Some of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations are struggling to cope with mass tourism. The UN World Tourism Organization says there were 713 million international tourist arrivals across the continent in 2018, a notable rise of 8% on the previous year. Growth was strongest in southern and Mediterranean Europe.
Overnight stays in European cities have rocketed by 57% since 2008. While tourism brings some economic benefits to cities, local people and businesses in those cities are increasingly reporting problems with housing affordability and availability, environmental issues, and a destruction of local culture. There’s also the question of what value day-trippers from cruise ships bring, when they have meals, drinks and entertainment waiting for them back on board.
If you want to travel with a conscience and escape the crowds, you don’t have to miss out on the history, culture and cuisine that European cities have to offer.
The unfortunate poster-child of mass tourism, the city of 50,000 residents is struggling to cope with an estimated 25 million annual tourists. Protesting Venetians complain about vandalism to historical sites, increased crime, and inflated property prices that are causing many of them to leave. Recent reports suggest tourists aren’t happy either, with complaints ranging from overcharging in restaurants to long lines for cultural attractions.
Other options in the region include the Roman city of Verona, listed alongside Venice as a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its architecture. The most notable attraction is the spectacular Roman amphitheater, still in use today for opera performances.
Alternatively, hop across the Slovenian border to Ljubljana. The cafe-lined river, Triple Bridge, medieval old town, domineering castle, and green spaces galore provide a thoroughly enjoyable alternative to Venice, without having to pay eight Euros for a bottle of water.
The popularity of Dubrovnik has never been higher thanks to the city’s alter-ego as King’s Landing on the hit TV series Game of Thrones. The sheer number of big group walking tours within the compact walled city mean there’s crowds of people waiting around every corner, even with the recent clampdown on admissions.
In 2016, Dubrovnik’s Mayor caused outrage among locals when he asked them to stay a home because of the high numbers of people arriving by cruise ship. His replacement has since limited the number of cruise ships to two per day, slashed the number of souvenir stalls, and also imposed limits on outdoor seating at restaurants to create more space on the city streets.
While you can’t get the King’s Landing experience elsewhere, the entire Dalmatian coastline is an underrated stretch. To truly escape the crowds, consider heading south to wonderful Montenegro for sublime scenery, historic Byzantine churches and charming ocean-view villages. The medieval old town of Kotor makes a great base.
One of Europe’s most distinctive cities thanks to its unique architecture and miles of sandy beaches, Barcelona’ success has become too much to handle. Locals complain the city is losing its identity and turning into a theme park. On the pedestrian throughfare La Rambla, the famous La Boqueria food market has slowly transitioned from selling meat and veg to locals to peddling juice and takeaways to tourists. Buy a ticket for an FC Barcelona soccer game and you’ll more likely than not be seated next to another tourist.
The Catalan culture is still alive and well in other towns along the coastline, however. The stylish beach resort Sitges does get crowded on weekends, but there’s just as many Barcelona locals escaping the tourist hoards in the city as there are international visitors. Farther south, culture vultures will be more than satisfied with the ancient ruins of Tarragona. The oceanfront 2nd-century amphitheater, 12th-century hilltop Cathedral, Roman tombs at the Necropolis and the alleys of the walled old city provide the perfect alternative to Barcelona’s medieval attractions.
Prague, Czech Republic
Crowds in Prague are nothing new. A perennial favourite for bachelor and bachelorette parties, Prague was known for decades as one of Europe’s cheapest, fun places for a weekend getaway. Even now that prices have risen, the people keep coming. Official figures from Prague City Tourism show that in 2018 the city broke records for overnight stays and number of guests, for the sixth year running. Total annual visits have risen from 5.9 million to 7.9 in just six years.
Researcher Miroslav Rončák from Palacký University Olomouc said that the state have been slow and reluctant to interfere in a growth industry. “Increasing tourism revenues have led to uncontrolled development of tourism in Prague’s historic centre, which has evolved into a tourist ghetto. Although local residents by and large do not have a negative attitude towards tourists, the direct and indirect effects of tourism development have begun to constrain their quality of life,” he said.
Instead, head 160 miles east to Olomouc. Known throughout the country for its baroque monuments and fountains, Olomouc is virtually unheard of outside the country. To dive deeper, the Archdiocesan Museum traces the city’s history through the original Romanesque foundations of the castle and covers the baroque period.
Famed for its picturesque canals, museums and galleries, and a tolerant attitude to drugs and prostitution, Amsterdam has never been more popular. But with visitor numbers predicted to grow from 19 million to 29 million in the next ten years, Amsterdam authorities are taking drastic action. The tourism board is now switching focus from promotion to management, and actively encouraging tourists to go elsewhere.
Instead, consider the Birmingham of the Netherlands, Rotterdam. Like the English second city, the Dutch variant has struggled to shake its grimy industrial image yet leaves visitors who make the trip pleasantly surprised. From the sidewalk cafes of the trendy Pannenkoekstraat district to the curious modern architecture of the Markthal indoor market, there is plenty to see here on a weekend break. Best of all, art lovers needn’t miss out. The Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen hosts works by Monet, Kandinsky, Dali, Munch and even Van Gogh.