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Undertourism: These are the destinations that want your attention

In the age of overtourism, the world’s less-visited destinations are seeing a new opportunity.

Published 12 Aug 2019, 14:48 BST
Street in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Photograph by Getty

2019 has been the year of overtourism. Venice announced plans to charge for entry, Bruges capped cruise ship numbers at two per day and Paris drew up plans to ban tourist buses from the city centre.

But a new phenomenon is developing. ‘Undertourism’ is the increasingly common marketing tactic being used by less-frequented destinations. Come here, they say, because we’re not as rammed as the neighbours. Visit us, and you won’t have to queue for your Instagram likes.

As the doom-laden headlines put off tourists who don’t want to spend their travels dodging selfie-takers, it’s a canny move. Take Lisbon for example — is it a coincidence that city breaks to the once-under-visited Portuguese capital have exploded since Barcelona started actively discouraging tourists?

But even the lesser-visited spots can risk become victims of their own success. “Places marketing themselves as ‘undertouristed’ will be the overtourism disaster zones of the future unless they adopt more responsible approaches to tourism planning,” warns Justin Francis, CEO of Responsible Travel.

So how can we help? One way is to have a deeper experience, rather than the hit-and-run attitude most visitors have. It’s an approach even the destinations flooded with visitors are taking as they actively promote their lesser-visited corners: Venice, for example, suggests swapping St Mark’s Square for the Lido, a beach-fronted island where most restaurants and hotels are locally owned, Venezia Autentica — a start-up that highlights the city’s time-honoured artisans — steers city-breakers from the tourist traps and towards local bars, shops and restaurants.

Undertourism can also mean paying more attention to your surroundings while you’re there — Vienna’s latest marketing campaign urges visitors to ditch their phones and be fully present in the Austrian capital. Or it might simply be picking a destination that needs it – such as Bali during the Mount Agung eruptions; Puerto Rico post-hurricane Maria; or Sri Lanka since the Foreign Office relaxed its advice on travelling to the country following the Easter bombings. And Instagrammers or not, isn’t that something we shouldn’t we all be getting behind?

Think twice: Five alternative favourites

Like Machu Picchu? Try Kuelap
With 400 stone houses perched on the mountaintop, and a new cable car to get you there, now’s the time to see this dramatic Incan site, which, in fact, is older than Machu Picchu. Journey Latin America offers 14 days in the north of Peru from £3,336 per person, including flights, hotels, transfers and excursions. 

Like Venice? Try Trieste
Just a couple of hours from Venice by train, this elegant Italian city is wedged in beside Slovenia. Cantilevered over the shimmering Gulf of Trieste, it even has its own handsome canal, lined with palazzi. Kirker has three nights from £739 per person, B&B, including flights and transfers. 

Like Phuket? Try Kep
As Cambodia’s southern coastline proves more and more popular, Kep – backed by jungle, fronted by clear seas and crab shacks – has retained its laidback, non-party town vibe. The beaches are every bit as good as Thailand’s, too. Audley Travel has a 14-day itinerary around Cambodia, including the southern coast, from £3,055 per person, including flights and transfers. 

Like Lisbon? Try Guimarães
Northeast of Porto, this small, beautiful city was the cradle of Portugal — the country’s first king, Afonso I, was born here in the early-12th century. Today there’s an unspoiled old town, an 11th-century castle and gilded churches aplenty. Sunvil has seven nights B&B from £815 per person, including flights and car hire. 

Like Bruges? Try Brussels
It may lack those glinting canals, but the Belgium’s capital has medieval architecture, buzzing restaurants, plenty of chocolate shops and lashings of beer to boot. And as a real working city, it’s refreshingly unpretentious, too. Railbookers has two nights B&B from £219, including Eurostar from London St Pancras. 

And another thing...
Ever thought of Transylvania instead of Prague? Or sushi in Hakodate rather than Tokyo? has launched Not Spots — an online tool designed to offer alternatives to those frequented favourites. Categories include history, beaches and architecture, and offer plenty of ideas for crowd-tired travellers to really veer off the tourist trail. 

Follow @juliathelast

Published in the September 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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