Overtourism. The biggest buzz word in travel for 2019.
More people than ever before are travelling the world. The global number of tourists has more than doubled in the past 15 years to exceed 1.3 billion last year, and is forecast to rise to nearly 2 billion by 2030
The most visited cities in the world are popular for a reason. Every destination that tops the charts has a long list of attractions that bring millions of tourists flocking in each year. Ultra-photographic streets, bucket-list cultural tours and world-famous accommodations are just some of the reasons these mega-cities keep growing in popularity.
But the most visited cities are also under a lot of pressure from rising costs, overcrowding, environmental damage and strain on local resources. Riots and protests have exploded in popular tourist destinations by angry locals who are being squeezed out of their neighbourhoods. Overtourism is rapidly changing the face of travel forever.
Recently MasterCard published their list of the ‘Most Visited Cities In The World’, which gave me an idea to research some less-crowded and cheaper alternative cities to visit instead. Personally, I like to go against the grain and not follow the herd, especially when it comes to tourism. If everyone is turning left, it makes me curious about what I’ll find by turning right. It’s the smallest way I can express some of my anti-establishment sentiments.
No matter if you just like getting off the beaten trail, or you are concerned about contributing to overtourism, this list will give you some wonderful substitute destinations to add to your bucket-list.
The World’s Most Visited Cities And Where To Go Instead:
20 Million+ visitors per year
In 2018 Bangkok got more visitors than anywhere else on Earth.
So what has made this South East Asian capital so popular? A vast combination of industries, plus it’s geographical location makes for a perfect storm. It’s a great jumping off point for beach-flocking tourists, a bustling business hub for foreign investors and a hot-spot for temple touring, massage seeking, shopaholic travellers.
And while Bangkok doesn’t really suffer from the same type of ‘overtourism’ other cities are facing, the sheer influx of foreigners has changed the city’s landscape forever. To be frank, it’s caused some massive ethical issues in regards to sex-tourism, pollution and corruption.
I recently just included myself to the 20+ million visitors Bangkok will get in 2019, so yes… just let me adjust my ‘Hypocrite’ badge. What can I say – it’s a great city to do a Visa run, plus pick up supplies while floating through South East Asia, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have great alternatives.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) has approximately the same population of Bangkok, but only gets 25% the amount of annual visitors. The two cities have their similarities like the influx of skyscrapers starting to pop up in the skyline, rivers that divide the cities into two parts and their fare share of bad traffic.
What Ho Chi Minh has that is getting harder to find in Bangkok is: affordability.
Hotels are cheaper, food is cheaper, taxis are cheaper, basically everything is considerably less expensive in HCMC.
The city grid is also easier to navigate, with it’s smart city planning being one of the great things left behind by the French. Other influences the French left behind include an extremely strong coffee culture, many bakeries with fresh baguettes and croissants, and of course beautiful colonial architecture.
HCMC is an overload to the senses with a mix of old traditions and new development that is a great alternative to Bangkok.
19.8 Million visitors per year
London is no stranger to over-tourism. The capital city actually does a bang up job in handling millions of visitors year after year, but that doesn’t mean it’s not coming to a peak. Numbers are expected to increase an additional 30% by 2025 due in part to a huge influx of tourists from India and China.
While these record breaking tourist numbers bring million of dollars into the economy, it also brings some big pressures along with it. Long queues, over-capacity attractions and rising prices effect both locals and visitors.
Residents of London’s popular districts are having their daily lives negatively effected because of the non-stop flow of tourists. Some neighbourhoods, like ultra-popular Notting Hill, are actually begging tourists to stop using their homes as backdrops for Instagram photos.
National Geographic named Bristol “Europes Coolest City” in 2018 and it’s not hard to see why. It has a drool-worthy food and pub culture, trendy boho markets, art galleries and museums galore, colourful buildings and street art, and a super-photogenic suspension bridge.
Yes, Bristol is not even close to the size or population of London, but it makes up for it in spirit. You can still get a true UK experience in this city, but at a much better price. Hotels, attractions, even having a pint with friends is more affordable than big city London.
In fact, almost 100 people every week are moving from London to Bristol because of the higher quality of life, nicer people, better prices and cleaner air.
Bristol still has the cathedrals, history, and culture many are seeking, but without the high price tags and big line-ups compared to London.
9 Million visitors per year
Everyone is looking for the ultimate Tuscan experience and Florence is feeling the pressure on how to keep delivering it. As more and more tourists want to spend the night in ’authentic’ accommodations, locals are finding themselves displaced.
In only 9 months last year, 500 residence were thrown out of their downtown homes to make room for AirBnB and vacation rentals. Almost 1/4th of the housing in the historic centre is now accommodation for tourists.
Sustainability in Florence is becoming a big issue and threatening to forever change the demographics of the city.
I mean, just LOOK at this cityscape! It’s almost impossible to tell this is a photo of a mountain-top city in South America and not in Florence itself. Even the main cathedral gives out major Duomo vibes.
While Ecuador is undoubtedly very different from Italy, Cuenca still gives leaves you feeling like you’re walking down the streets of Europe. There are dozens of churches and cathedrals to tour, rooftop patios to drink wine on and colourful alleys to stop for an espresso.
Cuenca gets around 500,000 tourists per year, which is a far cry from the 10 million that pour into Florence annually. Prices in Cuenca are insanely attractive as well. You can get a glass of vino for $3, a 3-course lunch for $5 and a top-rated 4 star hotel for $50 a night.
9 Million visitors per year
Barcelona is a city that has exceeded it’s tipping point for tourism. Last year’s statistics showed the city received 9 million visitors, but that’s not the full story. Cruise ships, day tours and unregulated accommodations like AirBnB made the number closer to 32 million visitors. In a city of only 1.6 million residents, 32 million extra people quickly become a devastatingly heavy burden.
Residents of Barcelona sure aren’t shy about expressing their anger towards the influx of tourists. Signs have been painted saying things like “Tourists go home, refugees can stay” and “Tourists: your luxury trip, my daily misery”. Demonstrations against AirBnB properties continue as locals are squeezed out of their own neighbourhoods. Anti-tourism protestors storm sightseeing buses. It goes on and on.
Barcelona is a great place to visit, but it’s feeling pretty FULL these days.
Coming from Barcelona, Seville is a breath of fresh air. Only 2 million tourists are spending time in the Andalusian capital and that makes for a more relaxed trip to Spain.
Many people claim that Seville is a better place to experience ‘true’ Spanish culture like flamenco dancing, bull fighting and mouth watering tapas. Seville has plenty of cathedrals, castles, parks, and museums for a perfect sight-seeing itinerary. Best time to go? Year round! Seville is Europes sunniest city and has great weather all year long.
17.4 Million visitors per year
It’s hard not to imagine Paris when daydreaming about travelling the world. Millions of people want to make eating croissants under the Eiffel Tower a realty by booking a trip into the capital of France.
While Paris has not yet seen anti-tourism demonstrations like some European cities, the city is showing signs of being packed full to a tipping point. Many of the top attractions in Paris now come with hour long wait times and never-ending queuing, not to mention shockingly high prices. The national tourism board of France has made a statement suggesting they will start to regulate first-time visitors to Paris in the near future as an attempt to preserve quality of life for it’s residence.
Bucharest was actually given the name “Little Paris” over 100 years ago!
The capital city of Romania is actually dripping with Parisian influences throughout every corner of the city. Bucharest has it’s own Triumph Arc, cobblestone streets lined with cafes and coloured glass, dozens of prominent buildings designed by French architects, and more Art Deco influences than you can shake a stick at. There are some avenues and parks in the city that would make you believe you’ve been transported to Paris itself.
Tourism is just starting to boom in Bucharest, so the time to go is now. Currently it only gets about 10% the amount of tourists that Paris receives. Prices in Bucharest are also very low, with the price tag of a weekend getaway more than 50% less than Paris.
10.7 Million visitors per year
Istanbul. The only city in the world that sits on two continents, one side being in Europe and the other in Asia. It’s a kaleidoscope of colors, flavours and smells as centuries of history all come to life in this bustling capital. Having said that, Istanbul has a reputation for being overcrowded and quite the clogged up city. It is the 4th biggest city in terms of population on Earth, not to mention it keeps getting named the most crowded city on the planet.
Tourists can feel the pressures of overcrowding when it comes to getting around the city or queuing for attractions. In recent years lines have been as long as 3.5 hours to get inside the famous Blue Mosque.
Kazan will quench your thirst for beautiful mosques and cathedrals, without the long queues and wait times. Kazan has been called the ‘third’ capital of Russia and is one of the largest religious, economic, political, scientific, educational, and cultural centres of the country.
This 1000 year old city in the heart of Russia has one of the most diverse religious demographics in the world. There is almost an equal amount of Muslims, Roman Catholic and orthodox Christians co-existing with mutual respect and understanding.
While it’s picking up in popularity, only 2 million people visited Kazan last year compared to the 10.7 million that went to Istanbul.
Kazan is the perfect place to experience the mixture between Asia and Europe, and Islam to Christianity, all in one city.
4 Million visitors per year
Croatia as a whole got 57 Million visitors last year, but only has 4 Million people living in the country. That means 13x’s more tourists than locals visited the small coastal country, making a wave of tourism that is NOT sustainable.
Its being felt the most in Dubrovnik, where fans of Game Of Thrones keep coming in swarms to check out filming locations of their favorite show. Most of the influx is made up of ‘day-trippers’, coming only to clog up the city for a photo and leaving before spending any money. The city is implementing over-tourism strategies, such as limiting cruise ships and the number of tourists in the walled city at any given time.
The Albanian Coast
Albania only opened up to tourism in the 90’s, making it a newbie on the block. Since it’s just gaining popularity you’ll find an impressive amount of un-crowded, affordable and unspoilt beaches. Toss in fresh seafood, incredibly friendly locals and jaw-dropping sunsets and Albania might be a place you’ll want to stay forever.
Just head 450km south of Dubrovnik and you’ll find gorgeous Dhermi settled into the coast of Albania. This small town is known for it’s super chill vibes and stunning sandy beach.
You can find fortress ruins and Unesco sites all throughout Albania, but without having to pay heavy fees or waiting in long lines.
Coastal Albania is cheaper, less crowded and just as beautiful!
9 Million visitors per year
Venice is full. Just like Barcelona the mixture of cruise ships, day-trippers and AirBnB rentals has put the city over capacity and pushed out the locals. What was once an idyllic place to live has now become an over-stuffed, amusement park like nightmare for locals.
Responsible Travel put it best: “On any given day, they are forced to negotiate crowds and put up with noisy wheelie suitcases, selfie sticks and often disrespectful behaviour – swimming in canals, picnicking on bridges – as they try to go about their daily lives.” And so they are leaving. In the last 30 years Venice has seen a mass exodus of over HALF it’s permanent residents. Some of them are leaving for smaller cities, others being forced out against their will due to enormous hikes in rent.
Spoiler alert – Annecy has it’s over-crowded moments too, just not in the same realm as Venice. Since it’s a 4 hour train ride from Paris and a 1 hour drive from Geneva, which help to keep it ‘lesser known’ to foreign tourists. Now that we got that out of the way we can truly appreciate how beautiful the ‘Venice of France’ really is!
It really doesn’t get more Instagramable than Annecy. Pastel coloured houses, white swans swimming in the canals and bouquets of bright spring flowers lining the waterways. Once you explore the cities canals you can head out to the beaches of Lake Annecy and enjoy some of the purest water in the world!
13.9 Million visitors per year
Nowhere makes us think of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ quite like Singapore. It’s ritzy, modern, clean, classy and lavish, so it’s no wonder the tourism numbers are soaring off the charts. But so are the prices! Singapore has seen steep price increases for hotels, restaurants and even simple goods like drinks and sunscreen. Sure you can get a great meal at a hawker stand for $4, but what about everything else?
Lonely Planet tells us that it’s normal to shell out $200-$400 per night for a mid-range hotel and $20-$28 for 1 cocktail at a decent bar.
It’s not to say it isn’t worth blowing the budget in a dazzling place like Singapore, but is there another (more budget friendly!) similar destination?
Colombo, Sri Lanka
Colombo is a melting pot of cultures, just like it’s fellow port city Singapore. In the streets of Sri Lanka’s capital you’ll find Asian and Western influences alike, mainly from India, Holland, England and Portugal. Having been under so many different rulers has given Colombo massive diversity welcoming Muslims, Hindus and Catholics alike. The buildings, food, and music all tell a story about just how colourful Sri Lanka’s past is.
This port city has some major goals in the next few years as it strives to be an ultra-modern destination. A multi-billion dollar projects currently in the works that will change it’s skyline to resemble more of Dubai or Singapore than the Colombo we know now.
As it stands, Colombo remains a very affordable city to visit, with 50% of it’s accommodations coming in under $75 a night. That gives visitors a bigger budget to stay longer and travel to other nearby hotspots!
More Alternatives to Other Top Visited Cities:
Doha instead of Dubai
Philadelphia instead of New York City
Daegu instead of Seoul
Yokohama instead of Tokyo
Chengdu instead of Hong Kong
Khao Lak instead of Phuket
Kuching instead of Kuala Lumpur
The above list wasn’t made to say “Don’t Go” to the most visited cities, but instead as a reference on the other options out there. Overtourism, crowding and sustainable travel are all issues we need to face. However, travel isn’t a one size fits all kind of thing. What is considered as an ‘ideal destination’ or an ‘alternative city’ will differ greatly depending on who you talk to.
At the end of the day, go wherever your heart tells you to go.