Overtourism – what is it, causes of it, find solutions for it

Overtourism has become a problem in these mountains in Montana Going to the Sun Road photo by Leslie McLellan

View from Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park, Montana. It is easy to see why overcrowding and overtourism became an issue in such attractive surroundings. (Photo by Leslie McLellan)

The word “overtourism” isn’t new, but since the pandemic, overcrowding and overtourism reached places that traditionally didn’t suffer from it.

Perhaps your destination is one of those places?

—->> Here is Part Two of our two-part series, Spread ’em Out – How to Manage Overtourism with more ideas from Travel Oregon, Zartico, and western Montana.

What is Overtourism?

For those that don’t know, overtourism occurs when too many tourists visit a destination. Prior to the pandemic (think circa 2019) overtourism was most often recognized internationally in well-known heritage and cultural tourism destinations like Venice, Barcelona, Machu Picchu, and Dubrovnik.

The term was first coined way back in 2012. In 2020 it started to hit home in North America when rural destinations with lots of outdoor space became popular due to all of the COVID-19 travel restrictions. People began to visit these areas in droves, and destinations weren’t prepared.

What Causes Overtourism?

Overtourism takes a toll on the environment, the wildlife, an area’s infrastructure, housing, and more. For this post’s purposes, changing travel patterns from the pandemic are the primary cause of overtourism.

Going to the Sun Road Montana with grizzly bear photo by Leslie McLellan

Visitors who are new to outdoor experiences may have no idea that they should not approach this, or ANY, grizzly bear. (Photo by Leslie McLellan)

Leslie experienced it firsthand at Lake Arrowhead Village (where she handles the marketing for the downtown merchants association) as Southern California residents flocked to the mountains to be outside in an area that wasn’t quite so restrictive as other parts of the state.

While most of the downtown shops had record sales in 2020 – thanks in large part to stimulus dollars – the destination as a whole saw an uptick in a different visitor demographic than they had experienced in the past. The Village was very busy every day with day trippers rather than the normal overnight visitors (who tend to put more emphasis on the environment, rather than just going somewhere to get away for a few hours.)

There’s been an uptick in graffiti, trash throughout the nearby San Bernardino National Forest increased substantially, housing became insane with homes in the resort community selling in a matter of days and many turned into short term rentals so now rental housing for locals is practically non-existent, plus complaints and online debates regarding masks vs. no masks in the outside areas were commonplace.

In the middle of all of this, Leslie sold her home at Lake Arrowhead (to a new full-time family) and moved to Whitefish, Montana and found that they were experiencing much of the same conditions as Lake Arrowhead.

How many of you are experiencing this “land rush” mentality, too?

Another driver of the overtourism problem is social media. It plays a huge role in how people decide where to travel, Airbnb/STR availability, and even traditional advertising. If you have room to roam outside, chances are that overtourism is affecting you one way or another.

Finding Solutions

There are many ways to combat overtourism. None are perfect, but for the moment, here are some examples of ways other communities are tackling the problem:

1) “Respect the Mountain” Inspired by
“Be a Friend of the Fish”

Leslie and the Lake Arrowhead merchants are working on a program to encourage visitors to “Respect the Mountain.” She got this idea from Explore Whitefish, Montana’s Be a Friend of the Fish program.

This initiative encourages visitors and locals to work together on behalf of the destination. Explore Whitefish put together a checklist for how to be a steward of the community. They also highlight community values and have put everything into a 4-minute video encouraging visitors to help keep the character of Whitefish intact.

Whitefish is the gateway to Glacier National Park. This national park implemented a ticketed entry program for visiting the iconic Going to the Sun Road in 2021, after being overrun with visitors in 2020.

Going to the Sun Road Montana photo by Leslie McLellan

A drive through beautiful country is an excellent travel idea, except when everyone tries to go at the same time.😬 Going to the Sun Road, Montana. (Photo by Leslie McLellan)

A limited number of cars were allowed to travel the Going to the Sun Road daily from 6am – 5pm from Memorial Day thru Labor Day and that cut down substantially on the overtourism problem the park encountered a year ago.

While there are some detractors, overall it seems that the program was an overwhelming success.

2) Sedona, Arizona’s Secret 7

Sedona, Arizona is another area that has put a solid program in place. Sedona’s Secret 7 helps visitors build a personalized itinerary from seven categories of activities, and then within each category you can choose a part of “lesser known” Sedona to experience.

They also have a Sedona Cares Pledge that shines a light on how visitors can enjoy the area. This is all part of educating visitors who may be relatively new to travel, or not as familiar with outdoor activities like hiking.

3) Puerto Rico’s Coffee Content is a Two For One: Culinary Tourism Niche + Help with San Juan Overcrowding

The #MondayCoffeeBreak campaign from Discover Puerto Rico highlights all the different places around the island to taste local Puerto Rican coffee.


Example of using social media for overtourism Discover Puerto Rico tweet with graphic screenshot

There is a lot packed into this graphic, including a “sliding scale” feature so visitors know right away the amount of beach, mountain, and museum activities in the destination.

There is more to it than highlighting culinary tourism opportunities and attracting coffee enthusiasts, though. The DMO is also helping to introduce visitors to the rest of the island besides the often-overcrowded capital city of San Juan – “dispersement” or “dispersion” in overtourism lingo (Discover Puerto Rico’s Liz Mabe schooled us.)

Notice how they make it very clear in the graphic where the featured town, Lares, is located, how long it takes to drive there, specific ideas for a place to enjoy local coffee (including what’s visually appealing for social media,) and where to stay to get an even more immersive experience.

Real talk… This is not the time to hand visitors an alphabetized list of attractions or restaurants on your website, in an effort to avoid tourism partner hurt feelings. Give visitors well-crafted itineraries and handpicked suggestions to steer them directly to your less-overwhelmed, but still worthy, places to see.

4) Colorado and Virginia’s Blue Ridge Region

Another example is from the Colorado Tourism Office and it’s an easy one to implement. They have a webpage highlighting Colorado road trips, which offers ideas for seeing some lesser-known areas of the state. There is also a Care for Colorado – Leave No Trace page that helps visitors understand the importance of good stewardship throughout the state.

Use your website and blog to give visitors detailed crowd-avoidance guidance that they are asking about and Googling for, like Estes Park, Colorado’s post, “How to Beat the Summer Crowds in Rocky Mountain National Park.”

Halfway across the U.S. from Colorado, Virginia’s Blue Ridge region is also using their website and blog to educate and guide. Says David Aldridge:

“Our destination has one of the most photographed spots on the Appalachian Trail and there are all kinds of issues with overcrowding, lack of parking, and irresponsible behavior on the trail.

For the past couple of years, we have tried to be very intentional in our content and social posts about directing people to other hiking options, educating them on how to recreate responsibly, and setting expectations when we do mention the most popular hikes.”

Here is their detailed guidance about avoiding crowds and enjoying the Appalachian Trail in the Virginia’s Blue Ridge.

Overtourism beyond this year

It’s anyone’s guess if the overtourism some are experiencing now will continue into 2022, 2023, and even further. But for now, it’s good to be aware of it and think about how you can mitigate it.

Many areas have a tourism tax that helps with infrastructure upkeep which is a bonus, but if you don’t have something like that you might think about encouraging tourists to visit during off-peak times, and if nothing else, educate your visitors about your area and what it takes to keep the character of your destination thriving.

Are you experiencing overtourism in your area? If so, tell us about it in the comments below – we’d love to hear your ideas on how to combat it.




Final Results From Our LinkedIn Poll on Why People Are Leaving DMOs to Work for Vendors


Our thanks to everyone who voted and commented on our LinkedIn Page post that asked why we are seeing so many tourism pros shifting from DMO work to tourism industry vendor employment.

Pay is obviously an issue, but DMOs need to consider how they can offer a better work environment, more work-from-home opportunities, and more upward mobility.

Below is a screenshot of the results – click it to go to the post –

Screenshot final results LinkedIn Page poll on changing to vendor jobs in tourism


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