Unveiling the undercurrents: Navigating over-tourism in post-pandemic Asia

By Assoc Prof Dr Daniel Chong of School of Hospitality and Service Management, Sunway University 

The Post-Pandemic Tourism Landscape

As the world cautiously emerges from the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, the global tourism industry finds itself on the path to recovery. Encouragingly, projections from the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) suggest that international tourism is poised to rebound to pre-pandemic levels by 2024, with a projected 2% growth above 2019 figures. However, this optimistic outlook comes with caveats, contingent upon factors such as the pace of recovery in key regions like Asia and the ongoing evolution of economic and geopolitical risks.

While the prospect of a swift recovery is cause for optimism, it also raises concerns about the potential consequences of a rapid resurgence in global travel. The phenomenon of over-tourism, characterised by an unsustainable influx of visitors to popular destinations, has been exacerbated by the pandemic-induced pent-up demand for travel. Nowhere is this more evident than in countries across Asia, including Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Cambodia, which have borne the brunt of over-tourism’s adverse effects.

Consider Thailand’s Phuket, once hailed as a tropical paradise, now grappling with the staggering statistic of hosting 118 tourists for every local resident. This imbalance not only strains local infrastructure and resources but also threatens the cultural and environmental integrity of these destinations. Despite the lessons learned during the pandemic, including the importance of crowd management and hygiene practices, the allure of “revenge travel” has led to a swift abandonment of these measures. Tourism operators, eager to recoup economic losses incurred during the pandemic, have been quick to capitalise on the surge in demand, prioritising short-term gains over long-term sustainability.

Fuelling the rapid acceleration of over-tourism is the pervasive influence of social media, which amplifies the pressure to travel and share experiences online. The phenomenon of “FOMO” (fear of missing out) coupled with envy-inducing posts of others’ travel adventures has created a domino effect, driving even greater numbers of tourists to already strained destinations.

In light of these challenges, it becomes imperative to examine the degree of repercussions caused by over-tourism in the post-pandemic era. Moreover, to acknowledge the unique drivers that contribute to the acceleration of this phenomenon.

Unveiling the Underlying Factors of Over-tourism in Asia: 

While the impact of over-tourism continues to reverberate across Asia, several underlying factors, often overlooked, are poised to perpetuate, and exacerbate this phenomenon in the coming years. These factors wield significant influence behind the scenes, shaping the landscape of tourism and challenging the sustainability of popular destinations.

  1. AI in Social Media Market Analysis: As the global market for AI in social media burgeons, projected to reach USD 7.25 billion by 2029, the role of artificial intelligence in driving tourism patterns cannot be underestimated. Beyond the surface-level influence of social media platforms, AI tools embedded within these networks possess the capability to comprehend individuals’ intricate travel desires, decision-making processes, and behavioural patterns. This deeper understanding enables AI to not only shape travel intentions but also foster brand loyalties, thus heralding the era of AI-induced tourism via social media. In the next five years, we anticipate a paradigm shift where AI plays an increasingly dominant role in steering tourism flows, presenting both opportunities and challenges for destination management.
  2. Visa Liberalisation in Asia: The ripple effects of visa liberalisation initiatives, particularly between China and Southeast Asia, are poised to redefine geopolitical strategies in the region, with significant implications for tourism. As countries embrace more open visa policies, especially towards mass markets such as Chinese and Indian tourists, the potential for tourism gains is undeniable. However, this surge in inbound tourism raises concerns about the carrying capacities of vulnerable destinations, including smaller islands, heritage sites, and minority communities. The liberalisation plans announced by governments, such as Malaysia’s in 2024, signal a strategic pivot towards leveraging tourism as a geopolitical tool, necessitating careful management to mitigate the adverse effects of over-tourism.
  3. Continued Growth of Low-Cost Carriers in Asia: The exponential growth of low-cost carriers (LCCs) in Asia, driven by rapid economic expansion, urbanisation, and a burgeoning middle class, presents a double-edged sword in the battle against over-tourism. With estimates suggesting a demand for almost 13,000 more airplanes worth $1.9 trillion over the next two decades in the Asia-Pacific region, the proliferation of LCCs is poised to democratise air travel, making it accessible to a broader demographic. However, the proliferation of new routes targeting smaller cities poses a significant challenge in terms of managing tourism flows and preserving destination integrity. While touted as a means to divert traffic from mainstream tourist hubs, the efficacy of this strategy hinges upon the capacity of these emerging destinations to absorb and sustainably manage increased visitor numbers.

Recommendations Moving Forward 

It is important to acknowledge the complexities and challenges inherent in promoting responsible and sustainable tourism, especially in the context of short-term economic pressures and cultural dynamics in Asian communities. Here are some approaches to be considered in addressing over-tourism:

  1. Recognise the Reality of Coexisting Pressures: Acknowledge that the desire for exploration, experience, and economic stability may often outweigh considerations of responsible travel behaviour and sustainable tourism practices in the short term. Strive for a balanced approach that addresses both the immediate needs of tourists and the long-term sustainability of destinations.
  2. Set Realistic, Micro-Level Goals: Instead of relying solely on country-level policies and enforcement, prioritise the development of realistic goals at the micro level, tailored to the unique social, cultural, and economic contexts of individual tourist sites, streets, towns, and cities. This localized approach allows for targeted interventions that are more responsive to the specific needs and challenges of each destination.
  3. Cultivate Organic Mindset Shifts: Recognize that fostering collaboration between governments, tourism operators, and local communities may face obstacles due to power dynamics and cultural norms in Asia. Instead of relying solely on obligation-induced or enforcement-driven measures, focus on cultivating organic mindset shifts towards responsible tourism through education, awareness-building, and experiential learning. Encourage individuals to consider the personal implications of their actions on their own well-being, fostering a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness between individual behaviour and broader societal impacts.


While promoting responsible travel behaviour and sustainable tourism practices remains a laudable goal, it is essential to recognise the complexities inherent in achieving meaningful change, particularly in the short term. Moving forward, the emphasis should be on setting realistic, micro-level goals that are responsive to the unique characteristics of individual destinations. Rather than relying solely on top-down policies and enforcement mechanisms, efforts should be directed towards cultivating organic mindset shifts. While the journey towards responsible tourism may be fraught with challenges, it is through ongoing education, awareness-building, and experiential learning that we can affect meaningful and lasting change.

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