Swap Venice, Bali and Barcelona for the ‘undertouristed’ destinations of 2019

If there were a competition to find the Word of the Year in the tourism sector, there’d be only one serious contender for 2018: overtourism.

From Barcelona to Bali, the Indian Ocean to the Adriatic, 2018 was the year that people in the world’s most coveted, visited and Instagrammed places said enough was enough.

Islands in the Philippines and Thailand were closed off. There were protests in Barcelona and Mallorca. And the new year has begin with Venice vowing to charge tourists for entry.

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Overtourism won’t go away. There’s a new generation of tourists, each with their own bucket list. Forget that special selfie at the Sagrada Familia or Angkor Wat. The selfie has become a crowdie.

Let’s celebrate the alternatives – the places that deserve more visitors and whose inhabitants certainly won’t take to the streets and forums to protest about a big increase in tourist revenues.

Let’s hear it for undertourism.

Overtouristed: Ubud, Bali

Undertouristed: Luang Prabang, Laos

It’s a familiar narrative. First came the hippies and artists. Then the backpackers. Then the upmarket hotels and shops moved in. Before you could say “patchouli oil” the Balinese town of Ubud has absorbed its surrounding villages and become a teeming, traffic-choked hub.

The Laos town of Luang Prabang is at an earlier stage of what we’ll call, for want of a better word, evolution. It has posh hotels (Aman, Rosewood, Belmond), Chinese-owned gift shops and hundreds of tour operators tempting you to experience elephants and cruise the Mekong. But the skies are still dark at night, you can cross the road in safety and the night market is a pleasure rather than a hassle. It won’t last.

Overtouristed: Maya Bay, Thailand

Undertouristed: Koh Rong, Cambodia

Maya Bay has to be the world’s most ironic destination. That’s not a misprint. The secluded white sand bay was used in the 2000 film, The Beach, as the secret hideaway only a select few anointed backpackers knew of. Now Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation has closed it thanks to the millions of people visiting every year – because of The Beach.

But other idyllic white sand South East Asian destinations are available – like Koh Rong archipelago in Cambodia. Big-name hotel groups (Six Senses, Alila) have eyed up the pristine islands flung off southern Cambodia’s coast as it inches towards tourism development. Unlike the relatively accesible Thai islands, Koh Rong is not as easy to get to (it involves a bumpy four-hour drive from Cambodia capital Phnom Penh, then a boat; or an easier internal flight to coastal city Sihanoukville) but has the clear water, the waterfalls and the coral reefs of the Thai beaches… minus the crowds.

Overtouristed: Uluru, Northern Territory

Undertouristed: Wilpena Pound, South Australia

From October, the polite request to tourists not to climb the sacred mountain in Australia’s red centre becomes a formal ban. That won’t make any impact on the busloads of people lining up to take sunset snaps as the world’s most celebrated inselberg turns from rosy pink to brick red.

But there’s no ban on climbing in Wilpena Pound, the extraordinary natural amphitheatre that dominates South Australia’s Flinders Ranges. You can trek for hours and see only a handful of people. The resorts and camping here are first class and low impact: and you don’t need an expensive internal flight to get there.

Overtouristed: Venice, Italy

Undertouristed: Padua, Italy

The alternative to La Sinking Serenissima is less than 30 minutes away by fast train. For one correspondent, a W Shakespeare of Stratford, Padua was the classy, cultured counter to the greedy commercialism of Venice.

You don’t have to read The Taming of the Shrew or The Merchant of Venice to see that he was onto something: the university town has the bridges, the water and the elegant buildings soaring above – but there are no turnstiles, cruise ships and visitor fees.

Overtouristed: Barcelona, Spain

Undertouristed: Malaga, Spain

“This is not a beach resort” shouted a placard on the Barceloneta, part of a vociferous campaign from the locals to reclaim the Catalan capital from the visiting millions.

The southern city of Malaga wouldn’t object at all to being called such a thing, given the fact its many historic charms – and terrific beach restaurants – are habitually eschewed by the Costa crowd. In the past decade, it has quietly become a place of fine museums and refined hotels. As for local talent, Picasso lords it over Gaudi any day.

Overtouristed: Santorini, Greece

Undertouristed: Spetses, Greece

The poster child of Greek islands is groaning under the weight of 5.5 million people jostling for space on its 76 square kilometres every year. Meanwhile, an easy journey from Athens is the upscale island of Spetses. The Spetsians were pioneering anti-overtourism campaigners decades ago, seeing off the package holidaymakers and hotel developers. It might not have the vertiginous volcanic landscape of Santorini, but you get turquoise waters, pine forests and sumptuous architecture instead.

Overtouristed: Rome, Italy

Undertourised: Baalbek, Lebanon

If you fancy swigging a bottle of prosecco in the Trevi fountain – forget it. Street boozing and unofficial bathing are two of the touristic pursuits fed-up Romans are banning. That won’t keep the crowd numbers down, of course.

So if you’re serious about communing with the ancient and imperial, head to Lebanon’s Bekaa valley instead. For years, the civil war kept Baalbek (the ancient site of Heliopolis) out of bounds. You can still commune with the sun gods in relative peace beneath the intact and skyscraping pillars.  

Overtouristed: Tuscany, Italy

Undertouristed: Zagori, Greece

Let’s put aside Florence, Siena and Pisa for a second. If you’re seeking fine food and wine, hilltop villages, sublime towers and villas – you will find them in Chianti. But you’ll pay for it – at the hotel check-out and in the futile hours spent in Italian traffic.

Meanwhile, in the far northwest of Greece, there is a hidden land of milk and honey, gorges and mountains, where there’s not an ugly building or an imported vegetable to be found. You may see a dozen cars a day if you’re unlucky.

Overtouristed: Iceland

Undertouristed: The Faroes

They have six tourists for every resident in Iceland – and most of them seem to be in the Blue Lagoon. The Faroes is a different experience – no glaciers and volcanic eruptions, plenty of dramatic hidden bays and nice jumpers. If it’s northern-ness, remoteness and peoplelessness you want: this is the archipelago for you.  

Overtouristed: The Hamptons, New York

Undertouristed: North Fork, New York

As long ago as 1983, newspapers were talking about numbers of visitors at New Yorkers’ favourite summer retreat reaching “crisis point”. But the upper jaw of the crocodile-shaped landmass offers a different Long Island experience. Here, there are fruit farms, vineyards, historic inns and coastal towns where people have real jobs. An outbreak of swishness on Shelter Island aside, this is American laid-back summer touring as it used to be.

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