With destinations eager (or desperate) to welcome back visitors after the pandemic will some end up welcoming back too many? Two years ago, the travel world couldn’t stop talking about “overtourism,” the term for when the number or flow of visitors adversely affects a destination’s quality of life and/or makes visiting a less pleasant experience for travelers themselves. Think Venice, where actual Italians can be hard to find among the tourists
Many destinations are at least trying to do their part — controlling visitor numbers through taxes and technology, encouraging off-season visiting, or discouraging certain kinds of visitors (think bachelor parties) — while balancing what may be a growing dependence on tourist dollars. Venice recently announced that starting next summer, day-trip visitors will need to buy entrance tickets and enter through electronic turnstiles, Disneyland-style, and it has banned large cruise ships from its city center. And in the U.S., the soaring popularity of some national parks, including Glacier in Montana and California’s Yosemite, has led a number of them to institute reservation systems during the summer high season to prevent overcrowding.
But it’s not just up to local governments and individual attractions to keep crowds in check. We travelers can change our behavior as well, and avoid areas threatened by too many tourists. Opting for less visited destinations not only prevents us from further burdening vulnerable areas, it also often leads to a more pleasant and authentic travel experience.
Another option is to visit these overtouristed places differently — figuring out how to go without contributing to their problems or your headaches. Traveling in the off-season can do the trick. (You’ll also usually save money, though you may have to contend with less-than-ideal weather.) Also helpful: Hitting big attractions in a busy city as early in the day as possible and then focusing on lesser-known areas the rest of the day. My favorite research trick for escaping crowds? I go to Tripadvisor’s list of “Things to Do” in any city, scroll past the most popular highlights, and start my explorations from there.
Similarly, if a busy destination is firmly on your must-see list, visit quickly, then head to parts lesser-known.
Here are five of the world’s notoriously overtouristed spots — and some wonderful alternatives.
Lisbon, Portugal (alternative: Coimbra, Portugal)
Lisbon has grown extremely popular as a tourist destination. It’s a fantastic city, so I wouldn’t suggest skipping it entirely, but you might consider heading elsewhere after a short visit.
Try Coimbra, a riverside city of narrow, winding streets, ancient churches and picturesque squares that offers much of the charm (and buttery pastries) of Lisbon, without all the tourists. Once the medieval capital of Portugal, it’s also home to one of the world’s oldest universities, founded in 1290. I was delighted by the university on my first trip to Portugal, in early December 2010 (talk about the off-season). I particularly enjoyed seeing the students walking to and from classes wearing their traditional capes — part of their school dress code — like something out of Harry Potter. There are high-speed trains to Coimbra, which sits between Lisbon and Porto, that take just 90 minutes from Lisbon. If you rent a car, you can also drive the 125 miles from the capital city.
2. Key West, Florida (alternative: the other Florida Keys)
Big cruise ships have for decades been either a vital part of the Key West economy or a serious detriment to its quality of life. Last November, residents took a stand and voted to ban cruise ships with more than 1,500 passengers entirely from this iconic American town at the tip of the Florida Keys. But state lawmakers overruled them. As negotiations continue, there is a lot of uncertainty over when cruise ship arrivals will be back on a nearly daily basis as they were pre-pandemic.
So if you're traveling in 2021, Key West will be just fine. But if you're making long term plans, the easiest way to have your key lime pie and eat it, too, is to stay on one of the other keys (Big Pine Key for nature, for instance, or Key Largo if you like Beach Boys lyrics) and head over to Key West for a day trip – checking ahead for a day free of cruise ships.
3. Dubrovnik, Croatia (alternative: Krk, Croatia)
Dubrovnik has an especially challenging problem, because no one wants to miss its main attraction: the Old Town that stood in for King’s Landing on Game of Thrones. Marvelously maintained in near museum state, it also has about as many Croatians living within its walls as your average museum. OK, not quite, but in 2019, 2.3 million tourists flooded the city, in part thanks to the many huge cruise ships that dock there. In 2016, UNESCO warned Dubrovnik officials that the city’s status as a National Heritage Site was at risk due to the crowding, and recommended a daily limit of 8,000 visitors. Officials have tried to tamp the numbers down, in part by keeping the cruise ship arrivals to two a day. It’s also taken up a “Respect the City” motto, and keeps a website that indicates the number of visitors in real time.
There are plenty of fantastic alternatives, however. Matt Kepnes, creator of the travel site Nomadic Matt, urges anyone who wants to escape Dubrovnik’s crowds and high prices to head northwest up the coast to some of Croatia’s other gems, particularly the ancient town of Krk, on the 157-square-mile island of Krk (accessible by bridge). It has fewer tourists (and vowels) than its more famous counterpart — especially during non-summer months — and a rich history.
4. Southern Bali, Indonesia (alternative: the rest of Bali)
It’s the inevitable disappointment of any American’s first trip to Bali — exotic though it may seem to us, many Australians view it as a Cancún-like, low-cost getaway. That means lots of less-than-ideal (read: young, drunk) travelers to contend with. But luckily, Bali is a big island, and if you cut off its southern tip — as well as the spiritual center of Ubud — and head east, west or north, you’ll do Balians, and yourself, a big favor. Consider tranquil villages like Yeh Embang on the southwest coast and Musi in relatively untouristed northwestern Bali.
5. Barcelona (alternative: Catalan countryside)
Barcelona went from tourism backwater to top-10 European destination, a transformation triggered by the 1992 Summer Olympics. And it has paid the price, especially along Las Ramblas, a boulevard where crowds have taken on Times Square-ish proportions (add in lots of drunk Brits). Although the city has made strides toward managing the tourist flow better, Pauline Frommer of frommers.com suggests heading out to the hill towns of Catalonia, which, she says, have “the same as what you get in Barcelona: great food, often Gothic architecture, sometimes museums.” That includes the Dalí Museum in Girona, a 40-minute train ride from Barcelona, as well as the gorgeous medieval villages of Peretallada and Betelu, both less than an hour by car (or two hours by bicycle!) from Girona.
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Seth Kugel is the former writer of the Frugal Traveler column at The New York Times and author of Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious (2018).