Overtourism: Why We All Need to Stop Going to the Same Places

September 13, 2018

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

9 comments

  1. Graham Reply November 11, 2018 at 1:55 pm

    As someone who writes almost solely about unpopular places on my blog I sympathise with your argument but suspect we are mostly wasting our efforts, at least in terms of trying to promote such destinations to visitors. Often these places have an appeal that’s based more on cultural value than iconic, Instagram friendly locations, which is not just a harder sell but demands more effort and skill to convey in words the pleasure of interaction with people. Quite simply I have seen virtually no attempt among travel bloggers to even understand the value of improving their writing skills. They are obsessed with writing travel guides full of information that can usually be found easily elsewhere or bland top tens and rehashed Google searches. Men are particularly guilty of this and it’s usually women bloggers who provide the few good attempts at vividly expressing the travel experience with any kind of passion. Even those bloggers who do cover less popular places would rather tell you about what bus to take and what hotel to stay in than attempt to convey the thrill or value of sharing experiences with the people there.
    I have gone weeks without seeing another tourist in regions like West Africa but learnt so much through life affirming encounters there, but it requires traveling slowly and sometimes enduring more discomfort than popular, more developed destinations.
    If we are to succeed in your vision for the future of travel we need to promote not just different approaches to travel but how we write about destinations. Basing what we write on likes and followers will do nothing to change the current dynamic.

  2. Pingback: How to deal with too much tourism? – My Take

  3. Chris Reply September 19, 2018 at 8:23 pm

    I 100% agree with everything you say and your suggestions on HOW to avoid overtourism…

    …But you didn’t quite sell me on WHY travelers would do so.

    WHY would a novice tourist want to go to less familiar destinations, click down to p. 10 on Google, stop fawning over the same old pics, and visit during the shoulder season? Obviously “to avoid crowds” is not a strong enough WHY. The challenge is to determine what WHYs will cause the masses to shift their behavior towards the HOWs you listed, then promote those.

    Any ideas for what some of those WHYs may be?

    • Marek Reply September 20, 2018 at 12:39 pm

      That’s a great analysis and a great question! 🙂

      Probably my key WHYs would be authenticity and originality. You’re just less likely to experience the real country in places that are overcrowded or that became tourist traps.

      I don’t know how many people are interested in that WHY. And maybe you need to have seen a bunch of familiar destinations before you start liking the less familiar ones…

  4. Resfeber Reply September 15, 2018 at 3:48 pm

    I’m so glad to see this subject get a good airing in travel blogs and I value to advice given.

    Whilst I would also like to see behavioural changes from tourists who only seem to care about getting ‘that’ picture, the real important changes need to come from governments.

    Take Venice for example. The government there have been allowing cruise ships to dock and flood the city whilst the cruise ship tourists give very little back to Venice. They eat and sleep on the ship, bringing no economic benefit for their footfall. Then Airbnb has meant that lots of apartment owners have stoped renting apartments to locals in Venice driving the rents up and reducing the number of apartments.

    A simple price of legislation that taxes holiday apartments and using that money to fund social housing would resolve the later. A cap on the number of cruise ships would also limit the footfall of non-spending tourists, making the livelihood of shop, restaurant and hotel owners a little easier.

    • Marek Reply September 17, 2018 at 11:55 am

      Great point – this is ultimately also a political issue. I believe Dubrovnik may be getting a visitor cap soon. Maya Bay in Thailand is now closed to boats and capped as well. This should force some tourists to find alternatives.

  5. Craig Reply September 13, 2018 at 2:45 pm

    Great cause but so many roadblocks as you mentioned. There’s also travel agents and aggregate websites and airlines that promote the best popular deals for easy money. But to me the main reason is that it’s the beaten path which most people love. Most people are not true explorers. I’ll take the trail less traveled or make my own trail. To see amazing sites …for the first time. Then maybe add it to Travelocity/social media to get the word out and spread people around a bit more.

  6. Juraj Reply September 13, 2018 at 11:51 am

    But aren’t you risking that by promoting the lesser known destinations they will also eventually become popular?

    You really summed it up with your statement about Laos. On the one hand, you’d want tourism to spread around to other places to stop the more popular places being overcrowded. On the other hand, making other people aware of a nice place, you will effectively be ruining it due to making it known to other people.

    Unfortunately, you cannot have it both ways, be a travel blogger and not write about interesting or new destinations. Nobody is really interest in a millionth blog post about Maya Bay or Angkor Wat.

    • Marek Reply September 13, 2018 at 12:59 pm

      Yeah that is the counterargument I’m expecting to hear. 🙂

      In the case of that place in Laos, it has a population of just 500 and is an especially scenic location that I think makes it very vulnerable to overhyping. It felt like a special case, a place with too much potential to become really ‘iconic’ and Instagrammy very fast. I can probably think of 10 other less popular but also less assuming places in Laos that I’d have fewer qualms about recommending.

      I think the economic system way more incentivizes writing the millionth post about Maya Bay or Angkor Wat to be honest as there is existing demand for this content. When I write about interesting or new destinations, I’m doing it for only a small subset of my audience and this content is often loss-making (see also this post). But I still think we should do these posts.

      (Thanks for sharing your thoughts btw!)

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