Battling overtourism in Europe

14 minutes to read
Karen Severijnen

Planning a holiday in Europe during peak season? Even when Covid-19 numbers are back on the rise, it might be advisable to avoid the main attractions, as you will not be the only one there. Ever-increasing numbers of tourists are flocking to Europe’s medieval cities, which have infrastructures that were never designed with such huge numbers of people in mind. Although mass tourism is supposedly good for local economies, it also causes numerous problems ranging from overloaded infrastructures to inflated prices. Local citizens are now starting to revolt against so-called ‘overtourism’: they want their cities back. Policymakers acknowledge the problems and are taking measures, trying to strike a balance between economic gains and sustainable livability for locals. Can both interests be served?


Tourism has become a serious cash cow for many economies. Numbers are increasing worldwide and this has economic, cultural and infrastructural effects, both positive and negative. For years cities have been trying to attract more tourists by investing in city marketing. This has indeed paid off, but not in the same way everywhere. Some areas seem to struggle to increase their attractiveness for tourists, while other parts are flooded and cannot handle the large numbers of visitors. This overtourism is a recent development, leading to ‘tourism-phobia.’ Locals suffer the consequences as economic profits seem to prevail over the wellbeing of citizens, who are now appealing to policymakers to take action. 

With increasing worldwide tourism, some tourists have become more visible than others, though not always in a good way. The South China Morning Post mentions stereotypes attached to the world's worst tourists: the Chinese, British, Germans, Americans, Israelis and Russians (Pile, 2017). Binge drinking, complaining constantly and rigidly sticking to their own customs are a few of the issues that stand out. Due to their sheer numbers, the Chinese tourists are a league of their own. 

As Taleb Rifai, secretary general of the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) remarked, “Chinese tourists are the most powerful single source of change in the tourism industry" (Aldama, 2017). Traditionally favoring group tours ‘doing Europe’ in a week, they can be seen jumping in and out of their tour buses, taking many photos before being ushered on by their Chinese guides. As the potential for outbound Chinese tourism is enormous, measures will have to be taken to make sure the local market can profit from this type of tourism without local inhabitants suffering from a decrease of the livability of their environment.

Chinese tourists are the most powerful single source of change in the tourism industry

In this article, I will focus on the manner in which Chinese tourists contribute to the problem of overtourism and how they could be part of the solution. Sociologist Immanuel  Wallerstein's (2004) World Systems Theory will be used to explain the phenomenon of (over)tourism and cultural scientist Xuan Wang et al.'s (2014) distinction between centers and margins will help to see how the global phenomenon of tourism has a serious impact on local communities. To examine the issues related to overtourism, news articles from various sources will be discussed in combination with a report on Chinese outbound tourism by the China Tourism Academy (2018) and the findings of McKinsey's (2017) research on overtourism. A possible solution is highlighted by discussing a survey by the European Travel Commission (2017) and a marketing report by policymakers of the city of Copenhagen (Archer, 2018).

Tourists flocking the lavender fields in the Provence, France

Chinese mobility 

Local patterns can be explained by looking at economic, political, and cultural global systems. Wallerstein (2014) offers an analytical perspective on these world systems and globalization. He describes the existence of different zones in the world (centers, semi-peripheries and peripheries) and how inequalities always appear between them. These zones are connected by trade networks. Wallerstein explains how these zones can be seen as phases, continuously in the process of transforming into the next phase. At the beginning of this century, China was still an emerging economy, having transferred from a periphery to a semi-periphery. Over the last few decades the country has proven to be capable of rapidly becoming a center due to its huge population and its very large innovation capacity, which can be linked to the development of its ‘knowledge economy’ (Zeng & Wang, 2007). Internationally, the knowledge economy can be seen as a (relatively new) world system as well, and initiatives like the New Silk Road have high potential. 

An increase of affluence, resulting in a growing middle-class in China, combined with the availability of new (digital) technologies has led to an enormous increase in mass mobility and tourism, both in the country itself and outbound. Due to its large population this has had a profound effect on receiving countries. The effect of global phenomena on local communities has been described by Wang et al. (2014). On top of human mobility, this research visualizes a hyperdynamic layer causing interconnectedness of global scale levels through internet and mobile communication technologies. This leads to new economic activities, local infrastructures and identity formations which can be observed in various European destinations receiving Chinese tourists. This outbound tourism affects the Chinese tourists themselves as well, who are exposed to different cultures and bring those experiences back home with them, where they transfer their new knowledge to their network. This shows the hyper dynamics of these globalization patterns. 

Huge potential

In 2017, more than 6 million Chinese citizens visited European countries and this number is expected to continue to rise (Xinhua, 2018). Chinese tourism to Europe has tripled over ten years. A joint report on China outbound tourism of the China Tourism Academy (CTA, part of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism) and China’s largest online travel-booking site Ctrip (2018) shows that China has become the largest source for outbound tourism in the world with 129 million trips in 2017. The prediction for Chinese outbound tourism in 2018 was 134 million trips: a growth of 4.5% compared to the previous year.

Considering the fact that only 10% of the Chinese population owns a passport and thus can travel overseas, clearly the potential market is huge. In total 60% of bookings were made through China’s largest online travel booking site Ctrip. The report attributes the growth to increasing affluence, fewer restrictions on visas, improving exchange rates and increased number of flight connections. Additionally, social media can act as a major drive for tourism. Subscribers to online platforms share tips on where to go, prompting visitors to go there too. In addition, taking photos and posting them on social media has become a goal in itself, in order to establish a personal brand (Manjoo, 2018).

The EU wants to increase the number of Chinese travellers to the EU, in particular off-season and off-track and enhance cultural understanding

The European Union (EU) is seeking to draw even more Chinese visitors to Europe. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang declared 2018 the ‘EU-China Tourism Year’ (ECTY). According to their website the EU wants to “increase the number of Chinese travellers to the EU, in particular off-season and off-track (i.e. lesser-known destinations)” and to “enhance cultural understanding.” The EU expects to generate an annual increase of 10% of Chinese visitors above the current trend, representing at least an additional billion euros each year for the EU tourism industry. 

Alienated citizens 

The impact of increased tourism can be observed in many European cities. The consequences include economic profits, cultural clashes, strained infrastructure, pressure on the property market, damage to historic sites and nature, and a more general negative influence on the well-being of local citizens, who feel increasingly alienated. According to a report by McKinsey and the World Travel & Tourism Council (2017) on managing overcrowding in tourism, indications for overcrowding and its subsequent negative effects are tourist arrivals, social media reviews, seasonality and pollution. The report shows that underlying increased global travel is a growing global middle class and new, creative use of technology. This makes travel more accessible for increasing numbers of people and leads to environmental and social effects. They acknowledge that overcrowding is a complex issue due to specific chronotopical factors and because of the diverse stakeholders involved. They also draw attention to ethical questions: making travel more expensive will lead to a decrease in numbers but also to elitism. Should travel not be a basic right? 

Take Giethoorn — often called the ‘Venice of the North’  —, a picturesque village with 2,500 inhabitants in the northern part of The Netherlands, with hoards of tourists being transported in punts on the narrow canals — from which relatively many are Chinese (López Sáez, 2019). Giethoorn, having successfully put itself on the tourist map after winning a place on the international Monopoly board (Redactie NOSop3, 2015), now seems to be overwhelmed by tourists. An interesting Dutch documentary ‘Ni Hao Holland’ (Timmers, 2015) shows the viewpoint of both the Chinese tourists and the locals, making one wonder how realistic and authentic the image of The Netherlands is that is created for the sake of tourism. Locals are seen on one hand trying to accommodate the tourists by taking Chinese language classes, while on the other hand putting signboards in their gardens saying ‘private property' in Chinese. This is understandable, as a Chinese tourist can be seen opening a fence and entering a private property, much to the dislike of the owner. Dutch newspaper Trouw wrote in 2017 about Chinese investors who bought several properties in Giethoorn with the intention of converting these into large bed & breakfast units, however the municipality prevented this after protests from locals who feared for the character of the village (Redactie Trouw, 2017). 

The Chinese text indicates that this is a private property in Giethoorn

Another example is the Chinese company Tiens Group that treated its workers to mass company outings in Europe. In 2015 they visited France with a group of 6,400 workers arriving in 84 chartered planes, followed a year later by a visit to Spain with 2,500 employees (Burgen & Philips, 2016), apparently to raise morale by treating the employees and publicizing the company at the same time. Whether the marketing intention worked out well is questionable: one can imagine the infrastructural challenge of transporting, housing and feeding such numbers. 


China is fully aware of the potential problems caused by cultural differences and tries to educate its travelling citizens. Following complaints of behavior of Chinese tourists not observing local etiquette when travelling abroad, in 2013 the China National Tourism Administration published a 64-page illustrated ‘Guidebook for Civilized Tourism.’ These guidelines were meant to improve the national image of China and to educate the travelling public on social norms abroad, offering advice on topics from queue jumping to toilet use. Country specific advice was also given:

“In the Netherlands, filling a coffee cup to the brim is taboo. It is considered impolite. The Dutch believe two-thirds full is the correct level.”

Becoming more traveled will expose Chinese tourists more to foreign cultures resulting in an increased understanding of local etiquette. Obviously, the other side of the coin is making European tourism industry aware of the cultural characteristics and habits of Chinese tourists like the love of haggling when shopping, the dislike of loss of face and the preference for hot breakfast. Employing Chinese staff, adjusting menus, translating brochures and signboards are all signs of this growing awareness. This is necessary as research has shown that Chinese travelers mention language and communication problems, bad food and difficulty getting around as annoyances when travelling in Europe (European Travel Commission, 2017). 

Park Guëll, Barcelona


The surge in tourism has resulted in what has been dubbed ‘tourism-phobia,’ with anti-tourism demonstrations across Europe last year. Local citizens protested against problems such as pressure on the local housing market, increased food prices, and pollution from cruise ships (Coldwell, 2017). In response, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has asked local authorities to manage the growth in a sustainable way, seeing tourism as a potential ally for conservation and preservation. The UNWTO recommended crowd managing not by discouraging tourists from coming, but instead by diversification of tourist activities, reduction of seasonality and communication with local communities to address their needs. 

Indeed, policy makers and (local) governments are getting involved. Venice is banning cruise ships. In Barcelona the mayor has imposed a new tourist tax and tries to limit the amount of visitors. Licenses for new hotels and holiday rental apartments are frozen, with fines and a ban on Airbnb. Amsterdam is taking a different approach, according to travel editor Helen Coffey: instead of closing the city, which they feel is not feasible anyway, they are trying to find alternative solutions. In an attempt to divert tourists from the overcrowded city to other areas in the country, they are rebranding those other destinations (Coffey, 2017).

The seaside city of Zandvoort, 18 km from the capital, has been renamed Amsterdam Beach and the castle ‘Muiderslot’ is now Amsterdam Castle, only 15 minutes away from the city. The city uses the data stored on the Amsterdam City Card, which gives tourists access to attractions and public transport, to analyze the behavior of the tourists. A live update on queues for popular attractions now prompts people to change their plans accordingly. Facebook Messenger is used to entice visitors by analyzing their profile and pointing them to interesting activities, other than the customary Van Gogh Museum and Red Light District

Recently the City of Amsterdam removed the iconic letters because they allegedly drew too many tourists to an already limited space

A new type of Chinese traveller

In addition to the described solutions, there may be a different way to look at the problems caused by overtourism, specifically regarding Chinese tourists. A survey conducted by the European Travel Commission (2017) in preparation of the EU-China tourism year 2018, analyzed 26,000 Chinese social media reviews about tourist attractions and activities in Europe. The main outcome was that the Chinese image of Europe as a destination is a mix of old and new components. The Chinese still view Europe as a fairytale place and a museum of history and culture, ideal for photography. The shopping possibilities and fresh air are appreciated as well.

However, on top of that they are increasingly looking to immerse themselves in local culture as well, seeking an authentic and unique experience. The survey recommends targeting niche groups such as foodies, sports enthusiasts or culture lovers, providing them with a “genuine and immersive local experience that allows Chinese travellers to go from observers to active participants.” As individual Chinese travellers already make up for 42% of the country’s total outbound travel, this seems a good alternative solution, especially if they can be guided towards less frequented sites. 

The survey recommends targeting a niche group such as foodies, sports enthusiasts or culture lovers, providing them with a genuine and immersive local experience that allows Chinese travellers to go from observers to active participants

This changing attitude of Chinese tourists is confirmed by COTRI, the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute. Founder and director Wolfgang Georg Arlt (2017) concludes:

“With ‘immersion’ having overtaken sightseeing and even shopping as the main interest for younger individual travelers from China, they may prove again to be instrumental in the change of the shape of an activity formerly known as tourism.”

This new concept of the Chinese traveler ties in with the ideas of the marketing organization of the city of Copenhagen, described in their report ‘The End of Tourism as we know it' (Archer, 2017). In order to deal with the problem of overtourism that numerous European cities are facing, cities are advised to see tourists as temporary residents rather than tourists. These short-term residents become part of the community and add value to it, helped by the tourism industry. This way permanent residents do not have to give up their quality of life in order to benefit financially. It is about seeing travel as a learning experience, about the personal connection between host and guest, leading to a shared experience of ‘localhood.’ The goal is not to increase the quantity of visitors, but the value of visitors for all parties, enabling the various stakeholders (travelers, partners and influencers) to create ‘shareable moments.’ Mixing global competitiveness with this so-called localhood should transform the tourism business, creating a shared identity.

Could this vision really be the solution to mass tourism? Offering tourists small scale local experiences, thus drawing them away from the much frequented main attraction centers could be part of the answer. If executed well, it could help the less visited parts of Europe draw their share of tourists, increasing employment in these peripheries as indicated by both Wallerstein (2004) and Wang et al. (2014). Social media could play an important role in advertising these less traveled roads, appealing to niche market segments of travelers. However, if the recipe becomes really successful it will eventually lead to similar problems of overcrowding. The new Chinese traveler certainly seems ready to try it, but the question remains what will happen when they manage to entice all their friends to tag along... 


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