Insights Lucas Blasco

We’ll fight them on the beaches: The revolt against overtourism 

Tensions about overtourism threaten to spoil the summer sun for local governments and the tourism industry alike. Both must leave their differences aside to find sustainable solutions or else winter may come early.  

Tourists go home”. This graffitied message has greeted many of the 85 million tourists flocking to their Spanish holiday destinations in the Canary Islands, Majorca, Menorca, and Barcelona. For years, tapas, sangría and sun have attracted millions of tourists to Southern Europe, with Spain now vying with France to secure the most tourists worldwide. But not everyone is thrilled by this prospect. In recent months, protests have spread across Europe against what residents argue are the destructive effects of “overtourism”. These complaints are a toxic mix of cultural angst, pressure on resources such as water and housing, and environmental damage to regional ecosystems.  

Protests have been, up to now, peaceful, sporadic and aimed at government inaction. But as the holiday season kicks off, tensions risk boiling over. In the Balearic Islands, residents have already chained streets shut to keep tourists away and even threatened to occupy Majorca airport. If governments do not resolve the trade-offs between tourist-dependent economies and the interests of residents, they risk citizen militias patrolling the streets and enacting mob rule. 

Governments have tried to limit visitors to particular hotspots in response, but there is little evidence to suggest tourists are dissuaded by entry fees, while residents can feel reduced to museum exhibits. Barcelona, which has long struggled to balance local concerns with a vibrant tourism industry, is implementing a ban on Airbnb from 2028. But while the explosion of short-term rentals has clearly increased pressure on housing, many of those properties will simply stand empty instead, making rental platforms a suspiciously convenient patsy for governments and the traditional travel sector looking to deflect blame. 

Other destinations are pursuing a more strategic response by going up-market, hoping that fewer and higher spending consumers will be more culturally sensitive. But wealthier travellers tend to consume greater resources, and more expensive hotel rooms simply exacerbate the price differential with short term rentals, making the latter more attractive for travellers and landlords alike.  

Rather than imposing entry fees or creating scapegoats in the short-term rental market, destinations and source markets need to promote a wholesale shift in our holiday habits. As climate change makes traditional resorts less and less habitable in the summer months, it’s absurd that we retain our fixation with holidays in July and August. Governments in Northern Europe should consider staggering school breaks, making holidays more affordable by relieving capacity constraints on beds, but also allowing destinations to diversify their offer across a longer peak season. 

It’s not just a question of when we go away, but also where. Countries like Spain, Italy, and France have untapped potential in their rural areas. Innovation in hiking or wine-tasting could further spread tourism away from the summer months and make holidaymakers realise the benefits of non-beach destinations.  

But marketing alone is not enough. New destinations require an investment in transport links, waste management, house building, and energy and water resources. Many of them sell sunshine to tourists but fail to use it to generate the clean energy that would relieve pressure on the power network.  

The risk of inaction is rising. New middle classes, thirsty for international travel, are emerging in China, India and the Middle East, and will add fuel to the overtourism fire. If unaddressed, the entire tourism business model will be jeopardised. Tour operators and travel companies are already feeling the need to step in to solve problems left unaddressed by local governments. In response to protests about housing costs, for example, travel company TUI said it will build housing for its staff in the Canary Islands. There could come a point when such ‘operating costs’ make some destinations unviable for operators. Such is the urgency that the sector shouldn’t wait for governments to partner with it (although it would be preferable).  

There are many cost-effective measures the tourism industry can implement independently. Providing information about a destination’s heritage and acceptable behaviour as a tourist is an easily applicable change that could mitigate concerns over cultural erasure. For hotels, limiting water usage per guest to the same level as local restrictions, collecting and recycling rainwater, and building solar panels to power their activity would demonstrate they are serious about sustainability. Hotels offering apartment-style rooms could even rent them out to locals during the off-season at a subsidised price to show awareness about housing costs.  

As tourism becomes more accessible around the world, protests about overtourism will only get larger and louder. Although protestors have mainly targeted their local governments so far, this issue will soon catch up with operators. Among these, cruise companies might be the first to face dramatic restraints on trade. Destinations with deep ports are often resentful of the transitory influx of passengers from liners, especially as they are thought to bring fewer economic benefits. Hotels, tour operators, and airlines could be next. Temporary visitor restrictions aren’t working. If governments and the private sector don’t start working together, winter may come early.