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Overtourism? There’s a lot of it about.
19th September 2023
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The reluctant poster-children of Venice, the Acropolis and Mt Fuji suggest that overtourism is the preserve of the global bucket list destinations. My recent visits to neighbouring similar sized villages – two car-free, one not – suggests that even in the smallest places, it is a problem. Closer to home, it is almost becoming a depressing norm that summer in the Lake District triggers occasional reports of air ambulances being needed and bus services being suspended due to congested roads.

So welcome to Wengen (pop: 1,300, 372,287 visitor nights per year, visitor intensity (i.e. visitor nights / resident nights) = 0.78) and Murren (pop: c. 450, 163,304 visitor nights, visitor intensity = 0.99). Both are car-free villages perched on the alpine balconies at 1,274m and 1,638m above the utterly remarkable chasm of the Lauterbrunnen valley.

Lauterbrunnen valley with village to the right

It would probably be fair to say that Wengen and Murren are primarily there for tourism, accepting the overlay (underlay?) of functioning farming – which provides near-perpetual pulse-reducing soundtrack of cowbells and the visual feasts of timber houses, barns and meadows.

The odd irony then is that “overtourism” isn’t really an issue. Maybe it’s because any visitor who gets there (and many do) have made a very deliberate and conscious effort to do so – they have spent “effort pounds” for their experience. Like many (all? but see my earlier blog on Spetses) car-free destinations, both Murren and Wengen have a real sense of calm. It’s like the background volume (of traffic) is turned down so the other senses are sharpened – mulling chatter or cowbells, sharper and more obvious views, and smells of wood and cooking food. Maybe there is a project to be done to get wired up and walk through different types of car-free and trafficked visitor destinations to see the physiological responses that we have.

Lauterbrunnen village (795m, pop. 2,452, 271,497 visitor nights) with a visitor intensity of only 0.30 does have an overtourism problem. Indeed, the community has called a meeting in late September specifically to discuss it [Update: article about the meeting here]. Based on raw numbers, this shouldn’t be the case, but I’d suggest it might be explained by its road access.

The village is accessed by both rail and road. The gorgeous Jungfrau mountain railway provides direct access from the brilliant Swiss rail network. After Lauterbrunnen, connections are made one way by mountain railway to Wengen and even higher to the Jungfraujoch at a lofty and accessible-to-all (at a cost) 3,463m and over to Grindelwald village, and the other way by combinations of cable car and mountain railway to Murren and the Schilthorn at 2970m.

It is also a main terminus on the road network. This is significant for two reasons: it hosts a very well hidden but colossal 7-story 974-space multi-storey car park, and it allows very easy access for car-based day visitors. Whilst well hidden, such car parks seem a standard part of car-free destinations and a bit of a question mark over their carbon impact – but that’s for another day.

So what is the (overtourism) problem?

Whilst overtourism is a useful shorthand, a downside is that the term can mean very different things in different places. Venice’s main problems are pedestrian congestion and visitors using up housing stock; the Acropolis is all about pedestrian congestion. I’d suggest it also means visitor volumes that significantly compromise the visitor experience; we visited the Acropolis this year and it left me completely cold (even though it was roasting hot); yes, it’s all impressive to the bit of the brain that considers its significance on an objective sense, but as a “visitor unit” in a queue contributing to a problem, I had absolutely no emotional engagement with the place at all. Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel explores this phenomenon – of us watching ourselves being a tourist and “ticking” sites.

Knowing that Lauterbrunnen’s meeting was brewing, I wandered around the village kind-of interrogating it through an overtourism filter. I also had a great meeting with Thomas Durrer, its Tourism Director – though mainly about other issues.

For starters, there are two congestion problems – traffic and pedestrians. These combine when over-full pavements mean pedestrians spill out onto the road. One of Martin Higgitt’s questions to local organisations in UK visitor transport projects is whether the problem is the number or people or the number of cars. In Murren and Wengen, I suspect (but there are no data) that while there are fewer day visitors anyway, the roads with minimal (and quiet) traffic feel “open” to pedestrians; this reduces the feel of traffic canyons, and hence suggests that the volume problem is cars rather than visitors (?).

I wonder also if there are two issues relating to the post-covid visitor bounce – a phenomenon common to many visitor destinations. The chart shows the covid dip and rebound for Lauterbrunnen. Firstly, I have often thought that places have some innate carrying capacity – for visitors and / or visitor cars – and maybe the chart shows that for Lauterbrunnen it might be linked to about 250,000 overnight guests per year? This doesn’t take into account the day visitors nor the day-to-day variability hidden within the annual averages, but the staying visitor data might be a good proxy of acceptable busyness?

Secondly, the rate of increase post-covid is – like many places – pretty steep. Like many people, I experienced the calm and relaitive quiet of visitor areas without the normal volumes of visitors during the various lockdowns. Maybe the rapid reversion to more “normal” (and then some) busyness has just been a bit of a shock; the memory of relative traquility is recent and the mass of returning visitors just feels like an invasion, even if it’s just getting back to something like “normal”. Maybe this triggers the “no, that’s just too many” realisation among local people, and it’s the recent comparisons to how things could be that shines a light on it; what was “normal” was never really acceptable.

There’s also something that feels a bit… sordid (?) when looking at visitor behaviour. Firstly, Lauterbrunnen does have a role for providing access to Wengen and Murren and into the rest of the mountain railway and cable car network. This explains the existence of the large car park, and its ownership (the Jungfraubahn company). In this respect, there’s some sense that the village feels a bit “used” by those passing through; it needs to deal with the traffic (noise, pollution, space, risk…) whilst getting little benefit.

Secondly, its ease of access – by car as well as train – of its stunning views might mean it has a similar problem to the Acropolis: the “point and pout” Instagramming day visitors. This is rightfully acknowledged as a visitor draw, and even has its own Digitaler Foto Hotspots Trail.

Visitors queuing to take photographs of themselves and the Staubach falls

My “point and pout” sounds far more cruel than I actually mean; I have been a day visitor previously and have lots of photos of the valley, so  am guilty (though not sure I’d know how to pout nor why I would want to upload anything onto Instagram, but we’re all different). I don’t think I’m alone in my discomfort with this though. In a previous blog, I highlighted Gent’s “Tourism of the Future” strategy that states explicitly that they don’t want “day-trippers who take a few selfies and are off again”; when this is considered in its context of Gent building a tourism strategy on liveability of its residents, it starts to throw light on what might be going on in Lauterbrunnen: do the day-trippers who take a few selfies and are off again reduce the liveability of the village?

I think I also spotted a final problem: “them looking in”. Whilst most of us would probably feel complemented (or perhaps at least curious) by someone pointing out or photographing our garden or house (or us?), how many times would it have to happen until we felt like an exhibit or animal in a zoo? I was in Lauterbrunnen on the day of the annual herding of cattle off the upper alps back to the valley pastures and barns for the winter.

The annual herding of cows through Lauterbrunnen from the summer alpine pastures to the valley

It’s an event common across alpine communities in autumn dating back for centuries. Maybe I was being over-sensitive, but I do wonder what those people herding the cattle were thinking about the streets lined with tourists, cameras capturing every movement. Were they looking for their family members and friends? Maybe the older ones were thinking back to when they took part as children in the era before the phalanxes of high-res smart-phones (like mine) zapping the event instantly around the world. Whilst this probably doesn’t extend to the idea of photos stealing the souls of their subjects, I do wonder whether it’s all a part of the issues wrapped up in the “overtourism” banner.

 

So what might solutions be?

This is Switzerland, so there are two ways of doing things that will or might happen.

Decisions are made by strong community structures. Communities sit on all tourism boards (which generally exist at community level – Wengen, Lauterbrunnen and Murren each have their own), and what happens on the ground needs to be agreed among the community. This works the other way – in that a lot of what happens originates from the community. The meeting on overtourism has been called by the community, with the tourism boards, mountain railway & cable-car companies invited. It sounds like a genuine, open, respectful exploration of a problem, not a finger-pointing exercise.

Two related ideas are already being explored (so I understand) – national park status and traffic restrictions further down the valley.

The idea of national park status is relevant due to the powers that it would bring, though the timeframe would be too long (up to 10 years) for it to deal with the existing problems.

Shifting traffic restrictions down the valley is very… Swiss. There is almost a culture (and model) of traffic-free alpine villages in Switzerland – Zermatt, Sass Fee, Wengen & Murren. In this respect, it is probably seen as a fairly “obvious” solution locally. Indeed, looked at in terms of local contexts and geography, moving the access point 5km down valley to Zweilutschinen makes a lot of sense. This is the mountain railway junction where lines divide to either Lauterbrunnen or Grindelwald. I can see a future calmness to the places up-valley from here, though I can’t help but think there will be some serious misgivings first around “but it’ll drive all our (car based) visitors away”; I don’t see any of the traffic free destinations I visited as having any problems of this sort, so suspect this is fear of change and a need for well-thought-through transition.

Most of the “car free” destinations aren’t car free, and maybe that comes into play here. I’d suggest that residents would be able to move freely, though the great transport should be designed with and for local people to make car use as irrelevant as possible. Also, about 1/3 of staying visitors are on campsites so maybe there is a case for allowing (pre-booked?) access for this cohort? There was chatter of a Yosemite model – i.e. free access is restricted to a set number of vehicles. This comes back to the innate carrying capacity idea – what is an acceptable number?

A point that keeps cropping up though is that of colossal gateway car parks to traffic free villages. It would be really good from a carbon perspective if a shifting of traffic restrictions down-valley could be explored without a mega parking barn as part of the access system. Over 70% of the staying guests are from overseas and (I assume) not car-based, and the Swiss rail system is well set up to deliver day visitors. I did some fairly quick car nationality surveys in Lauterbrunnen’s car parks, suggesting that about 66% cars were Swiss, most of these being from the (local) Bern region.

I say this all in a fairly blasé manner in the Swiss context, but the problems are familiar to many UK rural destinations, and the fear of traffic restraint means that it is generally just not a serious proposition. I think it should be. If my study has shown me anything, it’s that restricting cars – if done well (it’s not an absolute ban – more of an informed filter) – doesn’t cause the visitor economy sky to fall in. Indeed, I’d suggest the opposite happens – (visitor) car-free destinations are not only the gorgeous, calm places described in these blogs, but vibrantly successful.

Back to overtourism in Lauterbrunnen. The mooted solutions are – as far as I understand – about possibly restricting cars (via a filter), not visitor volumes. On the surface, this won’t solve the other problems I sniffed out whilst observing the village. However, I wonder whether the “effort pounds” effect might just swing the nuance of the problem: if – like Murren or Wengen – visitors have made the effort to get there, they have – to some extent – shown an appreciation and respect for the place. Might this be part of what is needed to tackle the less tangible problem of overtourism in such places?

 

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