Heritage and Overtourism

Heritage and Overtourism

Globally tourism is one of the world’s largest and fastest growing sectors.

It’s big business.

External photograph of Sydney Opera House showing white 'sails' against sky.

In 2016–17, the tourism industry directly contributed $17.3 billion to the economy in New South Wales and directly employed around 171,000 people. The industry’s total contribution to the economy is estimated at $34.2 billion, or 6 per cent of NSW’s Gross State Product. And there are plans to grow the sector.

The recent Visitor Economy Industry Action Plan 2030 includes a goal of more than tripling overnight visitor expenditure by 2030.

It aims to achieve $55 billion by 2030.

Luna Park and Sydney Harbour Bridge by night

Yet with booms come busts. Many places and communities here and elsewhere are at a tipping point.

With growth will come increased pressure on natural resources, cultural heritage and on the lifeways of local communities.

We have all experienced ‘growth’ and ‘success’ at tourism destinations. Perhaps we most frequently recognise it as overcrowding. Whether it is long queues for tickets to access cultural institutions or attractions, or slowly weaving through throngs of visitors in touristed streets and squares. Or impatient locals that really don’t want to acknowledge or engage with tourists.

According to the United Nations Global Assessment Report 2019 we need transformational behavioural change to secure our earth’s natural life support system.

Growth is all too frequently characterised in the positive. But we all know it is not without consequences.

Tourism to cultural heritage places, just as with natural heritage places, can present something of a double bind.

Angkor Sunset

One of the core tenants of heritage management is conservation.  In many cases that means protecting places from people. But historic places need people and community life.

Effectively, tourism to heritage places simultaneously means we need to protect places and ways of life from the threats that visitors pose. We need to manage growth and change in balance so that current demands do not compromise potential future needs.

In efforts to cope, Barcelona has stopped the development of new accommodation, (eg hostels, hotels and apartments). They have applied a tourist tax and limited the number of cruise ships.

In Dubrovnik, UNESCO has put limits on the number of tourists allowed within the Old Town.

Chile is curtailing the number of visitors to Easter Island and limiting their time there.

In Milan selfie-sticks have been banned.

In Venice, as with many other destination cities, homestays are increasingly subject to regulations and restrictions. The number of tourists, tourism taxes and limiting cruise ships is now part of conserving the city we all love. They are trying to get the balance right.

Clearly, tourism brings jobs, investment and economic benefits to destinations. But overtourism occurs when tourism expansion fails to acknowledge that there are limits.


Local government and planning authorities have thus far been not been able to adequately plan for and respond to the overwhelming influence of the global tourism supply chain.

So how do we manage and mitigate tourism impacts to ensure the very places, cultures and experiences we love are conserved?

We need to understand the limits and work with local communities to define them. We must place the welfare of local residents above the needs of the global tourism supply chain.

Prime consideration must be given to ensuring that the level of visitation fits within a destination’s capacity. Take for example, Angkor World Heritage Area in Cambodia. The Tourism Management Plan developed by GML, outlines specific strategies and major initiatives to encourage sustainable tourism development at Angkor, and turn the challenges and risks posed by tourism growth into opportunities and benefits for the World Heritage Area, local communities and the Cambodian nation.

The global tourism supply chain has a major responsibility.

Sunset at Angkor

Tourism products must deliver optimal tourist experiences and local benefits.

As tourists we need to make ethical choices, just as we are increasingly doing with the foods that we purchase and eat.

We need to make travel choices that are sensitive to the places we visit and to those who live in and around them.

Tourism should be part of the wider destination management and land use planning system. We need to consider infrastructure, zoning, transport and mobility, the conservation of places, the local economy, housing, among other aspects of everyday life.

Research, planning and a close and ongoing dialogue between government, city planners, the tourism industry, civic groups and local residents are essential.

Perhaps overtourism is an inevitable symptom of today’s unprecedented affluence and hyper mobility, a consequence of late capitalism? A perfect storm of globalisation, digital disruption, market and place-based competition, cheap flights and a shared economy.

But amidst all this we need to urgently rethink the way cities and tourism destinations are evolving to uphold the rights of their residents and those of future generations.

In a world in which growing populations with insatiable consumer demands are pitted against a fragile environment, we require a joined up and concerted effort.

Harnessing this as part of a bold and rigorous agenda for sustainable development rather than sustaining tourism, would make tourism and the destinations we visit more meaningful for all of us.

We need to listen to the voices attached to places, we need to be prepared to hear the truth, and to tell the stories that help us understand ourselves and the spirit of place.