in Thailand, but most of those are visiting only Bangkok, Phuket, and Chiang Mai. On our last trip to Thailand just a few months ago, there were almost no foreign tourists in Nong Khai or Nakhon Phanom, and hardly any in a tourist-worthy place like Phimai either. Even a previously busy place like Ayutthaya didn't have many tourists wandering the streets. What I am suggesting is that there are still places worth visiting that have for whatever reason not yet attracted large crowds, so depending on what you like and why you travel, there is still hope to see something good without just being another face in the crowd. Cheers.

#7 exacto has been a member since 12/2/2006. Location: United States. Posts: 2,831

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