In the age of globalization, our every action has an effect on the world-wide community. Few pastimes, however, have a more direct impact on a place than tourism. Just in the past few years, tourism has been banned in previously popular areas like the Komodo Islands in Indonesia and Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon in Iceland because of the environmental impact of tourists. Travel bans like these reflect the growing pressures felt by over-touristed areas, but if we want to shift long-held ideas about what travel should look like, it’s worth taking a closer look at the less-obvious ways tourism can be harmful.
Tourists, especially when poorly regulated, can quickly love a place to death. Sensitive ecosystems simply can’t handle thousands of cars or foot-travelers trampling through the underbrush, even if they traverse through well-maintained trails or roads. Things only get worse as the numbers increase. The bar for a “good” tourist is, for all intents and purposes, underfoot. If you aren’t caught on camera puking into someone’s front yard or defacing a sacred monument, you’re killing it. But shouldn’t the standard be higher?
Mass tourism, loosely defined as groups of tourists in the thousands, has a tendency to alter the culture of the place being visited. Markets in Barcelona and Amsterdam, once important destinations for locals, have been forced to either shutter their stalls or ban large groups of tourists because of overly-congested streets. In Cuba, for example, tourists have inadvertently caused mass food shortages by artificially raising the cost of produce; when farmers can make more money selling their goods to expensive restaurants that cater exclusively to international tourists, the locals go hungry. In the most popular of tourist destinations the tell-tale signs of over-exposure are evidence of culture being replaced by commerce.
What happens when the pristine beaches that draw thousands of tourists become cluttered with trash or wiped away by a hurricane? Or when the picturesque village you live in gets blasted all over the international news for a small crime spree? Tourists are fickle, and the hot new spot can change at a moment’s notice. In short, there is no guarantee that tourism will always create a stable economy.
It’s foolish and pointless to ask people to not travel internationally, and that’s not what I want. I know from personal experience that traveling can be a major catalyst for personal growth and can help to widen narrow cultural views of the world. My (admittedly imperfect) answer to the issue of tourism is simple: travel less, and if you must go, don’t join the hoards. Sure, the idea of forgoing the amazing cultural and natural wonders one experiences while traveling may be unappealing but it’s a response to a straightforward question: will the place you want to visit genuinely benefit from your visit? If the answer is no, then don’t go. Plain and simple. Do the Venetians need you in their already-congested streets, making it nearly impossible to get to work? Of course not. Will the crystal-clear waters off the coast of Cabo San Lucas really benefit from your overly-sunscreened body plunging in? Doubtful. Imagine how the locals of Phuket feel about the herds of drunken tourists keeping them up late at night.
I want people to be more mindful of the impact they might have on a tourist destination and to prioritize genuine cultural experiences over canned adventures. Do some research and find a place that isn’t already completely overrun. Make sure that the local economy isn’t completely dominated by tourism. Don’t bounce around too much; stay in one place and do your best to connect with some locals. Try to incorporate your passions into your travels — take a cooking class, go watch local sports games, learn about the town’s architecture, find some locals to play chess with you. Engage with the culture and actively try to learn something new.
Mass tourism is unsustainable, and I believe we have a moral obligation to not participate in it. If we want beautiful and important places to stay the way that they are, then the tourism industry ne a paradigm shift. We can’t undo the damage already done — traveling less and being more mindful won’t save coral reefs, un-sink Venice, or de-clog the streets of Paris — but we can make steps towards ensuring the tourist destinations of the future are part of a balanced global community, not just spaces for people to get their tan on.