You don’t have to travel far these days to strike a crowd. Statistics underline the sheer scale of overtourism. France hosted almost 87 million tourists in 2017 according to the latest figures from the UN World Tourism Organisation, 20 million more than the country’s total population. Spain, with a population approaching 47 million, was swamped with close to 82 million visitors. Venice, Amsterdam, Barcelona and Dubrovnik are just some of the cities reeling under the pressure of visitor numbers. Most astonishing of all was Iceland, which saw 2.22 million tourists coming through the front door. That’s more than 6.5 times the island nation’s population of 338,000.
In its recently released 2019 Adventure Travel Index, Intrepid Travel has used that metric, which it calls the tourism density ratio, to spotlight those countries affected the most by overtourism, and those at the other end of the spectrum, the “undertouristed”.
The tourism density ratio, the number of overseas visitors compared to the country’s total population, was a concept explored in Intrepid’s first Adventure Travel Index, published in 2018. Melbourne-based Intrepid Travel is naturally keen to identify and promote travel to those countries where you don’t have to wade through a forest of selfie sticks.
According to Intrepid CEO James Thornton, “The Adventure Index is a way to highlight some of the trends we’re seeing and also an opportunity to start a conversation with travellers on the destinations that need their dollar most. This year we wanted to do that by homing in on undertourism.”
It’s not too surprising that Australia’s closest neighbour comes out on top of Intrepid’s undertouristed line-up. In 2017 Papua New Guinea had fewer than three visitors for every 100 of its population. The world has a blind spot when it comes to PNG, kept at bay by the country’s reputation for violence and mayhem, a reputation that applies only to Port Moresby – which also happens to be place with the least to offer tourists.
Central Asia is another promising destination for those looking for paths less trodden, with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Iran all with fewer than 10 foreign visitors per 100 locals in 2017. While Mongolia scored a relatively high tourism density ratio of 17.65 per cent, that’s misleading. The country had just over half a million foreign visitors in 2017. Against its total population of just over 3 million, that’s a relatively high number, yet the Mongolian steppe is vast, and anything but crowded.
That brings up a flaw in the tourism density ratio. While it might be useful as a big-picture yardstick, it requires interpretation. For example Indonesia, which welcomed more than 14 million foreign tourists in 2018, has a tourism density ratio of just 5.32 per cent. The reason for that low figure is the country’s huge population of 263 million.
Anyone who has ever spent an evening on Kuta Beach might be surprised that Indonesia could be rated as comparatively untouristed. However, Bali is not Indonesia. As Intrepid’s Adventure Travel Index hints, visit other parts of the archipelago and spend that same evening on the beach on Sumatra, Sulawesi or Flores and you’ll know what undertourism really means.
You might wonder at some of the omissions at the bottom end of the tourism density scale. Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and Syria to name just a few, while North Korea attracts a mere handful of foreign tourists. Statistics for visitor numbers for these countries are not available from the World Tourism Organisation, but each would score less than 1 per cent on any tourism density ratio. However, since war-zone tourism is not what Intrepid does, their absence is understandable.
Intrepid’s 2019 Adventure Travel Index also probes the tipping points that help identify when a destination has reached visitor saturation level. The Travel Wellness Indicator looks at what a holiday might do for your health. Should you follow the example of Leigh Barnes, Intrepid’s chief purpose officer, and take a holiday in Malaysia that includes an ascent of Mount Kinabalu, you can probably expect improved fitness, blood pressure and stress levels but also an expanded waistline.
Elsewhere the Travel Index picked out Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand as the family favourites and highlighted Intrepid’s range of trips for single-parent families, reported on Intrepid’s program to expand the number of its female tour leaders, compared the price of a cup of coffee around the world, identified its most popular destinations for solo travellers and carried the news that one-third of 18-24-year-olds consider how their social media feeds will look when booking a trip. If that’s not alarming, I’m living in a different world.