There’s been a bit of a debate in the travel community on the negative effects of tourism recently (see these articles at Expert Vagabond and Nomadic Matt, among others). I thought I’d pitch in with my 2 cents worth.

As a frequent traveler, I’ve had the privilege to visit some destinations more than once. But reconnecting with places I already know and love can be a heart-aching experience sometimes, when it turns out they rapidly devolved into swarming tourist traps in just a matter of years.

This is a problem the world is slowly waking up to. From Venice to Dubrovnik and from Krabi Beach to Angkor Wat, the problem of overcrowding is having more people concerned.

I often struggle with this issue. On the one hand, I think it’s amazing that more people can travel. Certain types of travel can be educational and break down barriers between cultures. On the other hand, when the popularity of places explodes beyond their reasonable capacity, it becomes a real problem.

This isn’t an issue we can all just wish away. With air travel becoming ever more accessible, and a growing middle class in emerging economies (particularly China) surely fueling tourism growth for decades to come, the pressures of tourism are not going to subside.

(At least, not until we live in a world of global population decline, which according to the UN probably won’t happen this century.)

So, with more and more people traveling, and more and more places filling up, what are we to do?

We have to spread tourism around

There’s only one logical solution to this problem: we have to spread tourism around as much as we can. That may seem obvious, but not everyone agrees.

When I try to promote less-popular places, I’m sometimes accused of spoiling them. But what’s the alternative? The popular places are surely popular enough already. Spreading tourism around is the least bad option we have; it could at least help distribute both the benefits and the burdens of tourism more equally.

There’s just one problem: It often seems the travel culture is going in the opposite direction. We’re not spreading around but just concentrating in a few places.

Social media may have played a role given that everything has to look good on Instagram these days. An obscure off-the-beaten-path place just isn’t going to play as well online as that picture of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, or that picture of Cristo Redentor. It’s as if we’ve become selfie-seeking little magpies, only looking for shiny trending places that look good on social media.

Everyone seems obsessed with only the most instantly recognizable and iconic places. But for travel to be in any way sustainable in the future, I think we need to change that mindset.

The problem with social media

It’s often claimed that Millennials are less materialistic than previous generations. I do think it’s true that many of us desire more experiences over possessions, but that doesn’t mean we suddenly care any less about status.

Those experiences we crave? We still want to make sure that everyone damn well knows we’re having them.

Instead of competing over who has the most possessions, we’re now competing over who had the most Instagrammable brunch this weekend or who went to Machu Picchu only to do that same freaking yoga pose that everyone else does.

I think Justin Francis of Responsible Travel hits the nail on the head in a recent NYTimes article on overtourism:

“Seventy-five years ago, tourism was about experience seeking. Now it’s about using photography and social media to build a personal brand. In a sense, for a lot of people, the photos you take on a trip become more important than the experience.”

I think this attitude not only misses the whole point of traveling, but it also feeds overtourism. Everyone ends up going to the same famous places doing the same things.

It’s a relentless feedback loop that can end up ruining some locations. The only way to break it? Stop caring so much about how our travelling looks and care more about the true experiences we’re having—and to take a chance on something new.

 

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Feet in front of Horseshoe Bend 🍁

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The challenge for influencers

Bloggers and other so-called influencers can play a role in mitigating the negative effects of tourism. But it’s a role that also extends to all travelers because social media has turned all of us into influencers in some way.

I would love to inspire more people to travel differently. But I’ve often found it extremely challenging to draw attention to things that aren’t already part of the supposed Top 10 Things to Do. (It’s something I’ve lamented before).

When I look at search keyword statistics, the popularity of posts on social media, and even on-page statistics on my own blog, I have to conclude that most people only just care about the most popular tourist locations.

Maybe that’s the Instagram effect. Or maybe it’s just always been that way: I suppose that if you have limited time to travel and you have maybe just two weeks to spend in a country, you don’t want to take too many chances.

But I wish we could change that and break our addiction to only the most standard itineraries and most popular things to do.

I was recently on Sao Jorge, an island in the Azores that very few people seem to visit. (Most people go to the biggest island of Sao Miguel.) According to TripAdvisor, there probably isn’t that much to do on Sao Jorge, but for me this island was a joy to discover. It’s full of charming coastal villages where you can just have fresh seafood or jump from the docks into the sea for a little swim. It has some amazing hikes with paths leading down gnarly cliffs and past beautiful waterfalls.

But despite these qualities, I suppose nothing about Sao Jorge is truly iconic or a one-of-a-kind. It’s not as Instagrammable as the turquoise lagoons of Tahiti or the eyes of the Mona Lisa. But Sao Jorge is good. It’s enjoyable. It may not lend itself quite as well to listicles or hashtags, but it’s a wonderful yet humble place. It’s the kind of place that deserves not to get overlooked.

With this in mind, I’d like to suggest the following ways that travelers can perhaps make a difference:

  • Dare to go to less familiar destinations. For example, Thailand doesn’t really need more tourists, but Armenia could probably use a few more.
  • Search for alternative locations. Resist typing only “top places to visit” into search engines. Look for alternative, quirky, off-the-beaten-path, local, and so on.
  • Go to page 10 on Google sometimes. There’s lots of amazing stuff there that most people don’t see!
  • Stop fawning over those same old pics. Who cares about the umpteenth person to do a yoga pose at Machu Picchu? We should treat this as the lamest and most normie thing to do. Share more about the people we’ve met or the interesting experiences we’ve had.
  • Pick up your trash. Be respectful to local cultures and promote good travel.
  • Visit in the shoulder season when the weather is still good, but crowds are fewer.

I also have suggestions for travel bloggers, YouTubers, and anyone with any kind of social media influence. (Yes, I’m in part preaching to myself here):

  • Promote alternative destinations. Don’t always go for the maximum expected pageviews. Do good by giving new places a chance.
  • Be honest about overvisited ones. Some places might seem obligatory to mention but be honest if places get overcrowded. Some travelers might want to give them a pass.
  • Mention your fun favorites first! Flip things on their head and start your top 20 listicle with your weird little discoveries. Leave the tried and true toward the bottom.
  • Do protect fragile destinations. While I think it’s good to spread tourism around, some things you still might want to keep under your hat. This year, I didn’t mention a small riverside town in Laos that can be reached only by boat, despite being a favorite of mine. 50,000+ people read my posts about Laos each year, and I didn’t feel that tiny village with poor infrastructure was quite ready for the spotlight.

Finally, I wish we could get past the instinct of just going through the list of Places to See in ascending order. If we can genuinely appreciate the off-the-beaten track (and not just say we do!), I think on balance it will have a positive impact.

Is it hopelessly naive for me to expect this to change? Maybe. Then again, we used to make fun of Chinese tourists only ever moving in huge groups on organized tours, and now I’m seeing many Chinese tourists traveling independently armed with travel guide apps and Google Translate.

The travel culture is always changing. Maybe we can still change it for the better.

Header photo credit: Hang Meang Khou