Tour operators provide answers to challenges of overtourism

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Intrepid Travel runs a Jordan tour that takes guests on a back-road hike into Petra, a more serene approach that avoids crowds.
Intrepid Travel runs a Jordan tour that takes guests on a back-road hike into Petra, a more serene approach that avoids crowds.

At the height of the busy summer travel season, tourists are descending in droves on some of the world's most popular landmarks at a time when overtourism is being increasingly recognized as a serious challenge for destinations. Tour operators are devising ways to circumvent or at least reduce the problem.

Operators are encouraging clients to consider off-season travel or choose less crowded destinations, but persuasion can only get them so far; there are still those who insist on heading into the most packed destinations, like Venice, the Great Wall or Machu Picchu.

Nor is the problem one-sided. Tourists are generally just as unhappy with overcrowding as are the destinations' residents.

In an effort to help make the experience as pleasant as possible for both sides, tour operators have been getting more creative with ways to help customers avoid the crush, from finding back-door entrances into famous sights to encouraging extra-early wake-up calls.

"It is absolutely true that some of the world's great travel destinations are getting loved to death," said Barbara Banks, director of marketing and new-trip development for Wilderness Travel. Yet, she acknowledged that operators still must give clients authentic and enjoyable experiences, even in busy destinations. 

She cited Iceland as an example of a country that has "definitely landed on everyone's bucket list, to the point that tourists outnumber Icelanders during the busy summer months." At Thingvellir, the site of the world's first parliament, where the parking lot typically fills up with tour buses, Wilderness Travel has clients do a cross-country hike into the site to avoid using the lot. 

To avoid the crowds in the Vatican, European day-tour operator City Wonders created a VIP Vatican breakfast tour that starts off with an exclusive 6:50 a.m. entry, when the museums are still closed to the public. A buffet breakfast is served in the Vatican's Pinecone Courtyard followed by a tour of the Vatican Museum with no wait.

Liam Dunch, product manager for Abercrombie & Kent (A&K) in Europe, said the high-end operator often relies on its experienced guides to improvise when it comes to managing crowds. 

"They are local experts who know the traffic patterns and how to guarantee the best experience," Dunch said. "This can vary day by day, depending on cruise schedules and seasonality."

For dealing with a crowded place like Venice, A&K recently changed its itinerary titled Italian Treasures: Rome, Florence and Venice to include a walk through the Jewish ghetto in Venice and a private visit to an operating gondola workshop. Both serve as alternatives to St. Mark's Square, which is often overrun with cruise passengers.

In Beijing, A&K got creative with its approach to the Forbidden City. Rather than use the same crowded pathway through which most visitors enter the ancient complex, its guides often take clients on a shortcut through a local park, enabling a much more serene start to the visit.

While some of these workarounds are spontaneous, others have made their way into operators' brochures and marketing materials as official alternatives to mainstream itineraries.

For example, Intrepid Travel has launched an eight-day Trek Jordan trip that includes a lesser-known, back-road hike into Petra and a trek to the surrounding Bedouin camps.

Additionally, on Intrepid's 15-day China Silk Road trip, the company tries to avoid the more than 10 million travelers who visit the Great Wall of China each year by bringing clients to the Jiayuguan Pass at the western end of the Great Wall rather than to the most-visited section, Badaling.

In Peru, the various treks to Machu Picchu have become so popular that several years ago, Intrepid began offering an alternative known as the Quarry Trail trek to what had been its alternative trek to the ancient site, the Lares Trek. 

One response to overtourism is off-peak visits to popular attractions, such as a tour stop at Disneyland before it opens.
One response to overtourism is off-peak visits to popular attractions, such as a tour stop at Disneyland before it opens.

Megan Bailey, Intrepid's director of sales and customer experience in North America, said the Lares Trek "became very popular, as all companies run it as an alternative to the Inca Trail, so Intrepid Travel sourced a new route."

She added that the Quarry Trail trek helps alleviate overtourism and provides locals with more employment opportunities.

Coming up with alternative access is an increasing challenge as visitor numbers continue to soar in popular destinations, but these solutions to crowding also enhance the benefits of using a tour operator.

For example, Disney's tour arm, Adventures by Disney, offers guests on its Southern California tour the opportunity to visit Disneyland before it opens and front-of-the-line access to popular attractions. Both are undoubtedly great selling points.

Even so, when it comes to the long game, operators remain more focused on how to entice travelers to get away from the crowds altogether. That solution results in more economically diverse and sustainable tourism that spreads the wealth to more communities and introduces travelers to sites that are often as interesting and beautiful as the overcrowded destinations.

Vanessa Parrish, channel marketing manager for the Globus family of brands, said, "One of our strategies for developing our Undiscovered Italy series of tours for Globus and Cosmos this year was not only to introduce travelers to unique, off-the-beaten-path destinations, but to take them away from the usual crowded spots often found in bigger marquee cities like Rome, Florence and Venice."
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Correction: City Wonders is not a part of The Travel Corporation.

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