We're Over Overtourism (and You Should Be Too)

Travel has always been an exciting way to escape the monotony of life. In the movies and on television, we often watch stories unfold in countries and locations far away from our own. The characters seem to walk through nearly empty streets, visit charming restaurants, and share life-changing moments with others in front of historic buildings and postcard versions of tourist attractions. We make our own travel plans hoping for the same: an emptiness or serenity that allows us to fully appreciate the beauty of the location. But when we arrive at a destination, often times our experience is completely different than what we saw in the movies or on television.Travelers like you might be both surprised and dismayed to find that these “perfect” destinations are bustling with traffic, global business chains, and swarms of other tourists. While this situation is inconvenient for us as travelers, we have the ability to leave and head back to our own homes; meanwhile, locals are stuck in an endless cycle of tourists, crowdedness, and little recourse of their own. Welcome to a destination plagued by overtourism.

So what is overtourism? Overtourism is, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, “the impact of tourism on a destination, or parts thereof, that excessively influences perceived quality of life of citizens and/or quality of visitors experiences in a negative way.” This situation, most often misconstrued as only occurring in large cities, can also impact smaller towns where tourism is a fundamental staple of the economy, such as a cruise ship destination or port. Reports from around the world describe the canals of Venice as having cloudy water due to the amount of boat traffic caused by tourists. If you want to take a scenic photo of the ruins at Machu Picchu, you will find tourists everywhere and extremely limited time for visiting the ruins due to overcrowding.

While all of these detract from the experience of the visitor, many locals within these cities find their home’s resources depleted in multiple ways. An economy based primarily on tourism means jobs for locals will consist of lower pay and fewer opportunities within the job market. A phenomenon called tourism leakage also takes place as large global brands establish their foothold in these areas, meaning that over 93% of the money generated within a popular tourist site will leave the local community and benefit only global corporations. As tourists spend money in a destination, prices for most products, including rent and housing, inflate making it that much more difficult for locals to purchase what they need on a regular basis.

As prices rise, locals still need to find ways to make up for this new cost of living. This can further accelerate the negative impact of overtourism. Land is sold as global businesses build more hotels and other accommodations for the influx of tourists. As construction increases, animals’ habitats and food sources diminish as properties lay their foundations where vegetation used to be found. Resources taken from the shrinking forests and jungles are used to supply the growing populations (both local and tourist). Former markets and locations frequented by locals are now overrun with tourists. Meanwhile, rural residents find that they need to venture into the city to make any money and witness the slow decay of a place that will not benefit as much as the cities that tourists flock to.

The data can be overwhelmingly depressing but politicians, scientists, business owners and travel enthusiasts alike are working together to create a world in which the conditions for overtourism are reduced and more people can benefit from the tourism industry. The primary ways that this change is occurring is through ecotourism and sustainable tourism. Ecotourism and sustainable tourism promote the growth and care of natural habitats, animal populations, and economies while helping prevent leakage of incoming tourist money. They also help to create environments where locals can value nature and its preservation because that, in and of itself, is an experience a tourist will pay for.

Ecotourism and sustainable tourism practices have already been implemented in many destinations. Here are some examples.. Venice has begun charging an entrance fee of $3.42 USD for daytime visitors to help make sure the city receives an economic benefit from the high tourism rates. Paris no longer allows tour buses into the city but advises individuals to walk, bike, or carpool. Kenyan safaris use the money generated from sales of tickets to prevent poaching and aid in conservation. Amsterdam instituted a program called “Marry an Amsterdammer” which partners visitors with a local who, for a day, will “marry” them at the airport before taking them on a journey around Amsterdam’s local businesses and sights for the “honeymoon.” Each of these locations faces a different set of issues caused by overtourism and are using ecotourism and sustainable tourism practices to make positive changes.

Individual travelers can also participate in sustainable tourism and travel more responsibly. Here are some of the ways to implement these practices in your own travels:

  • Travel to less populous areas. The Incan peoples lived in Machu Picchu but they also created several smaller cities, like Choquequirao and the Sacred Valley, in the surrounding countryside. Besides getting a more perfect shot for your scrapbook, you will have an equally memorable experience without contributing to the deterioration of a cityscape created centuries ago.

  • Travel out of season. Locals rely on income year-round (not just during summer or the “convenient” travel seasons). By traveling out of season, you will find fewer crowds when sightseeing while also providing income to locals and preventing the overuse of resources whether natural or man-made. For example, the Grand Canyon can receive 1.5 million visitors during the summer and less than 250,000 during winter months.

  • Consider options besides globally-branded hotels and lodging. Locals’ living costs are directly correlated with independently-contracted bed and breakfasts or franchised hotels: the more global brands move in, the higher rent and the cost of living become. By staying in local, family-run hotels and lodging, money is kept in the community without driving up the cost of living.

  • Patronize family-owned and locally-owned businesses. This will provide additional income to individuals first-hand while you enjoy an authentic product or experience.

  • Purchase fair-trade or sustainable products. Whether home or abroad, this is probably the easiest technique to introduce to life now. Fair-trade ensures that all individuals participating in the production of a product are paid fair and equally as opposed to providing a cheap product at the cost of an employee’s living conditions. When purchasing souvenirs, look for ones that are locally-made rather than imported.

ExplorEquity organizes travel experiences that highlight less-traveled destinations to create an authentic experience connecting travelers to local communities. Honduras, Belem and the Para State in Brazil, and Las Marias in Puerto Rico are just a few of the locations that ExplorEquity has visited or is currently planning trips for. While these locations may not be well-known, each of them provides a unique experience that is valuable and memorable for anyone visiting.

Overtourism benefits no one and seriously harms local economies, peoples, and nature. By instituting one of the many practices of sustainable tourism, we as travelers are able to create a more memorable experience for ourselves while contributing to a sustainable economic, natural, and local environment for the people that live there. Do you currently travel responsibly? If not, how do you plan to travel more responsibly in the future? Share in the comments!