By Lindsey Danis, Epicure & Culture Contributor
Overtourism may sound like the definition of a first-world problem — long lines for cold-brew coffee, too many tourists at the Sagrada Familia to get that perfect selfie — but in reality, it negatively impacts local people and our planet.
Travelers can help combat this problem by not merely thinking in terms of “where to avoid the trend seekers,” but by understanding the challenges facing sustainable tourism and through smart, inspired actions.Ever wondered to help combat overtourism? Here are some ways you can take action while planning your next trip! #responsibletravel #travel #tourism Click To Tweet
What Is Overtourism?
Overtourism is what you get when too many tourists visit a destination, to the detriment of local people and the environment. Jonathan Tourtellot of National Geographic suggests it’s a byproduct of booming global populations and the leisure class. Globally, people have more money, and more of them are using their money to travel.
Areas hard-hit by overtourism include Cuba, Barcelona, Venice, Reykjavik and US National Parks.
On a recent trip through Joshua Tree National Park, I saw the immediate impact of overtourism on the park ecosystem and the local residents, who are stressed and frustrated with badly behaved crowds.
A park ranger who gave a patio talk on conservation passed around a graph of Joshua Tree visitors. Last year, Joshua Tree set a record, with over 2.5 million visitors; 2017 is projected to exceed this record. It’s not coincidental, then, that Joshua Tree is one of the National Parks slated for a peak season fee increase to offset overtourism — with the timeline of “as soon as practicable.”
She believed the fee increase was the best option to conserve the park’s landscape and reduce unwanted side-effects of its popularity. In high season, too much traffic clogs roads so residents can’t drive, which means the park officials let people enter for free and ask them to pay on the way out. The reality of this is that many tourists don’t pay, which robs the park of funds that can offset increased tourism with infrastructure improvements.
Over three days in Joshua Tree National Park, I witnessed scores of people acting irresponsibly. Families set off on desert hikes carrying insufficient water, distracted drivers didn’t check for oncoming traffic before pulling three-point turns, others used the sandy shoulder for overflow parking when lots were full, and folks of all ages ran roughshod through the landscape.
Each of these behaviors was potentially harmful. Carry too little water and you grow dehydrated, and someone needs to rescue you. Forget to look when doing a three-point turn, and someone T-bones you (or you hit a pedestrian). Park on the shoulder of the road and you crush a small animal’s burrow hidden beneath the sandy soil. Hike off-trail and you damage slow-growing flora. The iconic Joshua trees grow as little as half an inch per year.
Outside the park, subtler clashes go on between tourists and locals. We were turned away from two restaurants that had run out of food or reached capacity for the night. Perusing the “desert etiquette” postcards at the Coyote Corner gift shop, we shared our observations with fed-up store clerks.
“Take pictures and report them!” they urged us when we expressed shock that tourists would slackline from the shallow-rooted Joshua trees.
Elsewhere, overtourism has resulted in:
- Food shortages for residents of Cuba due to restaurants purchasing all fresh food
- Travelers camping — and pooping — anywhere they like in Iceland
- Vandalism in Iceland, Joshua Tree and elsewhere
- Lack of affordable housing compounded by an increase in short-term housing intended for travelers in Barcelona
- Sex and drug tourism in Amsterdam and elsewhere
- Closure of Thai islands to prevent irreversible environmental destruction
Travelers aren’t necessarily trying to be disrespectful. But a lack of infrastructure (tourist or otherwise) combined with sensitive environments and housing shortages in urban areas leads to consequences for communities who may need tourist dollars but resent the impact.
Fighting Overtourism: What You Can Do
According to Skift, international tourist arrivals have nearly doubled since 2000; there were 1.2 billion tourists crossing borders for pleasure in 2016 versus 674 million in 2000. In response to the global issue, cities like Venice and Dubrovnik are cutting back on the number of cruise ships that can dock, while Iceland and the National Park Service are considering ways to increase costs for tourists.
While tour boards and residents struggle over how to find balance, what is a responsible traveler to do?
First, educate yourself and learn about the challenges facing sustainable tourism. Travel marketing often presents the most perfect, Instagrammable version of a destination — yet with overcrowding, that’s not what you’ll get. Doing your own research helps you set realistic expectations.
If you still want to go to a hot spot, like Reykjavik, you can plan responsibly. Visiting a destination that is already suffering overtourism is no fun for ethical travelers who want to experience culture, not crowds.Is it possible for an ethical traveler to responsibly visit destinations facing overtourism? #travel #responsibletravel Click To Tweet
One top tip is to go off-season or in shoulder season, when in theory your presence will have less of an impact on local communities. You’ll beat the crowds and enjoy shorter waits wherever you go. Prices also tend to drop in off-season, so this is a win-win.
I visited Reykjavik in February. The Icelandic capital was still crowded, but I didn’t observe tourists using the Harpa concert hall for napping or picnicking, as many have started doing.
No matter what time of year you travel, be courteous. Whether it’s observing desert etiquette in Joshua Tree or following the golden rule — treat the places you visit with the respect you would treat your hometown, because wherever you are is someone’s hometown.Treat the places you visit with the respect you would treat your hometown, because wherever you are is someone’s hometown. #responsibletourism #travel Click To Tweet
If you can’t travel out of season, try to visit an area that’s not as heavily touristed, such as a different city in Croatia than Dubrovnik, hard-hit by Game of Thrones tourism. Or alter your itinerary to visit top attractions at off-peak hours, which is, per National Geographic’s Jonathan Tourtellot, “fine, but overtourism is not a bullet one should have to dodge.”
Anna Pollock, founder of Conscious Travel, suggests finding ways to create a positive impact — travel as a “vital force for good.” Look for ethical tour companies that work in coalition with local people to do social good. Even if you’re visiting a popular destination, doing it through a social good tour company creates jobs, boosts the local economy and promotes conservation.
If you arrange your own trips, seek out meaningful volunteer opportunities that create lasting good in places you visit, participate in a language exchange, or find other ways to give back. Make sure you’re working with reputable organizations in coalition with locals. Epicure & Culture includes reviews of volunteer opportunities, which can help you plan your trip.
As you explore, take a different perspective on bucket-list items. Rather than do the helicopter tour over Iguazu Falls in Argentina, take a hike to the falls with an indigenous tour guide and improve native communities while seeing the sights.
Stay in a place for longer than the bare minimum it takes to get that perfect selfie. If you’re passing through Venice on a day trip, you won’t be able to get past the crowds in St. Mark’s Plaza to form a connection with the place. If you spend several days there, you’ll be able to get off the tried-and-true beaten path to explore areas that aren’t as visited. This brings welcome business to new places and captures that immersive local experience that makes travel so rewarding.
These behavior shifts towards the challenges facing sustainable tourism will not only help you lighten your footprint when you travel, they will also help you have a more authentic and enjoyable trip wherever life takes you.
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