Paradise lost: How overtourism is changing Europe's holiday destinations

Europe’s beauty spots are buckling under mass tourism – so some popular destinations are fighting back. Venice has blocked cruise ships and Amsterdam has launched ‘stay away’ ads aimed at badly behaved Brits. But the trade-off between quality of life and much-needed revenue is a tricky one
The village of Hallstatt has seen a boom in tourism in recent years | Photo: Alamy

By Valeriya Safronova

Valeriya Safronova is a Vienna-based reporter covering the arts, gender and news

29 Jun 2023

The pleasure boat is packed with tourists. As it glides across the calm waters, most take out their phones and cameras and aim them at the mountains towering over the lake and the colourful houses dotting its shores. With clouds wisping around the peaks and just a hint of sunlight bouncing off the water, the landscape looks magical. 
The onlookers are on their way to Hallstatt in the Salzkammergut region of central Austria. Over the last 15 years or so, the small town of 740 residents has become a top tourist destination, with 1.2 million visitors in 2019, according to official records. And numbers are expected to be back up to pre-pandemic levels this year.  

Tourists are drawn by various claims to fame: the town was listed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1997; it was featured in a 2006 South Korean romantic drama series; and there are rumours that it inspired the design of Arendelle, the mythical kingdom in Disney’s Frozen. 

Hallstatt’s famous landscape has been reproduced many times on social media. Today, there are more than 836,000 posts on Instagram with the #Hallstatt tag, and on TikTok, videos about Hallstatt have nearly 7 million views. The town is so popular that, in 2012, a company in China spent hundreds of millions of euros replicating parts of Hallstatt for a residential development in Guangdong.  

In some ways, the tourism explosion has been a boon, bringing funding for social projects and supporting the growth of local businesses. At the same time, locals are frustrated by the amount of litter visitors leave behind; the increased traffic from cars and tourist buses; the drones tourists fly that invade residents’ privacy; and the skyrocketing prices of goods and property.  

“People think some of these houses are part of a museum,” Bernadette Krenn, a nursing student who moved to Hallstatt a year ago, tells The Parliament. “They don’t realise people live here. They try to go in.” 

All over Europe, cities and towns like Hallstatt have begun to rebel against the painful effects of overtourism, including degradation of nature, overburdened infrastructure, litter, property destruction, and frustrated residents.  

So far, overtourism has not entered the policymaking stage at the EU level. According to a 2018 policy paper requested by the European Parliament’s Committee on Transport and Tourism (TRAN), most current references to overtourism began cropping up in literature only as recently as 2017, though there were some studies published in the 1970s.  

Covid-19 stalled tourism, and only recently have EU Member States begun to bounce back. In the first three months of this year, international arrivals in Europe reached 90 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, according to the World Tourism Organisation.  

Just in time for this return to almost-normal, the European Tourism Agenda 2030 , published last December, underscored the importance of sustainability in travel and called on Member States to share best practices and examples of comprehensive tourism strategies by 2025. 

Though policymakers are only beginning to wrestle with the concept, it is clear that “the effects of overtourism are potentially severe”, the report’s authors write.  

On average, the report says, tourists are visiting places for shorter periods of time and are choosing them based on rankings of “top destinations”, which causes significant build-up at certain locations during peak periods. Social media is certainly a culprit here, driving tourists to locations deemed Instagram or TikTok-worthy. 

The TRAN report found that many tourist destinations are focused on growth with little consideration for their actual capacity, which has led to a rising anti-tourism sentiment across Europe.  

“While visitors initially may be welcomed by the resident population because of the income they generate, as visitor numbers increase, local people may feel that their quality of life is threatened and become less welcoming to tourists,” the study claims.  

With a lack of policies from the top, many European cities and towns have taken steps to fight overtourism on their own.  

Since the summer of 2022, tourists in Marseilles who want to visit the Calanques National Park must make a reservation. The new system is considered such a success that local authorities have decided to keep it in place for the next four years.  

In the Amalfi region of Italy, during high-peak periods, non-residents can only drive along the coastal road on certain days. According to the system, which was devised in 2019, cars with licence plates ending in an even number must stay away on even-numbered days, and cars with licence plates ending in an odd number are vetoed on odd-numbered days.  

In northern Italy, the medieval village of Corenno Plinio on Lake Como has been charging visitors a €4 entry fee since 2020, effectively turning it into an open-air museum.  

In 2021, after years of protests and concerns that Venice could be placed on the World Heritage endangered list, Italian authorities banned large cruise ships weighing more than 25,000 tonnes from docking. Venice authorities have also contemplated imposing a reservation and ticketing system; encouraged guests to see other islands in the lagoon with a “detourism” campaign; and levied a small surcharge on travellers departing from Marco Polo di Tessera, the nearest airport to Venice. 

Along with all of this, in recent years, Venice has taken to punishing ‘improper’ tourist behaviour. Visitors have been fined and kicked out of the city for misdemeanours including making coffee on the steps of the Rialto Bridge; taking a topless photo on a war memorial; and assembling a picnic on a 300-year-old landmark.  

Amsterdam may be following suit, although the city wants to take pre-emptive action rather than reactive. Last spring, in a new online campaign, Amsterdam delivered a “stay away” message to young male British tourists looking for a “messy night”. 

Though much of the focus on overtourism has been placed on larger places such as Venice, Marseilles and Amsterdam, “the most vulnerable destinations are not necessarily cities, but rather coastal, islands and rural heritage sites”, according to the TRAN report.  

Consider this: each year, Hallstatt hosts 196 overnight tourists per resident. That number soars to 1,600 with the addition of day visitors. For comparison, Venice receives about 21 tourists per resident.  

A normal Friday in peak season will see the centre of Hallstatt thronging with tourists. Signs in English, Mandarin and Korean warn them to be “quiet please!” and beware of pickpockets. 

 Every so often, residents wearing traditional Austrian clothing such as a dirndl or lederhosen will venture on to the crowded streets. Against the branded sportswear favoured by modern globetrotters, the locals’ outfits seem like costumes. The result is less 'functioning Alpine town’, more ‘Disneyland simulation’.  

Perhaps that is why some tourists do not seem to understand the town is real, say locals. They report instances of visitors brazenly entering homes on the main street, under the mistaken belief they are part of the town’s decorations.  

“It has changed dramatically,” observes a 62-year-old man who was born in Hallstatt and has lived in the town his entire life. “Now it’s like living in a zoo,” he says, referring to visitors’ habit of photographing everyone and everything.  

But, he adds, tourism has been good for the local economy. “Otherwise, Hallstatt would be a dying [town],” he says. “Without tourism, there would be no jobs.” The man declines to give his name because of the tense “political situation” around tourism. “There are two different kinds of people: those who are profiting from the tourism, and those who aren’t. And they fight,” he says.  

Christian Schirlbauer, the director of tourism of the Dachstein Salzkammergut region where Hallstatt is located, agrees: “If people are not working with tourism, they’re a bit angry that there are so many tourists coming to Hallstatt,” he says. “Hallstatt is really crowded, but you need to recognise that 85 per cent of people in Hallstatt live off tourism. Not just restaurants and hotels, but also bakeries, carpentry workshops, and more.” 

In 2015, some Hallstatt citizens formed a new association – Citizens for Hallstatt. One of the group’s main concerns is mass tourism, as they explain on their website: “We are not against tourism across the board – just against its excesses and against its glorification as the sole employer in town.”  

The group wants the town to establish a cap on tourist numbers. They are particularly against daytrippers. “What we definitely don’t want are tourists who park for free, eat the snacks they brought with them, leave the rubbish with us, and leave again after 15 minutes,” they state on their website. 
In May, in a concession to residents who have been complaining about overcrowding on the main thoroughfare for years, Mayor Alexander Scheutz and members of the municipality’s building committee set up an experiment. They erected tall fences in the spot where many tourists stop to take photos, partially blocking an iconic view of Lake Hallstatt, the mountains and the town. It was an “illustrative model”, he said. 

Locals quickly responded by saying they did not like the barriers and, after two days, the fences were removed. In their place, the town has put up banners that ask visitors to “enjoy the beautiful view in peace, without loud shouting or music”.  

When it comes to being for or against tourism, the town has “a 50-50 split”, according to Nadine Scholz, a receptionist at a local pension who has worked in Hallstatt for five years, but lives in nearby Bad Goisern. “I have no problem with the tourists because I don’t live here. But that’s why I don’t live here. The tourists do whatever they want: they go in your house, they go in your toilet, they sit in your garden.”  

Mayor Scheutz points to the economic advantages of tourism. Years ago, he insists, Hallstatt was struggling to attract anyone, in part because of its geographical isolation. The town is in a valley surrounded by mountains and, until the late 19th century, it was only possible to reach it by boat or via narrow trails. 

According to Scheutz, income from tourism has allowed the town to finance an all-day pre-school with lunch; afternoon care for primary schoolchildren; social housing; and the construction of a modern practice for the community doctor.  

He also says that the flow of tourists has created an incentive for entrepreneurs to open year-round businesses from which locals also benefit, including a bakery, petrol station, grocery store, and a branch of Erste Bank.  

Nevertheless, the 20,000 or so tourist coaches that arrive each year in Hallstatt aggravate residents. “These visitors come in large groups and cause a lot of noise and disturbance because they only briefly visit the town centre to get their pictures and then rush back to the bus terminal,” Scheutz concedes.  

A few years ago, the town hired a traffic planner and developed ideas to improve traffic flow. Then, with the help of funding from the EU, authorities introduced a system in which tour operators must book a time slot for their coach’s arrival in advance and, once they are in Hallstatt, remain there for at least two and a half hours.  

Additionally, visitors are no longer allowed to park in the centre of Hallstatt; those who plan to stay overnight can take advantage of a free shuttle service from the parking lots to their hotels. Whenever the 450 parking spaces in Hallstatt are full, electronic noticeboards encourage tourists to visit other nearby towns or sites.  

After all, Hallstatt is not the only place in the region to have received World Heritage status – Bad Goisern, Gosau and Obertraun were also included in the designation. And there are other charming towns close at hand, such as Bad Aussee, a charming town that hosted artists and nobles from Vienna in centuries past and is a 15-minute train ride east of Hallstatt, is a charming town that hosted artists and nobles from Vienna in centuries past. Today, it is a great spot from which to begin hikes, and is close to the beautiful Grundl Lake and the Altaus Lake. A weekend flea market offers many antique discoveries, including jewellery, furniture, and pottery ware.  

Anyone keen to explore the Austrian Alps  without negotiating large crowds or contributing to degradation caused by overtourism will find plenty of options besides Hallstatt.  
“There are so many places in the surrounding area you can visit,” says Schirlbauer. “It’s easier than everybody going to Hallstatt at the same time.”