The hike to Hanging Lake, just east of Glenwood Springs, Colo., is short and steep, rising more than 1,000 feet in just over one mile. The payoff vista — an idyllic turquoise pool fed by waterfalls, ringed in evergreens and seemingly hanging off the edge of a cliff — has been known to attract up to 1,500 hikers on a busy day.
It’s too many for the fragile ecosystem. To regulate traffic, the United States Forest Service, with the city of Glenwood Springs, this year implemented a permit requirement ($12), limiting visitors to 600 a day between May 1 and Oct. 31.
Ticketed entry and visitor quotas have long been leading solutions to tame the tourist crowds threatening to overwhelm attractions from Machu Picchu to, more recently, Dubrovnik. Now, many other popular tourist destinations are trying a new tactic to maintain their tourism numbers without disturbing the attractions that draw them in the first place: positive redirection. Across the globe, travel providers and government agencies are responding to overtourism with suggestions for less-crowded places and quieter seasons in hopes of producing a broader but lighter footprint.
In Colorado’s case, the tourism office’s online Colorado Field Guide outlines 150 multiday itineraries with the goal of dispersing its 82 million travelers across the seasons and across the state.
“We are far from experiencing the kinds of conditions you’re hearing about in Europe, but we’re starting to see early warning signs of too many people in the same places at the same time,” Cathy Ritter, the director of the Colorado Tourism Office, said.
Expanding when and where to go mirrors the rise of tourism, linked to the growth of the middle class in emerging markets. From 25 million travelers in the 1950s, tourist arrivals around the world grew to 1.4 billion in 2018, and the World Tourism Organization forecasts that number to rise to 1.8 billion by 2030.
In the United States, 60 percent of travelers believe overcrowding will have a significant impact on destinations they choose within the next five to 10 years, according to the 2019 Portrait of American Travelers survey, conducted by the hospitality marketing firm MMGY Global.
A wave of travel companies — new and established — are lining up to help them make that choice in the interest of destination sustainability as well as peace of mind.
“As a tour operator, I think it’s our responsibility to help expand people’s places of interest,” said Jason Wertz, a former art dealer who founded Uncovr Travel in 2018. The tour company specializes in less-visited areas and trips often go in shoulder seasons when, Mr. Wertz added, “there are less people and you get a more authentic experience.”
Tanner Knorr, who founded Off Season Adventures two years ago, frames the case for travel in less popular times of year as not only more relaxed but as easing pressure on natural resources, such as water, and promoting social sustainability.
“Our company has been able to keep a lodge in Tanzania open for an additional month, November, when they are usually closed,” he said. “Travelers get more personalized treatment because there are fewer people and we’re able to spread the economic resources to more people where normally they wouldn’t have a job.”
Traveling in soft and off seasons is usually cheaper, of course, but risks poorer weather. On the other hand, Jared Sternberg, the founder of Gondwana Ecotours, says he has a hard time convincing people to join his Northern Lights tours in Alaska in fall, when the weather is warmer than winter trips, though he says the viewing is similar (weeklong trips cost $2,795).
Many destinations, like Colorado, are focusing on dispersing visitors. Sedona, Ariz., has created Sedona’s Secret 7, a website that identifies seven untrammeled places in seven categories, including hiking and picnics. Amsterdam aims to entice visitors to explore not just the Van Gogh Museum but South Holland where he grew up, or to experience the canal culture in secondary cities like Leiden.
“We don’t discourage people from visiting Amsterdam,” said Jasper Broekhuis, a social media marketing specialist with the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions. “But we are familiarizing people with other places.”
Pioneering new trips to obscure destinations has long been the virtual arms race of the travel industry waged by adventure and luxury travel companies. TCS World Travel, which tours by private jet, now calls its next-destination trips “first-chance” tourism, exemplified by its trip to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan next April (21 days for $99,950).
“It’s our niche area and it’s just becoming more and more relevant as travel has become more popular over the past 10 years and people are more well-traveled,” Shelley Cline, the president of TCS, said.
Given the proliferation of tourists, going in the off-season or off the beaten track may not ease the summer queues at the Doge’s Palace in Venice, but it may ease your frustration.
“There are still a lot of people out there who are beginning to travel for the first time and want to see bucket-list destinations,” said Samantha Bray, the managing director of the Center for Responsible Travel, a nonprofit research organization.
The Center encourages travelers to spread out their interest in a place by, she added, “exploring less traveled neighborhoods, eating at restaurants with locally sourced food, buying local handicrafts and essentially voting with your dollars for what you want see thrive in the destination.”