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The metaphoric rise of overtourism and why we should stop using the phrase

By Michael O’Regan, Glasgow Caledonian University

Although there are numerous problems associated with tourism, journalists have focused on the issue of perceived overcrowding of destinations by tourists. The term “overtourism” gained widespread use after an article on reported on excessive tourism in Iceland in 2016, and it was shortlisted by Collins Dictionary as word of the year in 2018 after been nominated by a journalist. This term became widely applied due to the growing perception that tourism is becoming hegemonic and dominant in more and more destinations and attractions. According to Responsible Travel, 98 destinations in 63 countries are affected by overtourism, including Barcelona, Kyoto, Venice, Berlin, Budapest, Bali, Madrid, Bruges, Dubrovnik, Santorini, Reykjavik, Mallorca, Prague, Srinagar, and Florence.

The term, which sparked conferences, documentaries, and books, before the pandemic, is again making headlines as pandemic-era flight restrictions ease. However, we should question whether we should continue to use a phrase that relies on metaphors to symbolize threat, danger, and the risk of losing control, given the possible impacts on public opinion, policy making and institutions.

The metaphors journalists live by

Metaphors are commonly used in communication, and journalists have used them to portray overtourism as a global problem, threat, challenge, crisis, emergency and disaster.  The source of the problem and threat is attributed to the presence of “too many tourists”. While the metaphors used to describe overtourism may vary, they often draw on war, inundation, and flood imagery to highlight the negative impacts of tourism on destinations, and the source problem – tourists. War metaphors, include combat, fight, confront, battle, revolt and even invasion, while military metaphors such as deployed, mobilised, push-back, and defence are used to call for a war on overtourism. The use of flood metaphors such as fast-rising tide, flooded, pouring in, rising tide, drowning, swamped, engulf, perfect storm, waves and tsunami, along with inundation metaphors, such as plague, malaise, overwhelmed, swarms, marauding and overrun are impacting public opinion and creating a divisive narrative that depicts tourists and locals as exceptional and in battle against each other.

The use of metaphors means the overtourism phrase is associated with anti-social and unmanageable behaviour by tourists, including littering, traffic jams, noise pollution, the emergence of tourist ghettos, crime, alcohol consumption, prostitution, gambling, pressure on public facilities, rising rents and drug use. Basically, tourists metaphorically steal and ruin destinations, while locals are victims.

From metaphor to policy

Metaphors are creating negative perceptions of tourists regardless of their motives, and justifying their classification, sorting, and control. From quotas, rationing to CCTV, and mobile phone tracking, there is no shortage of suggested solutions that hope to limit and control overtourism and tourists. Solutions that filter the “right” and “wrong” kind of tourist are gaining popularity, such as raising prices in the search for quality tourists. While those who propose such solutions argue they are merely seeking to stop overtourism, and protect residents, little attention is focused on the systemic issues related to power and politics. While different adaptive strategies are available to cope with the impacts of tourism, journalists largely omit the institutional and corporate structures that enable tourism. Demanding that  individual tourists plan better, travel less, stay at home, buy more exclusive packages, and be more responsible by avoiding overtourism destinations will not solve mismanaged destinations.

What’s in a phrase?

It is important to reconsider not only the dehumanizing metaphors associated with overtourism and the metaphorical delegitimization of and tourists, but also the phrase itself. Despite informing documents published by World Tourism Organization and the European Parliament, the phrase, when used as a concept, framework or methodology has weak empirical character. The phrase has all the morphological and syntactic features of a hashtag, in that it is an innovative linguistic formation, stringing two words together. Taken out of this context “over tourism” would have a vague, abstract meaning. When used together, it takes on symbolic meaning and has evolved into mainstream language to speak about the perceived destination overcrowding, but also tourist behaviour. While not syntactically formal and lacking grammaticality, overtourism acts like a tool of rhetorical protest, much like a slogan, to suggest too much of something.  While the existence and negative impact of mismanaged tourism on destinations, local communities, and the planet are undeniable, media narratives have mostly focused on tourists, rather than solutions that might shift societies towards sustainability such as carbon taxes, aviation fuel taxes, education funding, affordable housing, job training, public transport, labour standards, rent controls, and minimum wages.

Given the phrase is a now serves a slogan of distress, if not a crisis and a state of disaster, the immediate danger is that these media narratives will evolve to become crisis narratives. While metaphors might never be as damaging to tourists in comparison to other mobile groups, like migrants, journalists are freer to use dehumanising metaphors and fear-invoking crisis narratives when talking about tourists. Rather than help readers understand the challenges that local residents face in tourist destinations, trading in metaphors remains a profitable business in journalism. Metaphors persuade readers that tourism something to fear, and that tourists as out of control and as a problem to be solved. Rather than actually distort or create a new reality, more level-headed, rational, smart and comprehensive approaches to tourism management need to be discussed and developed. As  Professor Gregory Lee, who coined the term “inundation metaphor” in 2007, argued: “People don’t flood, and people don’t flow. People migrate, they move, they arrive, they pass through, they travel.”

About the author: Michael O’Regan is a Lecturer at the Glasgow School for Business and Society, Glasgow Caledonian University.

Suggested Further Reading

Finkel, R., & Platt, L. (2020). Cultural festivals and the city. Geography Compass.

O’Regan, M., Salazar, N. B., Choe, J., & Buhalis, D. (2022). Unpacking overtourism as a discursive formation through interdiscursivity. Tourism Review.

O’Regan, M., & Choe, J. (2022) #overtourism on Twitter: a social movement for change or an echo chamber? Current Issues in Tourism.

Stoffelen, A. (2022) Managing people’s (in)ability to be mobile: Geopolitics and the selective opening and closing of borders. Trans Inst Br Geogr

How to cite: O’Regan, M. (2023, 13 March) The metaphoric rise of overtourism and why we should stop using the phrase Geography Directions Available from:


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