Why Europe’s most famous tourist attractions are turning people away

Why Europe’s most famous tourist attractions are turning people away
  • PublishedMay 2, 2024

They say money can’t buy you happiness, but at Europe’s busiest tourist hot spots, it can get you peace and quiet.

For example: Greece’s culture ministry has revealed plans to offer crowd-free and private tours of Athens’s Acropolis for €5,000 ($8,200).

A ticket to the ancient site usually costs about $33, and it’s not the continent’s only attraction offering a separate experience for those with deep pockets.

Queues at the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel in Rome can stretch around the block, but if you want a private moment with Michelangelo’s ceiling masterpiece, prepare to cough up $730. 

Even the British Museum, which is free, offers out-of-hours visits for $54. 

These types of tours are popular “because of the privacy, the exclusivity and cache”, according to Laura Jeffrey, director of luxury travel agent Passepartout Travel. 

“It’s being able to tell your friends, ‘We saw it with no-one else around’,” she says.

“I’m surprised that it’s taken this long to announce and to come forward with this idea [at the Acropolis]. I think it’s a great idea if that money is being used wisely.”

A large number of people outside a building that says Buckingham Palace Shop on it.
People are increasingly being prepared to part with big bucks in order to get their own slice of Europe’s biggest attractions.(Reuters: Lisi Niesner)

The luxury travel market is booming and is estimated to be worth $2.1 trillion, according to a 2023 market analysis report by Grand View Research. 

The industry is expected to grow by 7.9 per cent each year from 2024 to 2030 as rich travellers spend big across the globe. 

Professor of Marketing and Tourism at the University of Nottingham, Marina Novelli, says it’s not clear what “the primary purpose” is behind the Greek government’s decision to introduce private tours.  

“There is a very big difference between implementing luxury for just commercial gain and more cash flow in the government’s kitty versus introducing something that is going to be utilised to support the community and identify ways to conserve the various attractions that get visited,” she says.

A Greek government spokesperson has previously told media the injection of cash would be “reinvested”.

Overcrowding is also an issue at the historical site, which saw Greece last year implement a cap of 20,000 visitors a day.

It has timed entry too, meaning a certain number of people are allowed in every hour. 

“The main problem in a lot of these destinations is that the carrying capacity has been identified probably 20 or 30 years ago but commercial interests have meant that they have been ignored,” Professor Novelli said. 

“Visitors to the Acropolis need to be reduced in order for the Acropolis to be in the long term maintained.”

A long queue of people, pictured outdoors
The Acropolis is among the most famous tourist attractions in Europe, and regularly draws big crowds.(Reuters: Louiza Vradi)

‘Elitist’ move ‘creates a divide’

Overtourism is an issue hurting many residents in Europe’s most popular destinations, and elsewhere around the world, who are keen to balance a much-needed industry with preserving the attractions, environment, and fabric of the local community.

Tens of thousands of protesters marched across the Canary Islands, off the coast of Morocco, last month calling for a temporary limit on the number of tourists.

Residents on the Greek island of Paros have staged multiple rallies concerned their coastline is being swamped by unsustainable beach clubs

Meanwhile in Venice, Italian locals protested last week over a new fee visitors have to pay to access the city. 

While authorities say the $8 payment is aimed at thinning out crowds along the canals during peak holiday season, residents argued their city was being turned into a theme park.

Greek news outlets are reporting the private tours of Acropolis will operate from 7am-9am and 8pm-10pm which would mean opening hours for the general public could be pushed back by an hour to 9am.  

Critics have labelled the move “elitist” and say it could worsen the crowd crush at the site. 

“I think it creates a divide between regular travellers and people that can afford such things,” Jeremy Sampson, The Travel Foundation CEO said. 

“Especially when you are talking about important historical sites and natural spaces, these are meant to be shared across society so it doesn’t make sense to me that you would turn that into an elite experience.”

A line of police in uniform, seen from behind, blocking a large number of people shouting and waving flags.
People in Venice clash with police at a protest against the new tourism fee last month.(Reuters: Manuel Silvestri)

Europe is the most visited region in the world and the United Nations expects international tourism to return to pre-pandemic levels this year. 

While it has undoubtedly boosted economies and jobs across the world, tourism experts say there needs to be a rethink on how we measure success around international travel. 

“Overtourism is not necessarily the root issue; it is a symptom rather than a cause and beneath the surface is what I would call bad planning or an imbalance in tourism,” Mr Sampson said. 

“Business-as-usual, actually is not really viable much longer if at all.”

Professor Novelli says the problem isn’t new.

“People suffer short-term memory loss, pre-COVID we were talking about the fact that those numbers were unsustainable.”

A man in a suit smiles at the camera
Jeremy Sampson believes the industry needs to change.(Supplied)

Charging wealthy visitors for a premium experience isn’t new either, but it is growing. And whether the extra cash ends up preserving the experiences for future generations remains to be seen.

“The knee-jerk reaction is to say that it’s a bad thing, and actually I think it really can be a force for good if the money that is spent is being spent properly and if there is some sort of attempt to balance that out for those who can’t afford it,” Ms Jeffrey said. 

“In some ways, I wonder whether €5,000 is enough, but I also think that you have to be very careful about establishing a precedent, which is that it’s only by having €5,000, €10,000 or €20,000 to spare, you can actually get into these places.” 

Professor Novelli also said there was a risk of expensive tours becoming more popular, and squeezing out other visitors. 

“The problem is often if those tools become popular … they might increase the number [of tours] and the issue of elitism might come into the picture even farther because the need to prioritise those costly tours will obviously inadvertently impact on those which are free or less expensive.”

Greece’s culture ministry was contacted for comment.

A large number of people standing outdoors, near old buildings
Authorities hope Venice’s new tourism fee may help ease crowds at peak times.(Reuters: Manuel Silvestri)


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