Facing Mass Tourism.
Few things are certain when it comes to the future of the global tourism industry, but two of them are these:
Firstly, that the number of travellers will increase to levels we cannot imagine. The UN Estimates of 1.8 billion travellers by 2030 exclude one of the largest groups of travellers: domestic travellers. In countries such as China and India, billion+ strong domestic populations are travelling like never before (as well they should) in their home countries and abroad.
Secondly, there’s no hiding from the reality of overtourism, now prevalent in so many of Europe’s best loved cities and beyond. As the most touristed continent in the world, Europe has born the brunt of overtourism in cities such as Venice, Barcelona, Bruges, Amsterdam, and even Dubrovnik. Overtourism has spread far beyond Europe: Crowds are leaving their mark at Halong Bay, most of the Thai islands, Bali, Machu Picchu and on the beaches of Goa to name but a few.
We’ve always been believers in the power of travel to do good in the world, but increasingly as we keep our eyes open on our travels we’ve been forced to ponder more deeply. Even for those of us who are aware of the issues caused by tourism – are we causing more harm than good? Is it really possible to travel in a sustainable way? Is responsible travel possible?
In this post we’ll look at some of the problems of overtourism, their causes, potential overtourism solutions and what we as travellers can do.
The Instagram Mindset
Social Media has a lot to answer for.
Our activity on Instagram was patchy at the end of last year, for the simple reason that we felt drained looking at it. We got tired of seeing images of the same places, from the same angles, of the same “bucket list” things: Bali swings, balloons at Cappadocia, the Eiffel Tower, Nusa Penida, Petra, the Taj Mahal… We’re all guilty to some extent, we know that posting photos of these places will get more likes; in fact the social media algorithms seem to favour them.
But such a limited portrayal of travel causes serious problems. In a time when we all seem to be chasing likes and followers, travel seems to have become more about creating a self-identity and less about interest in the places we visit and the people who call them home. More often destinations are being used as glamorous or exotic backdrops to swirly dress / skimpy bikini shots with the same type of “wanderlust” pose.
Blog posts such as “top Instagram spots in X (destination)” are now a dime a dozen, and you can even read “why a trip to X will explode your instagram feed”. Doing it for the gram has been taken to the next level, and it’s ruining travel. The result of all this is that we all go to the same places, for the same photo, to show that we have been there, done that. Social media is actively worsening overtourism in these places – and it’s mostly the lack of consideration of “influencers” who create the shots that everyone wants to copy.
The sad result is travel that does not care about the destination, and a mindset that does not value originality.
Travel That Does Good vs Reinforcing Social Status
The vision of travel that we subscribe to is one that benefits the traveller but also the places that we visit.
That starts with engaging in the places we travel to: researching, learning about their history, their food, cultural beliefs, religion – and trying to interact with locals in a responsible way where possible. Asking before we take photos, and also being mindful of the image that we send when sharing our experiences.
In India and throughout the South Asian and Arab world’s, there’s the concept that “Guest is God”. Visitors are often treated like royalty with the best hospitality, the best food, and a warm welcome. The question is: Are we treating the places we visit and their people like gods too? Do we return the favour?
For us, travel is about more than just economic or photographic exchange and opportunity.
Where we don’t interact, ask questions and learn about where we go, travel becomes all about us as the traveller. There’s a very real danger that we collect photos with nothing to say about them.
Why we Still Believe in the Power of Travel
Given the carbon emissions and impact of the global tourism industry, it’s getting harder and harder to defend. We’ve come to realise that the inescapable truth is that jetting off to a new destination every few weeks or travelling long-haul frequently is just not sustainable. Although we can do things to reduce our carbon emissions, flying is extremely damaging and contributes 80% of carbon emissions generated from tourism.
The reason we believe in travel despite this is because of the power of travel to transcend differences and build human connection. In a world full of walls, travel can help break them down. Travel can change our perceptions, expand our horizons, banish fear of different religious beliefs or traditions.
Travel can expand our self-awareness, and critically our awareness of the damage we ourselves may un-wittingly be doing to the world. I know of many – including myself – who did not comprehend the level of waste, plastic and pollution until travelling to other parts of the world where the crisis is obvious.
Here in the developed world, the problems we as humans cause are hidden. Our waste is collected nicely each week, we separate our trash in the belief that the plastic will be recycled, the organics will be composted. Our TV’s and white goods are taken away so we can buy new ones. Now that China has said that they no longer want the world’s rubbish, will we finally be forced to drown in our own consumerism?
Travel taught us to be content with few clothes, few belongings, and a small backpack – and somehow we managed to be the happiest we’ve ever been. If travel can teach the world that we don’t need 90% of the stuff we are sold: the world will be a better place for it.
Overtourism Solutions: What we as Travellers can do
If we can get past the problem of “sameness” and are prepared to bring some originality to our travel planning, we can help fight back against this status-driven mass tourism that we have been seeing.
Going to destinations less-known is one solution – aka getting “off the beaten path”. Although this solution has its own flaws and is more of a diversion tactic, if we are all prepared to be more original and seek out unknown places this tactic will bring results.
Visiting countries that need tourism or suffer from negative stereotypes is another way to share different messages about travel and the places we can visit, as well as contributing positively to countries that need the support.
Travel during off-season and stay longer to ensure your travel brings more benefit, interact with locals and learn about the local culture too. We can also stay in small-scale homestays, farmstays and boutique hotels that care about their impact and are run by locals. We can travel overland by train and road as much as possible instead of flying.
When it comes to photography and getting “that shot” we can be mindful of what we are wearing, how we are representing tourism, and make an effort to talk with people or engage with them before photographing them.
There are many things we can do, but it all starts with a simple question: Do we really care enough about the places that we visit?
Antidotes to Instagram “Sameism”
And if you’d like to fill your Instagram feed more diverse travel inspiration, here are some of our favourite accounts you can follow for fresh responsible travel ideas. Don’t forget to check out our feed too 😉
Two Dusty Travelers – We love this couple’s educational tips about volunteering and responsible travel anecdotes
Yoga Wine Travel – Flo not only shares beautiful photos and different perspectives, but we love her commitment to avoiding crowds and visiting places often lesser known
Wale and Me – Budget travel tips with plenty of culture, local know-how and sustainable travel advice thrown in from off the beaten track!
The Well Travelled Brit from So Much More to See goes to places others would shy away from – from Algeria to Iraqi Kurdistan, her travel stories provide different perspectives and a challenge to what we might consider as an exciting holiday destination.
Wandering Chocobo – Susana shares inspiration for connecting with locals, being mindful of our impact of the environment as well as tips for venturing off the beaten path.
How do you get inspiration for new travel destinations that are off the beaten path? What do you think about overtourism? Let us know in the comments below.
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What do you think about Overtourism? What are overtourism solutions to you? Let us know in the comments below!
A Londoner by birth Ellie has lived in the UK, Netherlands, India and now Canada. Prior to blogging, she worked for 12 years in hospitality and online travel. Ellie started this blog during a sabbatical trip in 2015 around South Asia, to help conscious travellers find the best inspiration for their next sustainable trip. When not travelling, she is happiest with wine, pasta and a good (travel) book. Ellie is also Founder of Soul Travel Consulting which helps travel brands communicate their sustainability initiatives.