In an age where some destinations are buckling from the crowds, why not do yourself and the world’s hot spots a favour and break from the herd?
Of course, it’s hard to resist the pulling power of ‘must-see’ locations – we’re only human, after all. But as more and more people make a beeline for the same places, overtourism is taking its toll.
We’re increasingly hearing reports of damage to age-old sites and delicate ecosystems – not to mention disgruntled locals and disappointed travellers who didn’t quite get what they’d bargained for.
Governments and tourism authorities are now bringing in stringent new measures to try and stem the tide, including taxes for just sitting down!
The good news is there are plenty of less touristy destinations where you can enjoy a comparable experience, avoid the crowds and do your bit to take the pressure off those well-trodden spots.
Here are our picks – and we’d love to hear yours.
Swap Venice, Italy for Ljubljana, Slovenia
Last year the number of visitors to Venice hit the 30 million mark putting undue stress on the Floating City. Cruise ships bring in thousands per year and due to the extreme overcrowding there has been talk of banning them from the city centre. There’s already a ‘sitting ban’, which prohibits visitors from taking a load off in St Mark’s Square or on the Rialto Bridge and from 1 May daytrippers will be charged €10 to help cover the cost of cleaning up after them.
In contrast, you could trade the clogged canals and jaded shopkeepers of Venice for the calm waterways and warm hospitality of Ljubljana in neighbouring Slovenia. The nation’s remarkably eco-conscious capital offers fine examples of Baroque and Art Nouveau architecture, including a series of beautiful bridges, and is teeming with culinary experiences and cultural delights. What’s more, there’s not a tourist tax in sight.
Swap the Phi Phi Islands, Thailand for Palawan, Philippines
The movie industry has a lot to answer for when it comes to Thailand’s previously pristine beaches. Ever since Leonardo DeCaprio shared Maya Bay, aka ‘The Beach’, with the world, it’s been inundated with travellers. As many as 5,000 per day have taken a turn on Koh Phi Phi’s infamous 820ft stretch of sand, decimating the marine life and destroying up to 80 per cent of its coral. While it may be a case of too little too late, last year Maya Bay was closed indefinitely to give the ecosystem a chance to recover.
It’s been said that before penning his bestseller, Alex Garland spent time in the Philippines and took inspiration for his fictional beach from the hidden coves of Palawan. Like the islands of Phi Phi, Palawan is punctuated with dramatic limestone formations but you won’t have to look too far for spotless beaches, unspoilt coral reefs and teeming marine life – sea turtles, manta rays, whale sharks and an abundance of fish call these waters home.
Swap Dubrovnik, Croatia for Zadar
Thanks to its popularity as a cruise port and its prominent role in hit TV series Game of Thrones, historic Dubrovnik is teeming with tourists, so much so that UNESCO has threatened to revoke its heritage status. In just one day, more than 10,000 visitors bought tickets to walk the defensive walls – to curb numbers there are now cameras to track visitation, limits on souvenir stands and restaurant tables and from 2019 the city is only accepting two cruise ships a day.
Just a short hop up the coast, Croatia’s oldest continuously occupied city, Zadar, is significantly less crowded and still offers the same stunning setting on the Adriatic. Within its walls you’ll find an eclectic mix of Roman, Byzantine and Venetian architecture. Foodies will enjoy a choice top notch fish restaurants, with prices that are considerably easier on the wallet, and you’re also in the best place to sample the country’s wine – Zadar sits plum in the middle of two of Croatia’s best growing regions.
Swap Reykjavik, Iceland for Akureyri
Iceland’s geysers, glaciers and waterfalls remained largely undiscovered by the outside world until Bjork put the country on the map. Since then, word has spread and last year visitor numbers jumped to two million, outnumbering the local population by more than five to one. So far, however, the crowds have been overwhelmingly confined to the tiny capital Reykjavik, where tourists vie for space in the tiny city’s galleries and museums before venturing out to the nearby national parks, or to join the throngs of semi-clad hot springs enthusiasts at the perennially popular Blue Lagoon.
To escape the crowds, why not skip the shore excursions in the south and head up to Akureyri – the unofficial ‘capital’ of the north? Significantly quieter, this charming city has the same colourful wooden houses and beautiful open spaces as its southern sister, plus easy access to Nordic wonders. The geothermal Myvatn Nature Baths, for instance, also delivers the same mineral-rich milky blue water that draws crowds to the Blue Lagoon, but you won’t have to share it with so many people.
Swap Barcelona, Spain for Lisbon, Portugal
Nestled between mountains and sea, Barcelona has been drawing a crowd for decades, known for its Gaudi architecture, pedestrian streets and distinctive food. These days, however, things have got a bit out of hand in the Med’s biggest sea port, with 32 million visitors per year squeezing into the city. The iconic 18th century walkway, La Rambla, has become so crowded with souvenir stalls and people, it’s not for the faint of heart, while timed tickets for Gaudi’s infamous Sagrada Familia basilica are known to sell out by 9am.
Leave the ‘I heart Barcelona’ trinkets behind and try Lisbon, where you’ll find history at every corner and an authenticity that its Spanish counterpart is struggling to maintain. Huddled at the mouth of the River Tagus where it meets the sea, Portugal’s capital has the added bonus of being built across seven hills offering panoramic views of the captivating city and its surrounds. Here you can roam the ramparts of the mid-11th-century Castelo de São Jorge and explore the UNESCO-listed Mosteiro dos Jerónimos before turning your attention to Lisbon’s burgeoning culinary scene – since 2015 the city has acquired no less than eight Michelin stars.
Swap Bali, Indonesia for Komodo
Visitors to Indonesia have skyrocketed from just 2.2 million in 1990 to a whopping 13.7 million in 2017, with a third going to Australian favourite, Bali. All this traffic is putting a huge strain on the island and its resources. Meanwhile, for travellers, the extra noise and congestion is causing mayhem in places like Kuta and Seminyak and doing little for Ubud’s long-held reputation as a haven of health and spirituality.
Avoid compounding the problem and head through the Indonesian archipelago to Komodo instead. Not just home to the legendary dragons, Komodo boasts corals reefs, deep rainforest valleys, ancient tribal traditions and a collection of 28 neighbouring islands. Together they make up Komodo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site recognised as such for its “unparalleled terrestrial and marine ecosystems’.
Swap Amsterdam for Rotterdam, Netherlands
Amsterdam is on everyone’s bucket list – even if it’s just to get one of those insta-worthy shots of you on a bicycle with the city’s trademark terraced buildings and colourful canal boats in the background. Around 18 million visitors were expected last year and that number is projected to rise to 30 million by 2025. Steering people towards outlying districts is one strategy being used to disperse the crowds, including renaming a strip of sand, 18 miles from the centre, Amsterdam Beach. But it’ll be hard to compete with the allure of the city’s infamous Museum Quarter and Red Light District.
According to many, the Netherland’s second city, Rotterdam, is definitely not second best. Here, old masters and cool culture collide. The Museum Boilmans van Beuningen is a must, housing the likes of Rembrandt and van Gogh, to Dali and Basquiat. There’s canal-side shopping in the 17th century Delfshaven neighbourhood and the city is also known for its bold, modern architecture – the Blaakse Bos, for example, is an innovative collection of tilted, cube-shaped apartments, perched on pylons to represent a forest.
Whichever destination you do decide to visit, treat the locals and the environment with the utmost respect. By treading lightly wherever you go, you’ll be doing your bit to keep overtourism at bay.
Do you have an ‘undertouristed’ destination to share? Tell us in the comments below.
Vote in this year’s special Readers’ Choice Awards
No doubt 2020 will go down in cruise history as the year of the pandemic – a once in a generation event. And this year’s Cruise Passenger Readers’ Choice Awards will reflect it.