It remains divisive, but the question of whether mass, packaged tourism has reached its tipping point continues to boil.

The negative effects of too many tourists visiting somewhere at once is playing out widely and almost daily on the world stage.

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Obviously, tourism is a massive source of employment and prosperity – a central plank of many economies. And, many responsible travel and hospitality firms, for some time, have been introducing measures aimed at reducing mass tourism damage as much as possible. 

Just as obviously, however, the current tourism system – where mass visitor numbers keep rising each year – is unsustainable.

From Central Rome to the Greek Islands, the Great Wall of China and the jam-packed beaches of Phuket, towns, cities and attractions are feeling the pinch as more and more tourists each year severely test infrastructure and the patience of local residents. 

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It seriously threatens to ruin many of the very attractions that mass tourism wants to see.

Fatal cruise ship and bus accidents in Venice, Hungary, Norway, Portugal and the Mediterranean have caught public attention recently, as have protests on the waterways of Venice and the streets of Barcelona.

However, it was the Dutch who really caused the world to sit up and take notice this year when they decided to stop encouraging tourism in favor of managing current visitor numbers.

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To stem the flow of mass tourism into Amsterdam, officials limited Airbnb rentals; promoted outlying districts as alternatives; banned new tourist shops; and outlawed so-called ‘beer bikes’.

At Venice, the lagoon ecosystem is struggling to handle ever-growing tourism and cruise ships. 

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These ships have also reduced the effectiveness of the city improvement tax imposed on overnight stays

Across Italy, hordes of day-trippers arriving along the Cinque Terre coast are putting pressure on its picture-postcard towns.

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It’s a similar story at the Greek island of  Santorini; the medieval town of Kotor in Montenegro; Dubrovnik in Croatia; Prague; Easter Island in Chile; Iceland; Cairo; Banff in Canada; Scotland’s Isle of Skye and Bali.  

In each of these places, local infrastructure – much of it extremely old – is battling to keep pace with demand. 

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In Iceland, for example, tens of thousands of cruise ship and plane passengers arrive each summer, creating crowds so big that locals are now concerned about the impact on a relatively fragile environment. 

In the blue and white dreamland that is Santorini, it can be extremely difficult to battle the crowds in the streets of Fira – so difficult that locals are leaving in big numbers.

Authorities at Dubrovnik were forced to limit the number of cruise ships allowed to dock each day because of fears that the ancient walled centre of the Croatian city should not have more than 8,000 people at a time. 

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A similar limit on arrivals has been introduced at Barcelona.

Possibly the prettiest body of water in Europe, Lake Bled, doesn’t have cruise ships to worry about, but is still fast becoming a victim of its reputation, with crowds flocking to the beautiful Slovenian town in search of the perfect Instagram shot.

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Some popular beaches across Asia have been closed to allow them to recover from the impact of tourism.

And because of damage to the ruins of Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail, the government of Peru has been forced to introduce a daily limit of 2,500 tourists.

While attention focuses on the problems of ever-growing mass tourism numbers, there are numerous examples of travel and hospitality firms taking the lead and introducing excellent sustainability measures.  

From airlines moving to fuel-efficient planes; to cruise companies offering carbon-offset tours and low-emission ships; and hotels reforesting wilderness in Africa, there are many sincere examples.

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However, another downside of mass, packaged tourism is that, although it creates many jobs and brings in export income as a whole, the bulk of money outlaid by tourists goes to the tour companies rather than communities along the way.

Travellers who are journeying by themselves tend to integrate more and leave money in the communities they visit.

It’s hard to see how the current mass tourism model can continue. 

Technology and transport improvements, along with high disposable income in many countries, has made travel more popular than ever. 

But the crushing impact on the world’s most popular destinations is taking an ecological toll that simply cannot last.

Caps, limits and bans will probably just move the problem to a neighbouring harbour.

It has been suggested that an answer may lie in a hefty minimum daily expenditure such as that imposed in Bhutan or a sustainability accreditation scheme like one used in Costa Rica.

These are almost certainly part of the solution, but the most likely answer is a gradual change in community attitudes involving tourists, government, and the travel and hospitality providers. 

 

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