News·4 min read

Overtourism: How Traveling Impacts the World

Feb 14, 2020

The Story

“Wish you weren’t here” - locals to tourists. At least sometimes.

Way harsh, Tai.

We’ll explain. 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.

Sounds kind of nice...

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. 

The pre-Pitbull version.

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). 

And where are we now? 

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 2018, there were 1.4 billion international tourist trips. And it’s becoming unsustainable.

Where exactly is this happening?

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). But it’s become especially problematic in places like…

  • 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.

But how did things get this bad?

We get into that, how overtourism impacts local communities, and how you can travel smarter in theSkimm App. Every week, the app goes deep on a different news topic to give you the context you need to understand what's going on in the world. Download the app now and you get the first week free.

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