Nearly four years after the world shut down, global tourism is on the verge of returning to and overtaking pre-pandemic levels. Post-COVID “revenge travel” is in full swing. And while that’s great for vacationers seeking new experiences and people whose businesses and livelihoods depend on those travels, it also means the return of overtourism.
Overrun destinations like Amsterdam, Dubrovnik, Venice, Barcelona, Bali, the Amalfi Coast, and Thailand are practically begging tourists to ease up—or at least, please, for the love of all that’s holy, try visiting during shoulder or off seasons.
The problem extends beyond mere crowds. It’s about the environmental degradation from congestion, the added pollution, and many tourists’ general disregard for their surroundings. It’s about real-estate developers, often with the support of local governments, wholesale reinventing neighborhoods to appeal to tourists, ultimately creating a cycle of dependence on travelers. It’s about locals being displaced from their historic homes and wildlife being scared away.
The visuals of overtourism are omnipresent online. Each passing day seems to bring another viral story of some jackass vandalizing a cultural landmark, whether defacing the Colosseum or breaking off the appendages of a Renaissance sculpture. It’s no surprise, really: In a post-pandemic age, we’re being told that the perfect trip awaits us, that we’re almost entitled to it. Log onto Instagram or TikTok and it’s often just a carousel of aspiring influencers posting pics (usually set to that one “can we skip to the good part?” song or a discomfiting resort EDM cover of Linkin Park) from deliriously overcrowded hotspots, immaculately staging their content to inspire envy and create the illusion that they didn’t wait in line for an hour to get the shot.
If I sound curmudgeonly, well, to be fair, it’s because I am. But it’s not all so bleak. Overcrowded destinations are fighting back. And there are some easy ways a thoughtful traveler can help fight overtourism: Visit popular destinations during their shoulder or offseasons; stay longer and avoid rushing from sight to sight; shop, eat, and stay at local businesses; respect the residents, their environment, and their customs. Put simply: “Act like you’ve been there before.”
Push yourself to travel “off the beaten path.” Don’t be a checklist traveler. That can mean wandering even just a few streets away from the tourist must-sees. Or it can mean skipping the uber-popular cities and resorts altogether in favor of a second city or less-visited alternatives.
With that in mind, this year’s 2024 travel list features some of our suggestions for such destinations.
Japan was somewhat slow to re-open to world travelers after the pandemic, but a year later concerns about overtourism have returned with alarming speed. A massive influx of tourists has meant the so-called “Golden Route”—Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, often the itinerary of first-timers—has become intensely overcrowded. Before the pandemic, Kyoto’s most famous shrines and temples were already too packed, and it’s no different now as post-COVID travelers overwhelm the city in search of traditional Japanese delights and geisha sightings. But just two hours north by high-speed train, in Ishikawa Prefecture, is Kanazawa, a beautiful city where tradition collides with modernity in all the same ways that make Kyoto such a popular destination. Spared from any World War II air raids, Kanazawa has incredibly well-preserved historical architecture and samurai districts. It’s also home to Kenroku-en, a year-round wonder that is canonical as one of the “Three Great Gardens of Japan.” And because the city sits on the Sea of Japan, it’s got seafood—lots of it. Visit during the winter and you’ll likely have some of the best crab of your life before retreating to bathe at one of the many onsen ryokan in the region.
Paris is incredible, of course, but like any major city of its stature, it can be far too crammed with tourists. Get out for a day trip or overnighter to the nearby Loire Valley, with its preternaturally humongous skies, awe-inspiring châteaux, and immense riverside bike trails. Or better yet, abscond to the south and spend a few days in Toulouse, aka “The Pink City,” which we once lovingly praised for “The scale. The architecture. The people. The colors. The pale red brick against the bright blue sky. The wealth and cleanliness of Munich mixed with a historic Renaissance vibe of Florence.” As the fourth-largest city in France, Toulouse is a perennially underrated destination that can hang with the best of them in terms of art, architecture, history, dining, thought-provoking museums, and unique cultural touchstones—like a bonkers public art exhibit in which a 50-foot-tall mechanical minotaur roams the streets to rapturous fanfare. Toulouse is a deeply eclectic modern city with an ancient terracotta heart.
Just an hour southwest of Toronto sits Hamilton, the platonic ideal of a low-key city that also doubles as an outdoor adventure paradise. Hamilton is known as the “waterfall capital of the world,” thanks to its more than 100 (or 150, depending on who you ask) waterfalls and cascades that flow from the edge of the Niagara Escarpment and are reachable via the hiking trails just outside of town. The city has worked hard over the past decade to rise above the Rust Belt stereotypes, with ample green space, restaurants, nightlife, and a great community feel. Hamilton is a nearly equidistant drive (just under an hour) to Toronto, Niagara Falls, or the up-and-coming Crystal Beach, which celebrity chef and Ontario native Matty Matheson raved about to The Daily Beast earlier this month. Whether you stay in Hamilton as a home base for the region or as a day-trip location, it‘s worth a look for a chill city break.
During peak season, Barcelona is infamously congested these days—and Valencia, the third-largest city in Spain, has emerged as the best alternative. The global port city is much cheaper and quieter than Barcelona while also offering shimmering gold sand beachfronts, an energetic nightlife, awe-inspiring museums and architecture, and a generally relaxed Mediterranean lifestyle. And while there are plenty of great paella restaurants in Barcelona, the millennium-old dish was invented in Valencia and dominates the city’s food identity to this day. The weather in Valencia remains pleasant and sunny almost year-round (save for scorching hot Augusts when locals tend to flee), making it an ideal destination for longer swaths of the year than most other European cities.
The Puglia region, aka the heel of Italy’s boot, is often touted as a less crowded alternative to the Amalfi Coast, and for good reason: Crystalline waters, dramatic coastlines, laid-back culture, top-notch Italian cuisine, and rich heritage—all without the tourist traps and limited roaming space. Puglia is perfect for a road trip, so rent a car and hop from town to town, starting in Bari, the region’s capital and cosmopolitan center, then Polignano a Mare with its white pebbled beach cutting right through the ancient-looking town’s cliffside into the Adriatic, and then maybe onto Alberobello with its mystifying conical white limestone roofs or Ostuni with its panoramic views and its endless olive groves (an obsession for Apulians). It’s undoubtedly a region that rewards travelers willing to put in the extra effort to get there. But you’ll have to hurry as Puglia is in the middle of a post-pandemic travel boom. This “hidden gem” is quickly transitioning into a, uh, not-so-hidden one.
Traverse City, Michigan
Known as the “Cherry Capital of the World,” the region being responsible for almost half the entire U.S. production of tart cherries, Traverse City is an optimal year-round destination for adventure seekers. For an inexpensive and relaxing summer vacation, there’s an abundance of freshwater beaches, up-and-coming wineries (yes, Northern Michigan does wine), and a short driving distance to charming lakeside towns, scenic peninsulas, and of course, the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, a series of massive dunes towering over Lake Michigan that look like they’ve been dropped into the heart of Michigan from some exotic sand-based planet. (Don’t climb down if you aren’t sure you can make it back up, though.) The hikes and views alone are worth the trek. In the winter, there’s plenty of skiing, snowshoeing, and sledding on those famous dunes. Elsewhere within driving distance is Petoskey, a charming marina town where a young Ernest Hemingway spent his summers (you can grab a drink and sit on the same stool he frequented). But back in town, there’s plenty to do, including Traverse City’s exciting food scene with a diverse roster of beloved restaurants, and a waterfront with numerous parks, beaches, and sunset cruises.
Thanks in part to Game of Thrones, Dubrovnik is now infamously over-touristed, with skyrocketing prices, perpetual traffic issues, damaged infrastructure, and fewer places for locals to live in Old Town. But 25 minutes down the coast is a small, historical coastal village with just as much charm as Dubrovnik, but without the throngs of tourist bros and marked-up prices. Cavtat has an Old Town rivaling Dubrovik’s in antiquity and beauty (albeit not quite as fortress-y), a quaint seafront promenade with shops and restaurants with a gorgeous cypress-lined hillside in the background, and myriad small beaches for visitors to dive into the perfectly crystalline Adriatic. Similarly wonderful alternatives to Dubrovnik worth considering: Zadar, the historical epicenter of the Dalmation coast with its marble-lined streets and ancient ruins; and Pula, an ancient village close to the Italian border with one of the world’s best-preserved Roman amphitheaters.
Amsterdam has been perhaps the most aggressive destination when it comes to combating overtourism. To fight its image as a rowdy party city, the Dutch capital launched a “stay away” campaign last year aimed at discouraging tourists (mostly Brits) from coming to town to indulge in their favorite vices, and for 2024 the city has cracked down on short-term vacation rentals and tourist-centric establishments. But while Amsterdam fights that battle, we recommend good-natured tourists check out Rotterdam, which we previously raved about as “Europe’s most beautiful modern city” that often gets “lost in Amsterdam’s shadow.” This second city was destroyed in World War II and subsequently reinvented itself as a “future-facing” industrial city that morphed over time into a multicultural marvel with funky, highly modern architecture, an experimental food scene, and a truly alternative culture.
Turns out lions, cheetahs, and hyenas aren’t the only menaces to the wildebeest population of sub-Saharan Africa. During the Great Migration, parts of Tanzania and Kenya absolutely swarm with tourist vehicles competing for the best possible views, putting both human visitors and endangered animals at increased risk and resulting in a decline in wildebeest on some reserves. Some have jokingly rebranded the incredibly popular safari tourism business as the “mass Toyota 4×4 migration.” If you want to see the African continent’s vast wilderness, consider an alternative like Namibia, starring the Namib Desert (likely the oldest desert in the world) and its otherworldly orange sand, gigantic dunes, incredible stargazing, and unique wildlife that adapted to the harsh terrain. And yes, there’s that abandoned diamond mine town that’s been reclaimed by the desert and turned into an eerie natural art exhibit. The country places an emphasis on sustainable and responsible travel, hoping to preserve endangered species and use tourism as a method to alleviate poverty.
Tulum has developed a terrible reputation as a tourist trap thanks to the “digital nomads,” spring breakers, rave enthusiasts, and wellness gurus who flock there seeking a highly polished, American-friendly experience of Mexico. But 124 miles south is the village of Bacalar, which may be the last bastion of a pristine Riviera Maya before developers inevitably find a way to ruin it. For now, thanks to its distance from any major international airports, this lakeside destination near the Belize border is an ideal getaway for those seeking the beauty of what Tulum used to represent—all without the busloads of obnoxious party monsters and tourists. Positioned along Lake Bacalar, often referred to as the “Lagoon of Seven Colors” because of its multi-toned blues, the village is home to mostly boutique and rustic getaways along with the occasional yoga retreat. We’ve previously described Bacalar as “pure tranquility” and a “natural paradise,” but if you want to enjoy it “you better go now.”