Travel in general is a very positive thing, both for the traveller and for the destinations they visit, but what happens when the sheer level of tourism threatens the very places travellers love? What happens when overtourism becomes a burden to a destination? And what can travellers do to help solve the problem of overtourism?
Backpackers love ‘heading off the beaten track’ to discover that hidden untouched beach, or ‘living like a local’ in a faraway town or village unspoilt by mass package tourism. The stereotypes are part of our identity, it is who we are. Independent travellers, wanting to get away from overtouristy and busy destinations.
Yet in recent years it is getting harder and harder to do this.
Head to the destinations once revered by backpackers and independent travellers such as Thailand or India, and you are just as likely to find a string of package tourist resorts and hordes of tour groups where once there may have been just a few small beach huts or the occasional traveller wandering around with a vaguely lost expression and a copy of Lonely Planet.
My recent visit to Khao San Road, the infamous backpacker hub, shocked me at how gentrified it had become in comparison to the backpacker wild west of fifteen or more years ago. Upscale restaurants had replaced a lot of the street stalls, with the exception of a few at the end of the road, probably kept to give the mass tour groups that ‘authentic backpacker experience’. The crowds of backpackers and gap year travellers experiencing their first taste of south east Asia had been replaced with families and package tourists being sold the independent travel dream in a nice, easy organised tour.
The once pristine beaches of Bali have been overrun with posh resorts and fancy high rise hotels, and the hordes of cheap package tourists from Australia have made it a very different destination to what it is portrayed as.
The infamous sunrise tour of Mount Bromo, one of Indonesia’s premier tourism draws, has become a dangerously hot mess of uncontrolled tourism that throws unbridled tour groups up to the top of the mountain every morning, all so everyone can get the exact same selfie at sunrise.
Even Iceland, once an expensive and almost exclusive destination that few independent travellers gravitated towards has expanded its visitor numbers so much in the last decade there have been fears of overcrowding at popular spots, a crumbling infrastructure and damage to the natural environment, all because of overtourism.
What is overtourism?
Overtourism is quite simply when a destination becomes overrun with too many tourists, which then has a negative economic, environmental, social and cultural effect on that place.
This is not a new problem of course, the curse of Lonely Planet, a phenomenon where once a place was mentioned in the guidebook meant that it would suddenly be overrun with backpackers and therefore ruined, has been around for at least the last twenty years. I remember people joking about it when I started travelling almost two decades ago! But overtourism has really only started to be discussed and taken seriously in the last couple of years.
Why is overtourism a problem?
Travel in general terms is a very good thing, and no one will ever convince me otherwise. For the individual traveller it is one of the best gifts anyone can ever give to themselves, it opens your mind, expands your understanding of the world, it pushes you outside of your comfort zone and makes you into a bigger, better and ultimately more awesome version of yourself.
For the destinations travellers head to, when it is done right, travel can have a huge positive impact too. It can provide a huge boost to the local economy, it can help protect wildlife and serve to fund conservation issues.
But this unfortunately isn’t always the case, and the sheer backlash against unfettered and uncontrolled mass tourism in recent years show just how much of a negative impact tourism is having on destinations, and the problems overtourism are causing for locals and the environment.
Even the infamous Maya Bay in Thailand, the stretch of sand made famous by Leonardo De Caprio in the film The Beach and the inspiration for a thousand gap years, has closed its doors to tourists in a last ditch attempt to try and reverse the environmental damage to the coral and surrounding environment that so many boats and tourists did over the years.
Many destinations as diverse as Mallorca in Spain who are telling tourists to stay home, Barcelona or Aruba, who are banning or at least looking at restricting new hotels, New York, San Fransisco and Berlin who are all mounting legal challenges against Airbnb and even Croatia, who are limiting the numbers of tourists who can visit, are all starting to really push back against or try and reign in what has become a very real problem. Many locals – who are already at tipping point with overtourism – have begun to fight back with protests and in some cases riots, and many destinations are now seeing a huge backlash against overtourism.
Put quite simply, so many destinations just can not cope with the sheer level of tourist numbers that are arriving annually.
Why is overtourism becoming such a big problem?
A whole mixture of things has led to this unprecedented growth in travel and the curse of overtourism. The rise of the sharing economy and especially Airbnb, the prevalence of social media and the vacuous need to constantly keep up with the Jones’ and fill social media feeds with the top ten most popular shots, or the sheer fact that the worlds population is growing exponentially and is in very general terms becoming wealthier, previously huge markets that were once relatively closed off to leisure travel such as India and China have opened up in a big way, and all while at the same time the cost of travel is coming down with the rise of cheaper flights.
But there is a significant lack of mindfulness in the majority of tourists and travellers too. Most people don’t even imagine they are doing any harm, they just want to travel and see the amazing destinations, sites and cultures that they have read about or seen on social media.
Don’t get me wrong I do genuinely believe that travel is a wonderful thing and will always urge as many people as possible to travel as often as possible, but there has to be a way to manage the numbers in a responsible and sustainable way too.
How can travellers reduce overtourism and become part of the solution?
It is a difficult balance to get, I completely understand that, because as travellers we have to take responsibility and realise that we are part of the problem but also realise that we can be part of the solution too.
So how exactly do we limit overtourism and manage its negative effects?
Expand your itinerary.
Whenever you travel to any given country, don’t just stick to the obvious touristy spots, spend a bit longer in one destination and spread your travels out a little too.
I mean don’t get me wrong there is nothing wrong with seeing the main touristy sites, they are popular for a reason after all and in many cases are probably your main reasons for wanting to travel there in the first place, but see more than just those sites. See beyond them. Go further afield.
Gap years are the perfect opportunity to do this. You aren’t under any time constraints, you don’t have an itinerary set in stone, so you have no reason just to rush around the main attractions.
Instead of just sticking to Bangkok in Thailand and then heading to the popular Andaman islands, why not head up North and spend some time in Isaan after Bangkok, or travel further south and visit some lesser known islands. Instead of just visiting the famous Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, why not get the train for a few hours and spend some time in Alexandria on the coast? Not many travellers head up there but it is genuinely one of my favourite cities in Egypt! Get out there and explore more of the countries you are visiting, and see some of the parts most tourists don’t even get to!
Destinations and tourism boards have a responsibility here too, to promote the lesser known regions and sights, to encourage visitors to spread out and see the wider country they are visiting.
It is really just common sense, a million people visiting one destination will be much less of a problem if they are spread out over a vast area instead of all trying to cram in to one single, tiny space.
Support travel restriction initiatives.
This may sound a little strange and completely counterintuitive from a perpetual traveller, but hear me out.
Travel restrictions, either through an outright ban for certain periods, or by a series of staged and controlled management systems where only a certain number of people are allowed for a certain amount of time, are absolutely essential to protect and conserve the natural environment or sites of historical or cultural importance.
Tourists in general can cause so much devastation if left unchecked, through either mindless behaviour or just sheer numbers, and this needs to be managed.
Major tourist draws like Machu Picchu and the Pyramids of Giza have had these restrictions in place for a long time, and they have worked well to get a balance between allowing a tourist experience, bringing in the tourist dollar and allowing sites to be protected or recover from the damage done.
As Boracay in the Philippines prepares to reopen after closing due to the effects of overtourism, Maya Bay in Thailand is still maintaining an indefinite closure until the bays coral reefs and natural environment have recovered, and countless other sites and destinations are considering equally as drastic action, the need for regulation and restrictions is obvious.
I agree wholeheartedly that it is extremely depressing it has got to this point at all, but it has and we have to deal with it, and I for one will be happy to continue to book a time slot for sites of major importance, or wait and hope that one day I can actually visit some of these closed off sites again.
Again, this is very closely related to the last point and is not something that I suggest lightly, especially as a backpacker! But paying more for the time slot tickets for Machu Picchu or paying a premium for tickets to go and see inside the Taj Mahal can have a huge positive impact on overtourism. If tourism boards put a premium price on premium sites, or even introduce charging in some cases where there is none in place, not only will it help mitigate the numbers that flock to those spots but can help with protection and conservation of those sites too if the money is specifically ring fenced for that.
Support the local economy.
I’m no fan of what AirBnB and the majority of the sharing economy has become, I make no secret of that fact. Tourism has to be a force for good in local communities, so when you travel make sure you stay in local run guesthouses, B&Bs or local hostels, or even smaller local run hotels instead. Don’t support international businesses like AirBnB that have decimated local communities and take the tourism dollar away from them.
The same can be said for any activity too, eating, drinking, shopping, whatever it may be. Hiring local guides for activities on the ground instead of parachuting in with vast tour groups arranged by travel agents, heading to the family run street stall or cafe instead of the international chain for your dinner, these have been central tenets to backpacking and independent travel forever, but with overtourism becoming such a big problem the importance of adhering to this paradigm is paramount.
Travel in the shoulder seasons.
The ‘best time to visit’ sections in any guidebook are a pain in the arse, and I will hold my hands up and admit that I am as guilty of it as anyone in my own destination guides. But at least I promote the shoulder seasons as well and say that the experience may be different, but equally as special!
Because it isn’t just about sheer numbers heading to one specific destination that is the problem, it is the fact that the majority head there at the exact same time! As backpackers we have the fredom to travel slowly and travel whenever we want, so avoid the tourist crush in the peak seasons and go when all the package tourists go home. You will have a better time, there will be less crowds, it will generally be cheaper and you won’t be contributing to overtourism!
Overtourism is not a problem that will be solved overnight, that much is obvious, but it is a problem that can be solved. If travellers and locals work together to make travel and tourism a positive force in any destination, then we can all continue to enjoy the destinations we love so much.
We all just need to think and take some responsibility for what we do.
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