Three-day weekends call for quick vacation getaways. And it’s all fun and games until you realize everyone else had the same idea. Here’s how overtoursim is impacting the travel industry and how to be a smarter traveler.
“Wish you weren’t here” - locals to tourists. At least sometimes.
Wanting to get away for a weekend is not a new thing. As far back as the US’s colonial era, people were heading to mineral springs for some R&R. But traveling for fun was mostly reserved for upper-class families since it required a lot of time and money (horse-drawn carriages weren’t exactly the most efficient). After the Civil War, a boom in railroad construction popularized train travel, making previously remote locations easier to get to. But this option was still fairly limited since trains at the time were slow and didn’t run very often. Back then, going on a trip could mean taking a break from your normal life for weeks at a time.
Right? But things did get more accessible, for a few reasons. One, Henry Ford said ‘beep beep’ and sparked an automobile revolution. Two, a growing middle class meant more people with free time on their hands. Three, federal and local governments started building up roads and highway systems. All of which meant more people started saying ‘oh hey’ to that hotel, motel, Holiday Inn life.
Well, yea. Around the mid-20th century, motels started popping up to support tourists on the road. The 1950s marked a “golden age” of travel as commercial airlines took people further distances. But it was expensive – a long-haul domestic trip could cost around $1,000 in today’s dollars. But by the 1970s, Boeing’s jumbo jet could fly a lot of people at once, making the flights less expensive and more available to those outside the upper class. As more people could travel domestically and internationally, more businesses cropped up to support them, like tour operators, cruise lines, and large resorts (hi, Atlantis).
Today, tourism is a massive industry that makes up about 10% of the world’s GDP. It’s gone from a leisure activity to one where governments are stepping in to limit travelers. In the last few years, hot spots around the world have started facing a new problem: too many tourists. Also known as “overtourism.”
In recent years, popular vacation spots have become overwhelmed by tourists. In 2018, there were 1.4 billion international tourist trips. And it’s becoming unsustainable. We’ve seen it across the world, from California’s poppy fields shutting down to workers at Paris’s Louvre museum going on strike over “unprecedented deterioration” of conditions caused by tourists (like overcrowding and poor emergency exit plans).
Tell us about it. Overtourism has become especially problematic in certain locations, including…
Venice: The lagoon city is sinking, thanks to high tides and rising sea levels exacerbated by climate change. It doesn’t help that it’s inundated with tourists who want to soak up all the history and gondola rides they can. And many of them come by cruise ships, which cause big waves that can lead to flooding.
Machu Picchu: The centuries-old cultural site has recently seen a spike in tourism. But the infrastructure there is old, and the risk of damage rises when you add too many tourists into the mix. To help prevent that, Machu Picchu only lets tourists visit during certain time frames during the day.
Amsterdam: The city launched a tourism campaign in 2008 after the global financial crisis. Turns out, it was too successful: 19 million tourists now visit every year – about a 60% increase over the past 10-plus years – which congests narrow roads and has edged out local businesses for shops catering to tourists (think: food stores and coffee shops where you can smoke marijuana).
Mount Everest: Last year, 11 people died while on the mountain, making it one of the deadliest hiking seasons there. Experts have attributed the death toll to overcrowding.
US National Parks: In recent years, national parks have hit a record number of visitors. But many don’t always pay attention to their surroundings when they visit. Some throw trash and rocks at geysers, get dangerously close to wildlife, and have died while trying to take pictures.
Experts have pointed to two key factors: One is the growth in online travel companies, which make it quick and easy to book a trip that won’t hurt your wallet. See: Expedia, TripAdvisor, Airbnb, Skyscanner, Google Trips, the list goes on.
Social media. Looking at you, Instagram. Features like geotags and the rise of influencer culture mean that people are increasingly using the platform to pick their next vacation spot. Seriously, in one survey last year, 37% of people said their vacation destination was influenced by social media. Plus, luxury hotels and tourism companies pay influencers to post pictures of their stay in hopes of getting more people to visit. So, yes, people are literally doing it for the 'gram. But in the end, everyone’s just traveling to the same spots...so their trips aren’t so unique. Let’s be honest, we all know someone who’s been to Tulum in the past couple years.
There are still plenty of cities off the beaten path that would like a slice of the tourism dollar pie. And even the places experiencing overtourism benefit from the economic boost travelers bring in. In fact, many countries’ GDP (like the Maldives and Aruba) relies on tourism.
It leaves local governments and travel companies trying to manage the chaos without taking a major monetary hit. They’ve done everything from implement tourist taxes (which are built into things like flight or hotel prices) to shut down sites where tourists have damaged the environment (think: coral reefs). Skimm Notes gets into more of that.
On the environment…cars, planes, and boats are big contributors to air and water pollution. And their carbon emissions are contributing to the severe effects of climate change. Speaking of, well-known vacation spots like the Florida Keys and the Galapagos are already threatened by the impacts of climate change, including rising sea levels and temperatures. Actions that may seem small (like littering and wearing sunscreen in the water) can add up and cause irreversible damage (like killing marine life).
On infrastructure…many tourist hot spots, like Rome, are popular because of their history. That usually means their monuments and attractions can be old and fragile. The literal pressure that tourists put on infrastructure can cause it to break down more quickly. And large groups of tourists can interrupt the flow of the city and make it difficult for people to get around. Which can especially hurt locals, who need to get to their jobs and run basic errands. That brings us to…
On the locals…those who live in cities experiencing overtourism are getting pushed out of their hometowns. One report says cities that allow Airbnb have seen an uptick in housing costs, as fewer homes available for locals puts pressure on the housing and rental markets. If locals can’t afford rent hikes or find a place to live, they have no choice but to relocate. That’s especially problematic in places like Miami and San Francisco that are facing housing crises. In some cases, landlords are reportedly asking residents to move out so they can rent the homes out to tourists.
Travel industry experts say we need changes to make tourism more sustainable. Some people say making flights more expensive will help deter visitors, while others say we need to think more about how our desire to see new places can impact communities and the people who call these places home. In the end, there isn’t just one solution. But here are a few ways you can travel smarter...
Fly less. Airplanes are responsible for 2% of the world’s carbon emissions. So limiting how often you’re flying can help out the planet. Consider traveling to a closer destination to limit emissions, and check out some fuel-efficient airlines. But we can’t all be Greta Thunberg and sail across the ocean. So if you’re hopping on a plane to get to Europe, try to utilize the train system while you're there.
Go local: Give your time and hard-earned cash to local restaurants, hotels, and tour operators so that your tourism dollars go back into the community.
Change the season: Traveling to tourist hot spots during the off-season extends the tourist season for the locals who depend on that income. Booking activities in advance and showing up at off-peak times will help companies manage visitors and slim down the crowds.
Do your research: Look for hotels and travel operators that have a good sustainability record and give back to the community. In some places, home-sharing can give locals an economic boost. In other places, a local hotel is your best bet because home-sharing is contributing to housing problems.
Tourism is a blessing and a curse – it can significantly boost a country’s economy, but at the cost of travelers wreaking havoc on significant cultural sites that may not be around for future generations to experience. Many popular destinations are also people’s hometowns. And tourists who travel with the desire to experience a certain city like a local may end up putting the locals’ daily lives and cultures at risk.
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