Expert insight on how we can help, great unsung spots, and skirting the crowds (when that’s a thing again).
Interviews by Adam Erace
Andrea Grisdale, CEO, IC Bellagio
Covid-19 has presented huge opportunities for traveling in Italy. I think this will be the only year ever when you can enjoy major destinations and sites without the crowds. Just two weeks ago I was in Piazza San Pietro at 3 p.m., and there were no crowds. Places like the Vatican Museums have hugely reduced admissions, so the experience is much more pleasant. I think this will be the year Italians get to love vacationing in their own country.
There is talk about cruise ships starting back from Venice soon, something we can very easily link to overtourism. Rome and Venice are the destinations from which many cruises start and end their itineraries. Or, last year and the year before, there were some days where we had 9,000 people getting off a ship in one day destined for the Cinque Terre. And if you put those 9,000 people together with the day visitors and the people who are staying there, it’s total chaos. In the last five years, it’s become more and more a situation of also managing our itineraries around when we know there’s going to be that huge amount of people at that time and in that place. While many people see overtourism as a problem, we see it as an opportunity.
Capri is a fabulous example. Everyone links Capri with the Blue Grotto. We start our itinerary later in the day and actually go first around the back of the island, so our guests get to see the other beautiful grottoes, and usually there is nobody there. They can do their swimming and go to the private little beaches, and then by the time they come to the front of the island, and they see the circus at the Blue Grotto, we ask, “Would you still like to go?” and it’s like, “No, no, no, get me out of here!” And by the time they’re arriving at Capri, it’s four in the afternoon, which is also what time the crowds leave. So then they get Capri all to themselves, with a huge highlight being by the time they get back on their boat to the Amalfi Coast, the sun is generally setting over Capri.
Overtourism is mentioned in about 50 percent of our requests. They will say, “We would love to go when there’s less people” or “We would be willing to wake up early if it meant avoiding the crowds.” To help us understand the client, a great question we ask is, “How comfortable would you be enjoying dinner with a local family in their home?” and if people say they would love it, obviously we would feel a lot more comfortable going into regions or areas which are perhaps less frequented by international travelers. Say, for example, we’re in the height of summer in the Tuscan countryside – our driver-guides might say, “Listen, if you want, we can go to Siena or San Gimignano, which I know is going to be quite busy today, or I can take you to San Donato, one of my favorite towns, at the top of a hill with stunning views, very authentic.” It’s all about giving the traveler bragging rights. They can go home and say, “What do you mean you’ve never heard of San Donato? It’s the most amazing place.”
IC Bellagio is an on-site tour operator based in Lake Como, Italy, that works with Virtuoso travel advisors to create custom trips.
Catherine Heald, co-founder and CEO, Remote Lands
With the exception of India, Asia has relatively few Covid cases and deaths, and the countries are all well into recovery and largely reopened. Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, which is usually totally overrun with tour buses, are completely empty. This may never happen again in our lifetimes.
In Kyoto, the temples and gardens are usually packed, but are now empty. When Japan first opens, I expect this will continue for a few months until people are able to plan trips again. But when travel returns to pre-Covid levels, as it inevitably will, travelers can combat overtourism by avoiding the most famous destinations and instead venturing off the beaten path. In Japan, minimize time in Kyoto and Tokyo, and instead focus on remote corners of Hokkaido, Shikoku, and Kyushu. Elsewhere in Asia, in Indonesia, for example, they can minimize their time on Bali and instead go to Java, Sumatra, Borneo, Sulawesi, and Sumba. In India, skip Rajasthan and instead focus on Darjeeling, Sikkim, Madhya Pradesh, and Ladakh. These destinations are what I call underrated and underappreciated Asia.
While we always want to lead our clients away from the crowds, there’s the dilemma of wanting to visit must-see places, like Angkor Wat. That’s something most people want to do in their lifetimes, so it’s our job to figure out a way to avoid the crowds and have a more private experience, whether it’s the timing to avoid the tour buses, like going very early, or going in through a different entrance, as well as visiting a lot of other smaller temples that are wonderful but nobody goes to them. Or Everest: In Nepal, which is still closed and really suffering as they depend very much on tourism, I assume it will take some time to get back to pre-Covid numbers, especially for group travel, so spring 2021 will probably be an excellent time for hiking Everest without crowds, especially for individual travelers.
Remote Lands is an Asia tour operator specializing in off-the-beaten-path and custom itineraries.
Alonso Roggero, General manager, Metropolitan Touring Peru
The revival of tourism has just started in Peru, but incoming travel will continue to be very slow in the rest of 2020, mainly due to the fear of Covid and the economic impact of the crisis. Since Machu Picchu overshadows everything else, 95 percent of our visitors come here to go there; it’s like going to Paris and seeing the Eiffel Tower. But the experience wasn’t the best because of the amount of people – more than 4,000 per day before Covid. Now, a very low limit of visitors has been set, 675 per day (75 per hour). This daily limit will be increased as protocols and control measures improve. So whoever has the opportunity to come to Machu Picchu in 2020 will undoubtedly enjoy it with very few people around.
In normal times, to ensure our clients have the best experience at Machu Picchu, we try to avoid morning visits. There’s a belief that the sunrise on Machu Picchu is something special, but since it’s in the middle of a cloud forest, it’s usually cloudy, especially in the mornings. We go in the afternoon, when it’s usually sunny and there are fewer people. Another suggestion is to overnight in Machu Picchu so you can experience it in the afternoon with fewer people, and then on the following morning, if you like, you can go back very, very early before people arrive by train, or climb to the Huayna Picchu mountain, an in-demand experience within Machu Picchu that’s only available during the morning.
But we also recommend other Inca sites, like Choquequirao and Huchuy Qosqo, that don’t have the branding yet but could be as impressive as Machu Picchu. For visitors who want to combat overtourism, the most important thing is to open your mind to other possibilities; prioritize unique and super-authentic experiences in uncrowded destinations. For example, in Peru, we also have the northern coast, with sunny and warm beaches all year round; the southern coast with amazing deserts; and many Andean destinations, plus the Amazon. Brazil has positioned itself as “the Amazon,” but the Amazon River is born in Peru and our rain forest is pristine. Traveling in Peru is usually very intense: There are lots of early wake-ups, lots of flights, packing and unpacking, plus high altitude, so at the end, it’s nice to have a more relaxing experience like an Amazon cruise or lodge, an escape to the beach, or a few days at a Paracas desert resort.
Most Americans come to Peru for a week, and they just check off the southern Peru circuit – Arequipa, Cuzco, Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, and Puerto Maldonado. But northern Peru is super interesting: Trujillo, Chiclayo, Chachapoyas, which our tourism board has been putting in a lot of effort and money to promote. While southern Peru is all about Inca sites, the north is pre-Inca sites, and while they’re a lot older than Machu Picchu, they are recent discoveries, so you can see the actual teams of archaeologists digging and working there.
Metropolitan Touring Peru is an on-site tour operator based in Lima that works with Virtuoso travel advisors to craft custom itineraries in the country.
Top Photo: Getty Images