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Closed for maintenance: The holiday hotspots shutting their doors to tourists

The ban on tourists at Maya Bay will remain in force until at least the middle of 2021
The ban on tourists at Maya Bay will remain in force until at least the middle of 2021 Credit: GETTY

Is "overtourism" the travel buzzword of our times? The question of whether certain tourism sites are being "killed by admiration" has become a regular topic of discussion. But in the last 12 months, it has moved from being a conversation point to a live issue, underpinned by direct action. The last few days have seen the publicised shutdown of overly popular places, with both the Faroe Islands and Thailand fencing off locations that are deemed to have been trampled under foot too much and too often by too many.

In the case of the craggy Denmark-affiliated archipelago, which sits squished into choppy Atlantic waters roughly midway between Scotland and Iceland, the three-day "closure" in April was something of a publicity stunt, designed to highlight the islands' beauty by emphasising the fact that their unspoilt contours need to be protected (Telegraph Travel's Hugh Morris covered this - you can read more about it here).

This week's news regarding Maya Bay - the idyllic crescent of sand on the west coast of Phi Phi Lee island, in the Thai portion of the Andaman Sea - reflects a rather more urgent situation. Made famous by its appearance in the 2000 Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach, the cove has been loved to death. It receives up to 4,000 visitors a day - an invasion that, according to local reports, has destroyed up to 80 per cent of its coral. Last June, it was announced that the beach would be closed to allow its ecology to recover. Last week, it was revealed that the ban on tourists will remain in force until at least the middle of 2021, as the healing process needs more time. "We will review [the decision] again then [to see] if it is ready to open to tourists," Songtam Suksawang, the director of Thailand's National Parks Department, told CNN. "We need more time to allow nature to fully recover. Our team will reassess the situation every three months."

April 2018 saw the Philippines take a similarly drastic approach to tourism on Boracay - an island, set at the heart of the archipelago nation, which has received more visitors than it can, perhaps, cope with. It was placed behind red tape on the orders of the country's abrasive president, Rodrigo Duterte, who reportedly described the isle as a "cesspool" after being unimpressed at its condition on a flying visit. It was "shut" for six months and a thorough a clean-up operation, before reopening its doors in October.

Are such actions part of a coming trend? Almost certainly. Will we see more of this? Undoubtedly. While any decision to "close" a place will always be a delicate tightrope walk between lost revenue and the preservation of something special, destinations are increasingly aware of the benefits of being seen to take a stand. The financial consequences aside, there is little downside to declaring a tourism hotspot to be off limits for a few weeks or months. Indeed, such moves can only amplify the desirability of the locations they are designed to protect - declaring, effectively, as the Faroe Islands did last month, that "this wonderful beach/valley/historic site is so remarkable that it needs to take a holiday of its own. Your patience is requested - and appreciated".

Where will we see this next? Such things are hard to predict, and depend on numerous factors - including the willingness (or lack of it) of the relevant authorities to place their golden goose in a sealed coop. But the following Instagram favourites might all want to look at their traveller numbers, and wonder whether they have arrived at saturation point. They may also wish to ponder whether, if a temporary ban on tourists is too stern a measure, a recalibration of their approach to visitor numbers is in order...

The Cinque Terre, Italy

It is not that the Cinque Terre villages of Liguria are unaware of their popularity - it is that precious little has been done to stem a flow that often resembles a flood. As recently as 2016, there was talk of implementing a ticket system for an area, stretched along a rocky portion of the country's north-west coast, that, for all that is is unsuited to mass tourism, receives some 2.5million visitors every year. Mainly in summer - when the lone road in to Porto Venere, the southerly gateway to the villages, is clogged with cars, and every spare inch of kerb in town is given over to accommodating them. But while there is talk of change, concrete proposals are less in evidence. In 2017, Giovanni Toti, the president of Liguria, swiped away any suggestion of a cap on visitor numbers, declaring that such a proposal would be "an easy way out, a way of abdicating responsibility. One must come up with an infrastructure plan for that area."

The handful of tiny Cinque Terre villages receives 2.5million visitors every year Credit: GETTY

Timanfaya National Park, Lanzarote

This protected area of raw geology, on the north-west flank of Lanzarote, is not strictly oversubscribed. Access is controlled, and visitors are not allowed to wander unchecked across a landscape which stands as a legacy of a series of enormous volcanic eruptions between 1730 and 1736. There are few footpaths, and tours of the core of the park can only be enjoyed via coaches which inch along the road that encircles some of the most dramatic rock formations. But this system also creates a bottleneck. Vehicles can queue for hours, engines ticking over, for a car park that is too small for purpose. And the coaches - old and dilapidated - belch fumes as they trundle along tarmac which is scarcely wide enough for safe passage. Timanfaya does not need to limit numbers per se - it remains a niche atraction on an island where the vast majority of tourists want sunshine and slumber. But it does need a radical reassessment of how it presents itself.

Traffic is a significant problem in Timanfaya Credit: GETTY

Machu Picchu, Peru

A 15th century Inca would be baffled by the modern interest in an Andean settlement that was less a citadel, more an out-of-town estate for the emperor - and which was in use for less than a century before the Spanish conquest of Peru left it marooned on its mountaintop. That is has become a bucket-list staple says more about canny marketing and the western love of an Indiana-Jones archaeological story than it does about a site that has become far more important in the 21st century than it ever was in its heyday. There have been attempts to mitigate the effects of this fascination. In 2001, the Peruvian government brought in a permit system for those wishing to walk the fabled Inca Trail to the summit - and tightened this in 2016 by limiting hikers to 500 per day. This has made the erosion of the trail less of an issue than had been the case - although such steps will be undermined if "progress" continues to be made on building an airport that will enable direct flights to what is one of South America's biggest draws.

The reality of Machu Picchu is a far more crowded affair Credit: GETTY

Chichen Itza, Mexico

Machu Picchu's celebrity status was certainly boosted by its being declared one of the "New Seven Wonders of the World" in 2007. The same can be said of Chichen Itza, the Mayan relic on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, which has "enjoyed" a surge in interest since it was included in said septet. It receives some 2.6million visitors every year - the vast majority of whom are bussed in from the beach resorts of Cancun and the Riviera Maya, 125 miles to the east. This is very much a gawp-and-go, selfie-and-scarper arrangement, designed to quieten that nagging voice in the back of the head that you have flown across an ocean, yet seen nothing of the local culture but a beach bar. And its impact on what, 1,000 years ago, was a major city, is all too visible. The paths across the site are well-worn grooves, the spaces between the temples are bare of grass, and it is impossible to absorb the majesty of the the structures - nor appreciate the echoes of a civilisation at its peak - without a din of other voices. The Mexican authorities have at least stopped people clambering without thought over stones that were set down well over a millennia ago. Climbing on the monuments has been prohibited for over a decade, partly because a San Diego woman died after falling from Chichen Itza's centrepiece - the enormous Temple of Kukulcan (El Castillo) - in 2006.

Tourists at Chichen Itza Credit: GETTY

Dubrovnik, Croatia

It is, of course, far more difficult to impose visitor limits on a city - and impossible to close it for "repairs". But Dubrovnik has been flirting with the former idea for several years. It probably need to convert flirting into a couple of dates, and perhaps a long weekend in a country hotel to gauge compatability, because its Game Of Thrones-fuelled ascent to global icon is threatening both its Unesco World Heritage status and the quality of life for those who call it home. Two years ago, it mooted a cap on tourist levels called "Respect the City", the idea being that the number of visitors allowed to be in its glorious Old Town at any one time - a sizeable proportion of them cruise-ship passengers - would be topped at 4,000. “I am not here to make people happy but to make the quality of life [in the city] better,” the city's newly elected mayor Mato Franković told Telegraph Travel at the time. “Some of the cruise lines will disagree with what I’m saying, but my main goal is to ensure quality for tourists, and I cannot do it by keeping the situation as it is." Two years on, while an attempt has been made to stagger ship arrivals so that passengers disembark in distinct groups, Dubrovnik can still be awfully busy. Figures released by the Croatian Ministry of Tourism in April showed visitor numbers for March as being up 53 per cent on the same month in 2018.

Last year, Telegraph Travel produced a video documentary on the overtourism debate, and the effect of tourism on (in particular) Dubrovnik. You can find more on that here.

Santorini (Greece)

I'll use one of my own Tweets here, and the thought that if a picture is worth a thousand words, two are doubly illuminating. Contrary to responses I received at the time, both photos were taken by me, on a September lunchtime, within five seconds each other. I simply turned the camera two metres inland to show the Oia of fantasy - and of reality.