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Travel destinations that became too crowded in 2019

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Overtourism has been a buzzword in the travel industry for some time now. Reports of overcrowding at major tourist sites and in national parks have raised concerns about the future of our natural wonders and attractions across the world. And unfortunately, it's still a rising problem. This year, a whole host of destinations simply became too crowded, resulting in closures and tourist bans in destinations such as Amsterdam and Iceland. These are the places that were worst affected in 2019.

North America

Walker Canyon, California, USA

In March 2019, a stunning natural phenomenon occurred at this Californian beauty spot when the area's millions of yellow poppies all bloomed at once, cloaking the hillsides in a striking yellow-orange blanket of petals. It was a jaw-dropping sight to behold, and only natural that hundreds would come to see the spectacle. However, Walker Canyon had to close to visitors as a result of the hordes flocking to witness the event. Thousands of visitors descended on the area, grid-locking Interstate 15, clogging up the streets near the bloom and overcrowding the walking trails. As a result, the authorities chose to close the area down, using hashtags like "#poppyshutdown" and "#poppynightmare" to put off prospective tourists.  

The incident was described as unbearable and miserable by residents posting on Facebook, as those in search of the wildflowers hiked beyond the trails, damaging the poppies, and often putting themselves and others at risk while posing for pictures. Some even climbed the steep sides of the hills and quickly fell back down. The area reopened after just one day, with locals breathing a sigh of relief as the crowds slowed down once the working week began again. 


Big Sur, California, USA

One of California's most iconic landmarks, Big Sur is a hit with road-trippers and photographers. The rugged stretch of coast is alluring with its turquoise waters crashing against dramatic rocks, often sun-soaked and kissed with orange-pink light at dusk. Part of Highway 1 only reopened during the summer of 2018 after a huge landslide in 2017 caused extensive damage to the road. But it's not just the weather that puts this special place at risk. The area attracts well over five million visitors each year. In July 2019 the influx prompted some residents to put up a banner declaring "Overtourism is killing Big Sur". Things got so bad that local writer Josh Marcus penned an article for Outside Online highlighting the extent to which residents of the region are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of tourists.

Traffic and litter are two of the main issues, with hundreds of tourists carelessly leaving their lunches, drinks and cars in all manner of places, with little regard for the environment and the people who live here. While Big Sur hasn't yet closed to the crowds, its future remains in question. 


Starved Rock State Park, Illinois, USA

This state park in Illinois is known for its sandstone canyons and seasonal waterfalls. The wilderness area has forested trails, beautiful viewpoints overlooking lakes and woodland, and wildlife aplenty, including white-tailed deer and bald eagles. But sadly, parts of this park have had to be closed off. The park's attendance has been rocketing in recent years – in 2017, over 2.8 million people came to see its natural wonders – and August 2019 was its sixth biggest month ever for visitor numbers. As of 1 September 2019, the state park was on track to welcome almost 2.5 million visitors this year alone. This popularity might seem like a good thing, but the park is now a victim of its own success and as such, the soaring tourist numbers have been damaging for the landscape. 

This year, the trails leading to the popular Tonti Canyon – a formation made by glacial meltwater where waterfalls trickle into pools below – are now closed. The paths have become so eroded by human footfall that the park's authorities have had to restrict access to preserve the natural environment and keep visitors safe. Some have raised concerns that trails elsewhere in the park might also be affected in the future. 


'Joker Stairs', The Bronx, New York, USA

This area of New York City rarely sees any influx of tourists, but now there's one specific spot that's attracting visitors and local influencers alike: a staircase dubbed the "Joker Stairs". The steps have been thrown into the spotlight after the release of Joker, the movie starring Joaquin Phoenix, where the protagonist is seen dancing down the stairway which connects Shakespeare and Anderson Avenues. Usually only used by locals, hundreds of visitors have taken to the staircase to snap their own shots.

Footage emerged in October 2019 of people milling about on the stairs (pictured here) taking photos and videos, and numerous local influencers have gone full-Joker and dressed up for the occasion. While this is, of course, nowhere near the millions of tourists that some sites have to contend with, it has already been enough to make residents speak out. A flyer nearby reads: "It is disrespectful to treat our community and residents as a photo opportunity for your social media and ‘it’ moment" and locals have said they feel disrespected by the whole experience.



Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon, Iceland

Iceland has been suffering from overtourism for several years now. The country's magical volcanic landscapes, dramatic coastline and hot springs make for perfect Instagram moments for those who are so inclined. It's geologically fascinating, and there's even the chance to glimpse the Northern Lights at certain times of year. But in 2019, at one particular attraction, it all became too much. The Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon is a gaping vein through the southern part of the country, with mossy, craggy rocks carved out by thousands of years of river erosion. The otherworldly landscape could be straight from a movie set. In fact, it played a part in a recent Justin Bieber music video, which made the canyon famous. 

Hundreds of thousands of tourists have visited the site since that video came out in 2015, and this year it eventually closed to foot traffic. It's hoped that this will help preserve the landscape and let the site's trampled vegetation heal. Unfortunately, this isn't always a deterrent. Visitors have still been seen ignoring barriers and signs in order to access closed-off areas of the canyon.


The Mona Lisa at The Louvre, Paris, France

Now tipped as Europe's most-visited city, Paris saw more than 19 million tourists explore its boulevards and boulangeries in 2018. Over 10 million of those visitors go underground to explore the city's foremost art museum: The Louvre. Famous as a home for works by artists such as van Dyck, Michelangelo and Eugène Delacroix, the museum holds masterpieces from bygone eras. But there's one painting that really draws the crowds – so much so, that you'll need to stand in line for hours to get a glimpse. The Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci, is a curious masterpiece.

It has been in the museum since the 1800s – save a few years when it was stolen then eventually returned – and draws enormous crowds who want to fall under the spellbinding gaze of this mysterious woman. But this year, the Mona Lisa has been moved while her usual gallery is refurbished, and this has resulted in what one art critic called 'pandemonium'. Visitors have lamented the long lines and the brief time you're permitted to stand before the famous painting. To help combat the issue, the museum now plans to install a timed-ticketing system, saying it "allows a better flow of visitors and is key to a more comfortable visit".


Amsterdam, the Netherlands

This European capital is famous for many things: bridges, canals, nearby tulip fields, cannabis and its red light district. And now, it's famous for overtourism too. Amsterdam has been suffering at the hands of too many visitors for years now, and with no sign of numbers abating, the city's tourism marketing department has had to make some changes. 

After years of warning visitors that overtourism is putting strain on the city's residents and attractions, but continuing to promote the city's lesser-known sights, the tourism department has ceased all active promotion to focus on managing the issue. In a strategy document, which set out its plans from now up until 2030, the tourist board said: "To control visitor flow and leverage the opportunities that tourism brings with it, we must act now. Instead of destination promotion, it is now time for destination management." 


Lake Baikal, Russia

The world's largest freshwater lake by volume, Baikal is enormous. It's bigger than the entire country of Albania, Rwanda and even Israel. It's 5,387 feet (1,642m) deep and holds 5,700 cubic miles (23,600 cubic km) of water. And so it might surprise you that overtourism is a concern for this huge natural wonder. It's mainly a problem in wintertime, when the lake freezes over and ice as thick as five feet (1.5m) forms on its surface. Beautiful cloud-like patterns can be seen through the ice, and icicles drip down from rocks and inside caves to make dramatic scenes. All of this is what brings visitors – from young families who want to skate to photographers after the perfect shot – to the lake's shores. 

In the first eight months of 2018 the lake had 1.6 million visitors, most of whom were Russian nationals. And while this isn't half as many as Paris, Amsterdam or Venice sees in a peak season, it's enough to raise concerns about the sustainability of the environment. That's why in June 2019, Putin's environmental advisors suggested capping the number of tourists who can visit the lake. The build-up of rubbish at the lake's shore is a major concern (and a visible problem), and so is the overdevelopment by hotels and the resulting pollution of the waters. No action has been taken yet, but it's safe to say it's on the Russian government's radar.


Venice, Italy

Venice has long had a problem with overtourism. The beautiful Italian city, known for its canals and palace and elegant squares, has become overrun with visitors, and this fact has been well documented. This year, though, things got so bad that large cruise ships have now been banned from its center. Enormous ships were once able to sail through Venice's famous Grand Canal, the main waterway that cuts through the city center.

Now, though, ships are forced to dock away from the center. This is hardly surprising as, in 2018, over 500 cruise ships transported 1.56 million passengers into Venice, swarming the city's sights and streets with camera-snapping visitors eager to capture the history and elegance for themselves. And in June 2019, a collision between two ships left five people injured. Despite this new ban, tensions remain high between visitors and residents, leading to terse interactions, protests and even violent incidents. The future of Venice's tourism industry still hangs in the balance, but the hope is that this ban will go some way to preserving the city's beauty.



Train Street, Hanoi, Vietnam

Train Street in Hanoi, Vietnam's frenetic capital, has been a major tourist draw for years. Rows of tall, tightly packed houses stand side-by-side, with washing lines strung between them and vines growing up their walls. Some of the buildings have cafés on the ground floor with wide open doors; others are gift shops peddling souvenirs for tourists. What's unusual about this street, though, is that these shops and cafés open right out onto a railway line, and the houses are so close together it makes a tight corridor for the trains to pass through.

Visitors have long flocked to the area to take photos of the rail cars trundling through the street and have a beer or coffee beside the tracks. But this year, concerns over safety and overtourism meant all that changed. Numerous close-call incidents have led to changes along Train Street. On several occasions, tourists have almost been injured or killed on the tracks while trying to take pictures, and a train also had to make an emergency stop to avoid hitting a crowd. As a result, the area is now purely residential: shops and cafés have been closed by authorities and visitors are discouraged from coming here.


The Everest Summit

Perhaps the most famous overtourism scandal this year, Everest is simply getting too busy. A photo emerged in May 2019 of what looked like a line to get to the mountain's 29,000-foot-high (8,848m) summit, and it immediately went viral, garnering hundreds of thousands of shares on social media. Despite the huge cost involved in summiting the world's highest mountain, around 800 people attempt the climb every year, and around 40,000 people make it to Base Camp annually. This overcrowding has led to long lines for the summit and perilous climbing conditions.

This year alone, 11 people died on the mountain during a record season, which saw more hikers than ever before attempt the grueling, dangerous climb. Not only are there concerns about the safety of the climbers – long wait times to get to the top can result in lack of oxygen and some die this way – but also the vulnerability of the mountain itself. There are unbelievable amounts of rubbish and human waste left along its trails and camps, and in June 2019, 11 tons of trash was collected by cleaners.



Uluru, Australia

Rising above the ocher Australian desert, higher than the Eiffel Tower, Uluru is an iconic landmark in Australia. The rock features on hundreds of tourist brochures, and seeing its steep sides lit up come sunrise is on many a visitor's bucket list. Uluru attracts around 250,000 people every year. And while less than 20% of park visitors take part in a climb, at least 35 people have died and numerous tourists have been injured while attempting an ascent of the steep rock. 

This year climbing Uluru has finally been banned. It's not just about the danger – this a sacred formation, revered by the local indigenous Anangu people, who have long campaigned against people climbing on its delicate surface. The ban was announced in 2017, and so just before it came into effect in October 2019, hundreds of people climbed the sacred rock for the last time. This was met with anger and upset from the local community, though tourists merrily continued despite the distress they caused. Fortunately, now the climb has been banned, this is one scene we won't have to see ever again.




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