Tourism’s dirty secret: What is tourism leakage and how can you avoid contributing to it?

Tourism’s dirty secret: What is tourism leakage and how can you avoid contributing to it?

Sarah Faith is a content and values writer at activist travel company, Responsible Travel.

Almost 600 million tourists visited Europe in 2022, and this year is shaping up to be the busiest travel season since 2019.

But there’s a dirty secret swirling around the flood of tourists returning to Europe’s hotspots: tourism leakage.

Book that all-inclusive holiday in Greece and how much of your money will end up in local people’s pockets? Precious little.

In fact, for most all-inclusive mass tourism package holidays, 80 per cent of your cash heads overseas - away from local communities - according to the UN World Tourism Organization.

It’s called tourism leakage, and it happens when an international company provides your hotel, flight, car hire and excursions, when you eat imported food, or dine at international chain restaurants.

It’s money that could instead be used by local communities to restore nature, support local livelihoods, protect cultural traditions or maintain vital infrastructure. And in destinations suffering from overtourism - places where too many visitors are eroding the very fabric of everyday life - tourism leakage compounds the problem.

But tourism needn’t be leaky or destructive. Here’s are five ways to increase the good your holiday can do this summer, put money in local people’s hands, and take the pressure off destinations ready to burst at the seams.

5. Stay, shop and eat local

Of course, it’s impossible to reduce tourism leakage to zero. But there are ways to maximise how much of your holiday money stays local.

A simple way to start is to prioritise locally-owned accommodations and restaurants, avoid Airbnb hosts who buy up swathes of homes for short-term rentals, and use local guides.

And think about where your food is coming from too - has it been sourced from local producers?

Helping communities thrive economically benefits your holiday too. It means more money for better facilities, cleaner beaches, efficient local transport and a thriving local restaurant scene. You’ll find local people will likely be much more welcoming of tourists, too.

4. Look for alternatives to the tourist hotspots

Since 2017, Spain has faced a tourism rebellion. Fed up with entire neighbourhoods being lost to short-term holiday lets, souvenir shops and tourist bars, residents of Barcelona have been on an anti-tourism warpath.

Pre-pandemic, slogans telling tourists to go home were graffitied across the city, and masked protestors slashed the tyres on a tour bus.

Mallorca, too, is turning away from its traditional tourist markets. After considering measures to limit overcrowding, the island’s tourism director Lucia Escribano made pointed remarks earlier this month, saying they are “not interested in having… budget tourists from the UK”, while Lanzarote has declared itself a “tourist saturated destination”.

But this year Spain is set to receive more international visitors than it had before the pandemic.

Choosing alternative destinations takes the pressure off popular sites and spreads the benefits of tourism into communities that otherwise miss out.

So, why not consider Girona or Tarragona over Barcelona? Or for a real taste of Catalan culture, head into the region’s hilly hinterland where medieval villages hang precipitously over the cliffs of the Garrotxa Volcanic natural park.

Swap out the cruise crowds which flood into Croatia for the Albanian Riviera - a stretch of Ionian coastline that shares the same water as Corfu. Here you can explore the mountainous forests of Llogara National Park for wildlife treats and fabulous walks against a backdrop of dazzling blue.

Or, choose a lesser-visited Greek island (there are 6,000 of them after all) over Mykonos or Santorini. Try Kynthos for delicious cheese and honey, take in the sea views from whitewashed, blue-shuttered Amorgos, or enjoy the faded grandeur of Syros, with its neoclassical facades.

If you’re not sure whether your holiday could be contributing to an overtourism problem, check out Responsible Travel’s overtourism map and search for any news reports before you book.

Consider visiting Girona over Barcelona. - Canva

3. Go niche for an experience rooted in the community

Specialist tourism businesses are often firmly rooted in local culture and landscapes. They can help spread out the impacts of tourism and ensure more out-of-the-way communities benefit from the money you spend.

So, why not use your holiday to indulge your love of kayaking, hiking or painting?

Walking holidays in Spain, for example, are best off-season when it’s cooler, and will take you into less-visited areas like the Picos de Europa mountains in Asturias or the inland Sierra de Grazalema in Andalucia.

Food-focussed trips champion local producers and farmers’ markets, while wildlife tours follow in the footsteps of animals, not other tourists.

Visit Romania’s fairytale Carpathian Mountains and you’ll find some of the largest populations of wolves and bears in Europe, yet the numbers of tourists here are a fraction of those arriving in Austria, Switzerland or other popular mountain destinations.

Travel with a local specialist in winter for the best chance to see wildlife, with money from your trip invested in locally-owned businesses, local guides and conservation initiatives.

2. Switch to flight-free travel

Holidaymakers on autopilot think flying is the cheapest and quickest way to travel - but it’s not always the case.

With fuel (and therefore flight) prices soaring, and Europe’s rail network growing rapidly, travelling by train makes more sense than ever.

Not to mention the environmental impact: flying from London to Paris emits 14 times the amount of CO2 than journeying by train.

New rail routes - including between Vienna and Paris, and Berlin and Brussels - are making slow travel adventures even easier.

With France having become the first country to announce it will abolish some short haul domestic flight routes in favour of rail alternatives, using a train over a plane could become the norm.

Besides being a sociable, often scenic, and comfortable way to arrive at the start of your summer holiday, travelling by train also limits the environmental damage done to your chosen destination.

1. Add in a conservation element to your holiday

Local people aren’t the only ones short changed by tourism leakage. Nature - which every type of trip impacts - doesn’t benefit either. And, with biodiversity in crisis, tourism can’t just take from nature, it must help restore it too.

Getting nature positive can be as simple as donating to a local conservation project in your destination, signing up for a local community litter pick (global organisation TrashHero organises free-to-join clean-up projects via social media) or choosing to volunteer during your holiday.

Citizen science projects - like this one monitoring dolphins off Italy’s Ligurian coast - make a lasting contribution to ongoing conservation research, while you enjoy sailing the Mediterranean and indulge in delicious Italian seafood.

So, think local this summer. When money from tourism leaks out of the destination you’re visiting, nature, local communities - and ultimately your holiday - are all the poorer for it.