10 Overtouristed Places and 10 Cool Alternatives
Leave Santorini, Barcelona and Bali to the masses and enjoy the likes of Naxos, Greece; San Sebastian, Spain; and Lombok, Indonesia instead. These are bucket list-worthy trips you need to take.
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Take the Path Less Traveled
If global tourism seems to have increased in recent years, that’s because it has. The World Tourism Organization (UNTWO) cites varying reasons for more travelers: more affordable travel options; a growing middle class in economically developing countries; and a strong global economy. The problem is that more people are going to the same places. For example, Venice, Bali and Machu Picchu remain perennial favorites, but the sheer tourist numbers threaten what made these places so special in the first place. One way to preserve these destinations is to visit similar, less-crowded equivalents that aren’t as heavily promoted. And you just may find that you like the alternatives even better.
Instead of: Amsterdam
Amsterdam’s numerous canals, bike-friendly roads and legal marijuana usage are among the reasons why more than 19 million tourists flood a city that’s home to less than one million people. Overtourism has become enough of a problem that in 2018 the city announced the “Enjoy & Respect” campaign. Targeted toward the 18-34 demographic from the Netherlands and Britain, it informs visitors about the types of behavior that aren’t tolerated in the city (public urination, disorderly conduct). However, in 2019 the city went one step further by charging cruise passengers a tourist tax of about $9 for each day spent in Amsterdam, and cracked down on short-term Airbnb rentals. And in 2020, Red Light District tours will no longer be available.
Visit: Utrecht, Netherlands
Amsterdam isn’t the only city in the Netherlands filled with tree-lined canals, bike lanes and historic buildings. And prior to the 17th century, Utrecht, whose old town is still populated with medieval structures, held the honor of being the country’s most famous destination. But this university city has re-emerged from Amsterdam’s shadow as word has spread about its trendy restaurants and bars, independent shops, cultural attractions and boutique hotels. Even better, the city is an easy half-hour train ride from Amsterdam — minus the crowds.
Instead of: Dubrovnik, Croatia
Dubrovnik’s UNESCO-listed Old City already made it a cruise stop favorite, but tourism numbers went next level after Game of Thrones set its fictional King’s Landing there. It’s become bad enough that Dubrovnik has considered banning new restaurants to prevent overcrowding and too many tables and chairs spilling out onto sidewalks. This has resulted from 1.372 million tourists visiting through October 2019, beating the previous record of 1.271 million in 2018. These numbers are unlikely helped by the fact that American Airlines launched a direct flight to the city this past summer, with plans to fly daily in 2020.
Visit: Ljubljana, Slovenia
If you still want compact and charming, head north to the Slovenia capital of Ljubljana, vastly overlooked and underrated from an American perspective. The well-preserved capital is presided over by Ljubljana Castle, and a city defined by cobblestoned streets, bridge-covered rivers and a car-free center. The latter lends a more serene vibe than what’s typically found in other capital cities, along with enough green spaces to have earned Ljubljana the title of Green Capital of Europe in 2016. As it did in Dubrovnik, an earthquake previously destroyed Ljubljana, although much later in 1895. As a result, the city rebuilt in the style of 19th-century Viennese architecture. Because the city has so much going for it, along with a vibrant cafe culture and numerous museums, there’s little doubt the crowds would come if word got out.
Instead of: Venice
Of all the places on this list, Venice has been one of the hardest hit by overtourism, and has served as a cautionary tale to other destinations facing similar overcrowding. About 50,000 live in this ancient city famed for its canals. Yet Venice has become overburdened with as many as 30 million tourists — a year. Adding to this figure are cruise ships and day trippers. In response, the government plans to ban large cruise ships from the city center and added turnstiles in 2018 to control crowds in the most heavily visited sections. And in 2020, day trippers can expect to pay up to $11 a day to visit the city. As if Venice isn’t dealing with enough problems, 2019 also brought massive flooding from rising sea waters and the MSC cruise ship smashing into a dock and small boat in June 2019 raising fresh anti-cruise protests from locals.
Visit: Bruges, Belgium
Yes, Venice’s canals are bucket list, but not if you can’t enjoy them because of selfie-stick wielding hordes. As the capital of West Flanders in Belgium, Bruges contains enough picturesque canals to be called the Venice of the North. And while it isn’t devoid of tourists, especially in the summer, Bruges has maintained its authenticity. Marvel at medieval buildings in the UNESCO-designated center, explore its twisting alleys, ride boats along the charming canals and take horse-drawn carriage rides along its cobblestoned streets. This is also the place to drink all the Belgian beer, eat at Michelin-starred restaurants and learn about the Flemish Primitives at the Groeningemuseum.
Instead of: Barcelona
The aspects that make capital city Barcelona great, like the food, architecture and seaport, are also what’s attracting a record number of tourists. Take less than two million residents and add more than 32 million annual tourists, and that equals a massive congestion problem. Like Venice, Barcelona experiences more day trippers than overnight visitors. In an attempt to limit those numbers, Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau has announced plans to limit cruise ships and an airport expansion.
Visit: San Sebastian, Spain
Those who still want great Spanish food, notable architecture and the ocean will find it in San Sebastian, a resort city near the French border in Basque Country. Though home to less than 200,000 people, the area boasts one of the highest numbers of Michelin-starred restaurants for its size. But the local pintxos, or tapas, restaurants are a destination of their own. Between all of that eating are plentiful opportunities to hit the beach, admire art nouveau buildings and visit museums and the shopping district. Who needs Barcelona?
Instead of: Machu Picchu, Peru
About 1.5 million tourists annually visited Machu Picchu before the Peruvian government instituted a timed entry in 2017, and limited tickets to 5,000 a day. This act stemmed from UNESCO suggesting it would add the ancient site to its list of endangered places. And although UNESCO recommended limiting ticket sales to 2,500 a day to help preserve the ruins, as of 2020 Machu Picchu will be selling 5,940 tickets a day for three timed entries. In a small compromise, new restrictions require a tour guide to accompany each group, and visitors must stick to designated paths. Not helping matters? Peru has moved forward with plans to open a new airport near Machu Picchu without consulting UNESCO.
Visit: Choquequirao, Peru
Do you know where you’re unlikely to find 5,940 tourists a day? Choquequirao. If you’ve never heard of it, that’s probably because in 2019 the site received about the same number of visitors in a year as Machu Picchu does in a day. Chalk it up to the fact that tourists face a four-day hike to reach it. And there’s no luxury Belmond Hiram Bingham train to reach it, unlike Machu Picchu. But it’s another Incan site that shares similarities to its famed counterpart, and is roughly the same size. However, only 30 percent of the site has been excavated. Those with expert hiking experience can attempt the route by themselves, otherwise it’s best to go with a small tour group.
Hot tip: A new cable car is being built, bringing with it an estimated three million tourists. Go soon.
Instead of: Mount Everest, Nepal
Unfortunately Mount Everest made 2019 headlines for its high death toll due in part to overcrowding. In total, 11 people died on the mountain in 2019, with May bringing an especially high number due, some believe, to the long line of climbers waiting to summit. There’s only one route to the top, and delays often prove fatal above 26,000 feet, even with oxygen. Contributing to the problem is that Nepal doesn’t limit the number of climbers or require prerequisites for permits. This has resulted in irresponsible tour companies taking inexperienced climbers to the top, creating traffic jams during peak climbing windows. In hopeful news, the Nepalese government is planning to tighten permits by requiring a certificate of health and proof of climbing another Nepalese peak over 21,325 feet in order to attempt Mt. Everest.
Visit: Denali, Alaska
Denali may not be as tall as Mt. Everest, whose summit scrapes 29,029 feet. But that doesn't mean it's easier. (Extreme weather and thinner air are among its challenges.) Denali's summit is still impressive at 20,310 feet, making it the highest in North America. And while popular, Denali hasn't experienced the same level of overcrowding due to pre-registration requirements — only 1,500 climbers are allowed between April 1 and August 1. So put Mt. Everest on hold while trying for a 50/50 chance of summiting Denali.
Instead of: Santorini, Greece
Santorini has become one of the most famed of the Greek islands (although there are also 227 inhabited islands worth visiting). One would think Santorini is the only one though, considering it attracts about two million tourists a year. To control the numbers, Santorini limited daily cruise ship numbers to 8,000 in 2019. While this number seems high, previous years saw as many as 18,000 people a day disembarking from cruise ships, overwhelming an island with only 15,000 residents. Santorini also launched a 2019 campaign asking tourists to reconsider riding donkeys up the steep steps to Fira for the safety and well-being of its donkeys. Weight limits were recently added as well.
Visit: Naxos, Greece
Naxos is in the same Cyclades island group as Santorini, and just as scenic, but without the same crowds. Plus, it's just a half-hour flight from Athens. One can easily spend the day roaming the narrow, hilly streets of Chora, the main town, which is just as beautiful in person as it looks on Instagram. The ruins of the ancient Temple of Apollo are a short walk from the ferry dock, while long sandy beaches are within walking and driving distance of Chora. It’s also worth renting a car and exploring the interior’s many ancient villages.
Instead of: Reykjavik, Iceland
Iceland’s capital of Reykjavik feels more like a hipster neighborhood than a hectic city, and it’s easy to see the wide appeal. Iceland annually receives more than two million visitors, and most tourists don’t stray far beyond Reykjavik and the Golden Circle. (Consider that the entire country is home to less than 350,000 people.) In 2018 Iceland temporarily closed its Fjaðrárgljúfur waterfall, made famous after appearing in a 2015 Justin Bieber video, in order to create a tourist infrastructure for better crowd control.
Visit: Akureyri, Iceland
It goes without saying that there’s much more to Iceland than the areas closest to the airport in Reykjavik. Visitors can rent a car or catch a short flight to explore the rest of the country, including the city of Akureyri in the north. About 20,000 people live here, resulting in numerous cafes and shops that line a main street resembling the one in Reykjavik. You’ll also find museums, the Akureyri Botanical Garden, a large public pool with water slides and even the world’s northernmost golf course. Plus, the scenery is just as magnificent.
Instead of: Bali
Bali experienced a large uptick in visitors after Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love memoir debuted in 2006. It remains Indonesia’s most visited island — nearly 6 million tourists descended in 2019. Now Bali is preparing to levy a $10 tourist tax to help maintain its culture and environment. It had already banned single-use plastic in 2018 to stem the amount of plastic waste on local beaches.
Visit: Lombok, Indonesia
While there’s no denying Bali’s appeal, there are about 6,000 inhabited island in Indonesia, with a good many that are just as beautiful. Lombok is Bali’s eastern neighbor, known for its surfing, beaches and partying scenes. (Although the partying happens on Lombok’s satellite islands, especially Gili Trawangan.) Lombok itself is quieter, and popular among hikers who come to scale Mount Rinjani, Indonesia’s second-highest volcano at more than 12,000 feet. Mount Rinjani National Park’s waterfalls are another favorite, as is the pink sand Tangsi Beach. It’s best to visit sooner rather than later, before it turns into the next Bali.
Instead of: The Galapagos Islands
For years, cruise ships were the most popular way to experience the Galapagos Islands, but land tourism has been increasing every year since 2007. Both ways of visiting have taken a toll on the environment, even though 97 percent of the 19 islands are protected as a national park. Since tourism isn’t decreasing, the entrance fee to Galapagos National Park is expected to increase from $100 to a minimum of $200 in the near future, depending on how long tourists stay on Ecuador’s mainland. The islands receive upwards of 300,000 tourists a year, with the industry increasing pollution and introducing invasive species. However, the Galapagos Conservancy has established a list of 14 rules for all visitors to follow.
Visit: Isla de la Plata, Ecuador
The Galapagos Islands aren’t the only part of the world to contain blue-footed boobies, sea turtles, dolphins and humpback whales. Uninhabited Isla de la Plata is just an hour-long boat ride from Puerto López, on Ecuador’s mainland. Since the island is all of 2 square miles, it’s pretty easy to spot the famed blue-footed boobies, along with red-throated frigate birds and albatrosses. The best time for dolphin- and whale-spotting is between June and September. Consider this a miniature version of its larger cousin for a fraction of the price and no crowds.