Let’s talk about the elephant in the travel industry: Overtourism.
If you live in a tourist town, you know what I’m talking about—you avoid certain streets on the weekends and holidays due to gridlock traffic; constantly swearing under your breath as you circle the block yet again to battle it out for a parking space.
Visitors experience overtourism as well. It’s that sinking feeling of visiting a town that’s been stripped of what made it special in the first place. Mom and pop shops replaced by chains; getting inadvertently battered by selfie sticks and huge strollers as you try to soak up an iconic site.
Overtourism is the notion that the quality of life, ecology and/or the experience of a place has deteriorated unacceptably due to too many visitors. Often both locals and tourists experience the deterioration concurrently.
It’s hard for tourists and locals to find that perfect equilibrium. In some places, tourism brings in gobs of money. Take Thailand for example. Tourism makes up for nearly 20 percent of the country’s GDP (average for most countries? Nine percent!). For years, locals made an excellent living bringing tourists to Phuket beaches… which ultimately led to massive destruction of coral reefs. Today, many iconic Thai islands are now heavily monitored or completely off limits to tourists. 80 percent of the coral reefs in the area have suffered damage. Thailand created strict rules for tour operators, designating when, where, and how to visit the islands.
So, who is responsible for ensuring responsible tourism: locals or tourists? I say it’s both. As a traveler, I always try to do my part.
Here’s a few ways you can be a more ethical tourist.
Venture off the beaten path.
Yes, everyone wants a photo of themselves swimming in Iceland’s Blue Lagoon or atop a Rialto bridge in Venice. Visitors flooding to the same place puts tremendous pressure on infrastructure.
I’m not going to tell you to skip all the tourist-y stuff, but stop thinking of a place as a checklist of “sites you must see.” Instead, focus most of your energy on exploring. Venture off the main thoroughfares and into lesser-known neighborhoods. Stop relying on guide books and go with your gut. Trust me, you will find the best places this way!
Get to the bottom of your travel priorities.
There are a few places that are currently getting battered with overtourism, including Paris, Rome, Phuket, New York City, Iceland, Amsterdam and Dubrovnik (just to name a few!). If you’re considering traveling to any of these places, ask yourself why. If you’re mostly excited about French food and wine, could a trip to Provence or even Brussles fit the bill? Want northern lights? Why not consider Norway instead of Iceland? Sometimes only the real thing will do, but a substitute might end up being more fun than you ever imagined.
Consider traveling in the off season.
Not only will travel be less stressful and crowded, but you’ll probably get excellent deals on hotels, cars, tours and more. Also, locals will be more willing to chat with you and offer suggestions.
Do your research.
Overtourism doesn’t just mean a place is “too crowded.” It could mean that tourism drives behaviors that are unsustainable or harmful. With the internet at all our fingertips, there’s no excuse for not knowing the ramifications of our actions. A simple Google search will tell you how a giant cruise ship affects Venice’s main port, where to find ethically made tapestries in India, or how to get your up-close-and-personal encounter with Thailand’s elephants without inadvertently supporting animal cruelty. You can do it, and to be a responsible tourist, you must.
Locals are sharing their home with you. If you’re going to drop some cash on souvenirs, try to buy locally. Not only will you go home with a unique painting or piece of jewelry, you’ll be supporting the local economy. Same goes with restaurants and coffee shops. Skip the you-know-what-Bucks and get your cuppa joe from Joe.
Leave no trace.
Did you hear about the artist who painted murals at numerous national parks and posted the images on social media (it’s a federal offense, people!)? Or visitors etching their names into the bunks at Auschwitz? How about folks who leave Hawaii with sand or volcanic rocks?
Nope, nope, nope, just don’t.
Respect these places to preserve them for generations to come. I know I sound like your mom here, but if everyone takes a rock, eventually there will be no rocks left. And PS did you know legend has it that any visitor who takes rock or sand away from the Hawaii islands will suffer bad luck until they’re returned? I’m not even tempted to mess with that one!
Know the rules and follow them.
Stay in the good graces of the locals by understanding the rules. Some places—especially religious sites—require more conservative attire. Don’t make a stink, just abide. If a sign says don’t feed the seagulls or pigeons, don’t do it! If you’re supposed to stay off the grass, stay off the darn grass!
It’s not about you.
In August of 2017, Dubrovnik, Croatia passed legislation capping visitors to its medieval walled city at 4,000 per day. Does it totally suck to get your dream travel destination, only to realize you can’t get in? Yes. On the flip side, this city didn’t tough it out through centuries of war just to fall at the hands of tourists with selfie sticks.
When you know a place is popular, do your homework before you go. Support businesses that consider the ramifications of heavy tourism—whether it’s your hotel, restaurants, shops or tours. And if the location you’re dying to go to is sold out or under construction, just breathe and think about the big picture.
Remember, people live here.
It’s easy to get lost looking at New York’s towering skyscrapers or beneath the twinkling lights of the Eiffel Tower. However, people live here. Don’t just stop in the middle of the sidewalk, or amble at a snail’s pace. Pull over and let people who need to get somewhere pass. Be nice, respectful and mindful.
Do you think about overtourism when you travel? How does it drive your decision making?