Over-tourism: The new buzz word in tourism

Wednesday, 26 September 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Periodically the tourism industry is in the habit of coming up with some interesting name to describe a new emerging trend or situation in the industry. Sometimes the phenomena is not new, but has become relevant and topical enough to ‘package’ and give it a ‘catchy’ name. One such doing the rounds today is ‘over-tourism’. In this analysis the phenomena of over-tourism will be discussed at length, and its relevance to Sri Lanka Tourism. 

What is over-tourism?

The originator of this word is said to be Rifat Ali, CEO/Founder of Skift, (a large business intelligence and marketing platform in travel), where he says “We came up with the word ‘over-tourism,’ a simple portmanteau to appeal to people’s baser instincts with an element of alarm and fear in it. That is the biggest reason why the term and its exploration by everyone has caught on.”

In short, over-tourism occurs when there are too many visitors to a particular destination. “Too many” is a of course a very subjective term, which cannot be generalised. It is specific to a particular destination or tourism attraction, and dependant on the local residents (community), location, hosts, business owners and tourists. 

When narrow roads become jammed with tourist vehicles that is over-tourism. When airports get overcrowded with departing and arriving tourists that is over-tourism. Wildlife being scared away due to overcrowding, tourists not being able to see landmark attractions because of the crowds, fragile environments becoming degraded – these are all signs of over-tourism.

In short the world’s most beautiful places are being loved to death.

Global travel trends 

The world’s population is increasing, with more people traveling internationally for the first time. Tourist movements have been steadily growing at about 5-6% year on year, with some 1,322 million people traveling in 2017 (close to 20% of the world population) making it one of the largest and fastest growing industries in the world, accounting for one in every 10 jobs in the world, and for 10% of the world’s GDP. 

As one would expect, China has become the largest source of outbound tourists with some 129 million trips, accounting for about 18% of the world tourism. And the future prospects for tourism is also exciting. The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) forecasts international tourism will increase to 1.4 billion people by 2020. 

Sri Lankan travel trends 

In the post-war arena Sri Lanka has also followed the world trends in tourism, and in fact performed much better, with a CAGR of close to 20% over the past decade.

The Government in the meantime continues to change the arrival target ‘goal posts ‘periodically which now (I think) stands at 4.5 million by 2020. More conservative and realistic analysis indicates that the actual number will be about 3.0 million.

Whatever the eventual numbers may be, they are quite significant by any standards, considering the fact that Sri Lanka had 450,000 visitors just nine years ago. 

Riding on this wave of growth, hotels and other accommodation establishments have cropped up in all corners of the island. According to the Sri Lanka development Authority (STDA) there are currently 530 hotels registered having 36,190 rooms, with a further 1,809 supplementary units (home stays, guest houses, etc.) with 13,236 rooms. This adds up to a total of 49,426 rooms registered with the SLTDA. However there is a large unregulated and unregistered number of accommodation providers with regard to which there is scant data available. Some researchers estimate this informal sector to account for another 7,500 rooms. 

Hence with so much demand, both world-wide and in Sri Lanka, there is a need to be more mindful of how and when we travel, and the damage it can cause in a socio-environmental context.

Whatever we may talk about sustainable tourism development, the grim reality is that the tourism industry, like many others, focuses almost exclusively on growth, with little or no concern for the impacts. 

Impact of tourism on the environment 

During the early stages of tourism development it was seen to be a benign activity. The tourism industry is built around leisure, enjoyment, a break from all responsibility. It certainly has brought much needed foreign exchange earnings to developing countries and forgotten rural communities, and in some ways helping conserve endangered species and restoring decaying historic cities. 

Tourism’s potential benefits are clear. Let’s not argue on that. The mistake is to think that it can only bring good to the stakeholders. It is the sheer magnitude and unregulated growth that is fuelling the issue.

Such developments cause a depletion of natural resources as more tourists consume more. It is simple case of balancing the input and output. As ‘input’ increases the ‘output’ also increases while depleting the finite stock of the earth’s resources. 

Impact of tourism 

on the community

The same theories apply in the case of the community. The father of modern day tourism Elseworth Slater stated that the three most important aspects to be considered when developing a new tourism product was “location, location, location”. It is no surprise then that tourism developers most often seek out the most pristine and undisturbed locations for tourism development, which in most cases are situated in remote village areas. 

Large-scale development puts a strain on the local economy (by driving prices of basic commodities up). This results in local tourism attractions and cities of interest becoming overcrowded, causing major changes to society, resulting in in disenchantment of the people in the vicinity and antagonism.

In some Western countries, there has been wide spread backlash from local residents, which had not happened before on any large scale. There have been marches in the streets, graffiti saying “Tourist go home”. 

This is quite succinctly explained in Butlers (1972) tourism life cycle model. Butler theorised that a tourism development will go through specific phases in its development.

1. Exploration

2. Involvement

3. Development

4. Consolidation

5. Stagnation

6. Decline or rejuvenation

Initially there is interest and community support as they see the economic benefits that can accrue to them. The development continues rapidly riding on its popularity, and expands. The negative fallout from disturbed environment, increased cost of loving, change in life style, all begins to take its toll on the community and resentments are created, resulting in stagnation of the business. 

It is here that smart developers can change their whole focus and embrace more sustainable consumption practices and radically modify their product offering, involving the community and ensuring that they are benefitted. If so there could be some form of rejuvenation of the business, rather than it go into a deep dive decline. 

It must be clearly noted that this model does not relate to growth in real terms nor arrivals. It is a measure of socio-communal wellbeing, satisfaction and environmental conservation.

The Sri Lankan 

Tourism case

With 2,116,407 tourists already visiting Sri Lanka in 2017 (SLTDA), and expected to grow to 4.5 million in the next few years (according to Government targets). There are some 1,800 hotels and other accommodation providers with close to 50,000 rooms (not considering the unregulated informal sector) registered with the SLTDA and close to 900 registered travel agencies 

To prove my point I shall take some case studies/examples.

Over-visitation Yala National Park: It is a well-known fact that Yala National Park is fast losing its lustre due to over visitation. The environment and more importantly the animals are being disturbed and very soon tourists will begin to shun the national park due to overcrowding:

  • In 2017 there were 314,606 local visitors to the park, and 290,100 foreigners, making a total of 604,706.
  • This means that on the average 1,989 visitors entered the park each day (allowing for 2 months of closure). 
  • There are some 1,100 jeeps registered with the DWC.
  • Assuming a very conservative number of four persons to each jeep (many jeeps go into the park with two or three people) the total number of jeeps entering the park would be about 151,176. For a period of 10 months this then works out to an average of 500 jeeps per day. However due to seasonality of foreign visitors this number can go up significantly during some periods, and there are records of more than 700 jeeps entering the park on certain days.
  • The most traversed of the areas in Yala are Blocks 1 (14,101 hectares -54.44 sq miles), 2 (29,931 hectares -38.34 sq miles) and 5 (6,656 hectares -25.70 sq miles).
  • This translates into an average of 0.25 sq miles per jeep or an area of ½ mile X ½ mile area per jeep.
  • Over-visitation of Sigiriya: Sigiriya is one of the top five tourism sites by way of popularity. However it is evident that it is virtually ‘bursting at its seams’:
  • In 2016 there were 633,055 local visitors and 552,461 foreigners, making a total of 1,195,516
  • Thus translates into over 3,200 visitors per day. However due to seasonality of foreign visitors this number can go up significantly during some periods 
  • Given that climbing is mostly during the morning hours and evening, assuming 7 hours of heavy usage, it would mean that there is a throughput of some 460 persons per hour. The congestion even more pronounced given the fact that climbing has to be done more or less in single file 

Over-visitation of Kandy: Kandy is Sri Lanka’s top tourism attraction, with over 70% of all tourists visiting Kandy during their stay (SLTDA Departing Guest Survey) . This also has a very high seasonality component, peaking to dizzy heights during the month of August when the perhera takes place.

Everyone knows that getting in and out of Kandy is a nightmare even in the late hours of the night. No amount of policemen controlling traffic, nor numerous trials with one way streets, has been successful.

  • Kandy is reported to have a population of 1,369,889, while the Kandy municipality area holds a population of 111,701 (https://www.citypopulation.de/SriLanka.html).
  • In 2017 there were 2,116,407 tourists visiting Sri Lanka.
  • If 70% visit Kandy, then there would be 1,481,485 tourists each year to Kandy.
  • This translates into 4,058 extra people each day in Kandy town (most of the tourists stay within the precincts of Kandy town).
  • This means that about 22% more loading takes place due to these visitors (this does not take into consideration the local visitors from other parts of the country which will only add to this figure).

Unregulated tourism 

growth and over-tourism (and over-visitation) 

There are many contributing factors to over-tourism, and of course these will vary from place to place. But in general there are a few main contributors

The growth of One-line Tour Operators (OTA): The Airbnbs, Agodas and Booking dot Coms have fuelled a meteoric growth of small unregulated tourism providers particularly in the developing world (Agoda has 16,684 listings for Sri Lanka).

Thousands of beds have suddenly been made available in towns and cities around the world, in already saturated areas without being subject to any kind of planning approval or permits and taxes. These small ‘mom and pop’ operators can undercut conventional hotels, causing great disruptions to the tourism economy. This growth causes localised socio-economic changes, resulting in hardships and resentment by the local people.

The reliance of quantity over quality: In some developing countries, Governments have racked up the numbers, and believe that ‘more is good’ for growth. A “successful” year in tourism is generally considered to be one in which numbers have increased substantially. The number is all that counts- it does not matter if they comprise of back packers, homes stays or high net worth tourists. Carrying capacity is not a welcome word in the tourism industry.

The availability of cheap flights: Somewhat like the OTAs, the no-frills airlines and powerful search engines to find the cheapest flight, have opened out a whole new chapter of air travel. 

All these new developments have made air travel accessible to a larger range of people who are now travelling all over the world. 

The impact of over-tourism (and over-visitation) 

It is evident from just these three examples given earlier, that some specific areas of Sri Lanka are already close to tipping point, due to over visitation, partly due to tourism. 

The results of this gross over use of these attractions will lead to:

  • Alienation of local residents
  • Degraded tourist experience
  • Overloaded infrastructure
  • Damage to nature
  • Threats to culture and heritage

It is alarming that these symptoms are already manifested in these specific attractions (and perhaps others), and that no action whatsoever is being taken to stem the rot. 


  • https://www.responsibletravel.com/copy/what-is-overtourism
  • https://skift.com/2018/08/14/the-genesis-of-overtourism-why-we-came-up-with-the-term-and-whats-happened-since/
  • https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnnyjet/2018/08/20/how-is-overtourism-impacting-travel-to-popular-destinations/#1f2f1d5835b8


The sad part is that it is a not a lack of funds nor resources, that is hindering any action being taken. It is the sheer lack of will, apathy, disregard, bureaucracy of the Government authorities and political interference that is the cause.

Why are we as individuals and the private sector, watching complacently while this rape of our natural attractions, fauna and flora is happening? 

Other countries have responded swiftly to curb over-tourism by suspending the issue of permits for more tourist-focused businesses in and around over visited and even closing entire areas temporally to visitors. In some cases there has been public outrage and protest.

Tourism is an extremely important cog in the wheel of Sri Lanka’s economy. It brings in valuable foreign exchange and creates many jobs.

To stem this ‘rot,’ what is required is a high-powered monitoring unit to be set up, with all stakeholder representation from both private and public sector (in most cases the regulation of different aspects of tourism overlaps with entities such as the Central Cultural Fund, Department of Wildlife Conservation, Forest Department, and Coast Conservation Department). This unit should have wide-ranging and overarching powers, and a clear mandate to monitor and control over visitation and unregulated development, without any political interference or patronage, under the chairmanship of the SLTDA perhaps.

Failure to do so will see the slow erosion of tourism growth, and social unrest – the proverbial ‘killing of the goose that lays the golden eggs’.


  • https://www.responsibletravel.com/copy/what-is-overtourism
  • https://skift.com/2018/08/14/the-genesis-of-overtourism-why-we-came-up-with-the-term-and-whats-happened-since/
  • https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnnyjet/2018/08/20/how-is-overtourism-impacting-travel-to-popular-destinations/#1f2f1d5835b8

Recent columns