As ‘overtourism’ results in some destinations creaking at the seams, here are alternatives where you need not expect to share the sunset with the crowds
Avoid the crowds: 7 popular destinations and the places to go instead
When it comes to travel, popularity can be a gift and a curse. This June, Maya Bay on Phi Phi – the Thai island where Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Beach was filmed – will close to visitors as authorities attempt to reverse years of environmental damage caused by tourists. On the other side of the world, tiny Iceland is struggling to cope with skyrocketing visitor numbers driven largely by tourists seeking out the Arctic country’s filming locations from HBO’s hit series, Game of Thrones.
Last year, anti-tourism protests erupted in Barcelona as locals made their annoyance heard in the midst of rocketing living costs in what is one of the world’s most crowded cities. And it’s not just residents that are suffering. According to IPK’s World Travel Monitor 2017 survey of more than 29,000 international travellers, 25 per cent of tourists felt that trips they had taken in the past 12 months had been affected due to “overcrowdedness”.
However global tourism has not yet reached its limits and there are plenty of places that would welcome more visitors. We go beyond the bucket-list favourites, escaping the crowds at some worthy alternatives.
Overtourism in Barcelona, Spain
Go to Nice, France
Why? Barcelona is one of Europe’s most densely populated cities – tallying 16,000 people per square kilometre at the last count in the World Population Review – and increasing tourist numbers have pushed the Catalonian capital into the headlines with tensions boiling over between locals and tourists. Also home to Europe’s fourth-largest ferry port, 2.6 million cruise passengers add to the demand each year and the city is fraying at the seams. Avoid the swarms and escape to Nice on France’s south coast, where you can find a similar mix of city life, Mediterranean vibes and about 35 beaches minus hordes of tourists.
While Nice is by no means off-the-beaten-track, visitor numbers are much more proportionate and the city – which has a population 10 times smaller than Barcelona – is the ideal size for getting around on foot. Enjoy architectural indulgence in the Old Town centred around the Place du Palais de Justice. The 18th-century cathedrale Sainte-Reparate is a smaller fill-in for the Sagrada Familia. Join locals shopping at Cours Saleya market then pop in to the former town house of Nice’s most famous artist, Henri Matisse. Bed down at the palatial and historic Le Negresco (www.hotel-negresco-nice.com/en/; sea-view suites from €646/Dh2,919 per night), where Michelin-stared dining and French Riviera views await.
Overtourism in Petra, Jordan
Go to Al Hijr, Saudi Arabia
Why? If you’re after ancient ruins in a Bedouin land but don’t want to be rubbing shoulders with the 465,000 visitors that Jordan’s lost city hosts each year, head for Saudi Arabia’s Al Hijr. Just like Petra, the city was hewn from solid rock by the Nabataeans, but unlike Jordan’s crowded tourism gem, Al Hijr has very few visitors. Packed with tombs, carvings and ruins, permits are required but can be easily obtained by your hotel or tour operator. Best visited by car, the site is about 20 minutes from the nearest town of Al Ula.
If you’re going it alone, be sure to take food and water, there’s not much in the way of facilities. Make a stop at the Hijaz Railway station on the northern side of the city to see the sand-swallowed rail tracks of what used to be one of the principal railroads of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. Plan a hike to towering Elephant Rock and, for a true Bedouin experience, stay at solar-powered glamping spot Madahkil Campsite (www.alula-guide.com; rooms from Dh450, including breakfast) where tents come with comfortable beds and food is served traditional Saudi style. Don’t forget to pack an abaya – local laws still require women to cover their hair.
Overtourism in Reykjavik, Iceland
Go to Tromsø, Norway
Why? In 2009, data from the Icelandic Tourist Board recorded 464,000 annual visitors to the Arctic nation. Fast-forward to 2017 and that number had almost quadrupled, with more than 1,792,200 foreign tourists visiting last year. In the tiny capital of Reykjavik, prices are skyrocketing and cranes litter the skyline as developers try to ramp up hotel offerings. Skip the madness and head instead to Norway’s Tromsø, where you can experience Scandi-culture, a polar atmosphere and magnificent mountains in comparative solitude. Geysers aside (Norway lacks volcanic geography) Tromsø offers everything Reykjavik has and more. As the centre of the northern lights zone, probability of seeing the Aurora Borealis is high from October to March. The city is home to Norway’s largest collection of historic wooden houses – the oldest dating back to 1789 – and interesting attractions like Polaria, the world’s most northernmost aquarium, where you can see bearded seals. This northern metropolis also boasts superb restaurants, try Fiskekompaniet’s king crab and a thriving music scene. Stay at the Clarion Collection Hotel With (www.clarion-collection-hotel-with-tromso.hotel-ds.com/en; doubles from €149/Dh673).
Overtourism in the Grand Canyon, Arizona
Go to Wadi Ghul, Oman
Why? Clocking 6.2 million visitors last year, the Grand Canyon is America’s second most-visited national park, according to data from the US National Park service. In summer, long line-ups and backed-up traffic are regular sights. Swap one canyon for another and head to Wadi Ghul in Oman, the deepest canyon in the Middle East and second-deepest in the world. Best visited by 4x4, from 3,000 metres at the top of Oman’s tallest mountain Jebel Shams, you can see one kilometre straight down into the depths.
On the far side of the valley lies Ghul Village, a collection of mud-brick homes built into the mountainside. There’s also an abandoned village from where you can set off on trekking paths, follow old donkey trails or totter along the balcony ledge. Afterwards, visit nearby Al Hootah cave and then head 100km east to the highest five-star resort in the Middle East. Perched on Oman’s Green mountain, Anantara Al Jabal Akhdar Resort (www.jabal-akhdar.anantara.com; rooms from 138 rials/Dh1,318) offers mountaintop luxury with canyon views.
Overtourism in Phi Phi, Thailand
Go to Palawan, Philippines
Why? With Maya Bay in Koh Phi Phi due to close in June after too many fans of The Beach added it to their bucket lists, seek tropical wilderness in the Philippines, where novelist Alex Garland spent time before penning the book that inspired DiCaprio’s movie. In the Cuyo Archipelago, pristine beaches, crystal-clear waters and countless unexplored islands await. Embark on an island-hopping tour discovering towering Karst cliffs, sinkholes and idyllic lagoons where you’ll be sharing the views with hundreds of rare birds. Expect supreme marine life – manta rays, dugongs and whale sharks call these waters home.
For the ultimate in barefoot luxury, check into an open plan casita at Amanpulo (www.aman.com/resorts/amanpulo; rooms from 57,117 pesos/Dh4,039 per night). Set on its own island, treetop vistas and private beach access come as standard and the ultimate in escapism awaits at the bamboo bar floating in the Sulu Sea.
Overtourism in Bali, Indonesia
Go to Raja Ampat, Indonesia
Why? Hundreds of hotels, millions of visitors and unbridled consumption of precious island resources have put a huge strain on Indonesia’s Bali. In a report by the Bali Province Central Statistics Agency, between January and July last year, more than 3.4 million tourists visited the island – a rise of 23.5 per cent on a year earlier. Avoid adding to the problem and head for Raja Ampat, just two hours from Bali but virtually untouched. Pristine marine life, jungle woven islands and deserted beaches await. A breathtakingly raw diver’s paradise, this little-known patchwork of islands is home to seriously large coral reef systems.
Fly to Jakarta then on to Sorong, where most resorts can arrange speedboat pick-ups. If you want to island hop, you can charter a boat for about Dh1,000 per day and you’ll also need a tourist permit (Dh367). Misool Island Eco Lodge (www.misool.info; doubles from $2,825/Dh10,374 for 7 nights, full board) offers wooden villas perched on stilts where hammocks hang from private balconies and steps lead down into the ocean.
Overtourism in Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Go to Wat Phu in Laos
Why? As one of the most visited sites in South East Asia, Angkor Wat recorded almost 2.2 million visitors last year, according to figures from the Cambodian government body managing ticket sales to the historic temple sites. Leave the masses and head for southern Laos, where Wat Phu offers some of the most impressive Khmer ruins outside Cambodia. This Unesco world heritage site is marked by beautiful scenery and whisper-quiet surroundings and while the ruins haven’t had as much restoration work as Angkor, they’re still fascinating. Ancient stone pathways lined with carvings run between two palace ruins that pre-date Angkor by about 200 years. And the views over the Mekong Valley from the upper temple are hard to beat.
Stay at the eco-friendly River Resort (www.theriverresortlaos.com; doubles from $130/Dh478 per night) in nearby Champasak. The hotel uses solar-heated water and organically homegrown vegetables and offers free English classes to local villagers and farmers. It’s also close enough to the ruins that you can hire bikes and cycle there.