responsible travel and overtourism

Why in the Age of Overtourism, it’s More Important than Ever to Travel.

by Ellie Cleary

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.

Crowds in Venice waiting for photo ops at the Bridge of Sighs.

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.

overtourism and responsible travel

The other side of the camera: Crowds at Angkor Wat, Cambodia for the “obligatory” sunset shot.

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.

Overtourism solutions

NOT doing it for the ‘gram… we love our train journeys as we invariably meet so many people and get chatting along the way.

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?

Sundarbans tour Bangladesh and Rocket Paddlesteamer

Bangladesh is a little-visited alternative to some of South East Asia’s over-visited spots

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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The problem of overtourism and responsible travel is a complicated one, but we don't think the answer is to stop travelling. Here's why and what we can all do to help against overtourism around the world. #responsibletravel #sustainabletravel #ecotourism #sustainabletourism #responsibletraveltips

What do you think about Overtourism? What are overtourism solutions to you? Let us know in the comments below! 

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Shirley * Paradisefound February 13, 2019 - 5:34 pm

Interesting take on this! My first reaction was, well of course, not travelling anymore would be a solution. But this would only work if everyone stopped travelling. However if we keep on travelling but go to different places and inspire others to so as well, this could be part of the solution as well.

Ellie February 16, 2019 - 6:21 pm

Thanks Shirley – yes indeed it would solve the overtourism problem if we *all* stayed home or travelled less. But then if we consider also the economic importance of tourism around the world (often especially in developing countries where economies are heavily reliant on tourism) we really believe that there has to be a better answer – which of course as you know is not straightforward!

Jule February 14, 2019 - 6:49 am

Love your post! Since living as a “nomad” for 3 years now I see the same problems but seeking for the quietness in low season, try to avoid the touristic areas, visiting old towns only in the early morning hours, and yes trying to find the less travelled path. We did visit Bali once but I fought a long time with myself if I should go..and even there we found the “real” Bali where they didn’t serve any fancy vegan food.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
Jule (thehappychoices)

Ellie February 16, 2019 - 6:23 pm

Thanks Jule for your kind words! It sounds like you are doing a great job with avoiding overtourism by the measures you talk about. I also don’t think that we necessarily have to avoid whole countries / cities that receive a lot of tourism, but as you say visiting during off season, learning about the culture and exploring places that the tour busses and instagrammers miss all helps! It sounds like you found a beautiful part of Bali. Happy wanderings!

Sunil February 15, 2019 - 11:22 am

Nice post…An eyeopener on dealing with mass tourism


Ellie February 16, 2019 - 6:31 pm

Thank you Sunil, appreciate your kind words! Yes it’s definitely becoming more of an issue – in Europe but also parts of Asia too. Hope you & your family are all keeping well – our best regards, Ellie & Ravi

Emma Walmsley February 18, 2019 - 2:51 am

Couldn’t agree more! Travel can be the best heart-opening education that connects us to people all over the world: if it’s done with respect and supports local places rather than takes advantage of cheap opportunities or Insta-perfect locations. Great post.

Amanda Lambert February 18, 2019 - 6:08 am

Great post with an interesting perspective. Perhaps the challenge should be to travel without posting anything to social media. We are all so hooked on it and take photos without actually looking.

So many places i just don’t want to visit anymore because of the crowds… And cruise ships have so much to answer for when it comes to overtourism!

Sinimalism February 19, 2019 - 10:04 pm

I’m so happy I discovered your blog! Can’t agree more with this post!
I’m a tourism research student and willing to expand my blog momre one day as well.
I also felt the need to share a bit why on earth I’m still proudly saying I travel and study tourism research, although tourism is currently seen in so negative light.
I think it won’t ever stop, we can just try to make it more sustainable and make sure carrying capacity of destinations isn’t exceeded, and most importantly learn from other cultures.
What it comes to Instagram it’s just sad. And of course I need to admit I do the same: not so much about finding the same pictures people strive for, but trying to catch the perfect “wanderlusty” photo, no matter what is the actual story behind it. For me instagram is about visuality, not so much about the story or “instant moment” as the app maybe originally was meant to be for.

Nicole Melancon February 20, 2019 - 6:55 pm

I love this post so much Ellie! I especially love what you say about Instagram. I personally have just gotten burnt out of it and have not really been posting on it for many reasons including ones you mention above. Lovely post. The world needs more travelers like you!

Brianne Miers February 21, 2019 - 1:53 am

This is such an important post – thank you for writing it! I’ve really struggled with these issues myself as I’ve realized I’ve made some mistakes during my recent travels and have not been as responsible as I would’ve liked – mostly, I’ve erred in choosing popular destinations just because of the lure of cheap, frequent flights (and then flying for just a weekend is another issue!). I’m trying to be more careful planning my trips for 2019 – for example, I’m considering visiting El Salvador during the shoulder season in late Spring. Every little change can help!

Shezz February 24, 2019 - 4:55 am

An insightful article Ellie. There’s definitely a lot we can all do as travellers to help reduce overtourism and be more sustainable, and it’s great that blogs such as yours help promote that. I’m definitely guilty of sameness, but as I’ve come to travel more, getting off-the beaten track is often more rewarding and provides a richer experience. More people should get out of their comfort zone on holiday and it doesn’t always include trying new things, but visiting new ‘less touristy’ places.
I’m glad I found your blog today!

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