Will Overtourism Force Cultures into Extinction?

Have you heard of the term “overtourism“?

If you have been (or will ever be) a tourist, you MUST educate yourself about overtourism. It has been a growing crisis for years and is threatening the existence of our favorite cultural destinations. Luckily, it has been temporarily eased by COVID-19, and you can do something to keep it that way.

I’ll cut to the chase: overtourism is a worldwide cultural, economic, and environmental crisis. Perhaps you’ve heard about overtourism with a different headline: “Venice is sinking,” “Amsterdam’s canals are filthy,” and “Everyone is climbing Mt. Everest in single-file lines”.

In hindsight, I’ve probably contributed to overtoursim. Most of us have.

I became increasingly aware of overtourism in the past 2 years, starting with my trip to Italy and my pit-stop in Rome for 3-4 days. If you’ve been to Rome in peak season (summer), you know how crowded it gets. I went in the shoulder season just before summer, which was already overwhelming. I couldn’t help but think, “How much of Rome is truly Italian anymore?”

My most recent encounter with overtourism was when I moved to Hawaii. I went from tourist to resident in a tourism-based economy.

Shortly after settling in, the COVID-19 lockdown began. Tourism had major restrictions on the island. I suddenly became a resident of a tourism-based economy without the tourism. Even though the economy is struggling, the island has adopted a very local, peaceful, natural aura – something the local Hawaiians haven’t experienced since the USA annex decades ago.

Needless to say, as someone who has both contributed to (admittedly) and felt the affects of overtourism, my interest in sustainable travel has peaked.

How can we stop overtourism? What can we do to become responsible travelers? How can we preserve the culture, architecture, and environment of the places we love to visit and dream to see?

crowd of people gathered in front of Trevi Fountain
Trevi Fountain in Rome, Italy (Photo by Jeff Ackley on Unsplash)

Do We Stop Visiting Popular Tourist Destinations?

Not necessarily. Some economies do rely on a percentage of their Gross Domestic Product coming from tourism, so completely halting tourism can be detrimental to local employment (as we have seen in a few places during COVID-19). Tourism should be a good thing.

However, the problem with crowded tourist destinations is that it destroys the local culture.

  • Real estate becomes too expensive for locals to afford.
  • Overpriced restaurants and tourist shops appear everywhere, which pushes local stores out.
  • Traffic increases, making everyday life difficult and frustrating for locals.
  • Pollution rises, so the architecture, infrastructure, and environment suffer.
  • Petty crime increases because distracted tourists in large crowds tend to be an easy target.

The crazy part? It cycles back around. The hospitality and travel industry further feed into overtourism. Locals have to supplement their primary jobs with secondary jobs to support themselves due to the increasing living costs, and those secondary jobs are largely found in the hospitality and travel industry (Uber, hotel greeters, tour guides). The locals find themselves depending on the travel industry for their livelihood, which they eventually come to resent.

Before you know it, the city once known for it’s culture is actually void of culture. It’s no longer what it once was, so the locals move out and learn to dislike the tourists.

As responsible tourists, how do we avoid overcrowding popular destinations?
  • Avoid high seasons and go during low or shoulder seasons. It’s cheaper, anyway.
  • Try to stay in locally-run hotels, bed & breakfasts, and hostels.
  • Avoid eating at the conveniently-located, overpriced, touristy restaurants. Support the locally-owned restaurants two blocks away or go to the market.
  • Try buying souvenirs at local antique shops, book stores, cafes, and art galleries. Avoid tourist shops and support local businesses.
  • Try going off the beaten path. Spend more time exploring the smaller surrounding villages, or research other cities that are equally as rich in culture.

Do you see a trend? In order to help reduce overtoursim, you have to be more adventurous! Create your own, unique path and avoid the masses.

a girl backpacking in a columbian village
(Photo by Michael Barón on Unsplash)

Do We Stop Documenting Our Travels on Social Media?

This has become a huge topic over the last several years with the rise of travel influencers. When influencers take beautiful pictures at a destination, people crowd that exact location to get the shot, too.

Is it for status? Is it for bragging rights? Does it stem purely from curiosity?

No matter the case, our reaction as an audience is the problem. We become sheep following the herd. If people are posting about Bali, then we all want to vacation in Bali. They want to take pictures with the famous “Gates of Heaven” at Lempuyang. The tourist lines wrap around the neighboring ancient temple (which is still a fully operational religious center for locals) just for that perfect Instagram shot. According to Travel Guide, some locals have to literally wait for tourists to finish taking pictures so that they can access the entrance of the temple to worship.

Honestly… how bad does that look.

The ironic part is that many travelers are disappointed when they realize the location is over-hyped. It’s just two ordinary pillars marking the temple entrance and a nifty photography trick.

The problem isn’t necessarily posting pictures of your travels. You should be proud of your adventures. It’s the behavior around the picture you’re taking that can become the problem.

Thank you for showing us the truth, Polina!
As responsible tourists, how can we adjust our behavior in other countries?
  • Avoid the “iconic” Instagram shots and document more unique aspects of the local culture.
  • Obey the signs: “Do not feed the wildlife”, “Do not stand on ruins”, “Do not climb into the fountain.” Don’t disobey these signs for a once-in-a-lifetime photo op. They’re there to preserve the surroundings so that you may one day return to the same beautiful destination.
  • Politely ask permission to take photographs of the locals instead of disregarding their privacy (bonus points if you use the local language to ask).
  • Do not stop traffic or stand in roads/railways for a picture.
  • Do your research on the local culture, traditions, and language. Try to speak a few phrases!
  • Please, for the love of God, discontinue the use of selfie sticks.

Do We Avoid Natural Tourist Attractions?

Sustainable travel does not require us to avoid stepping foot in the great outdoors. Our mere presence does not contribute to pollution, and the presence of safaris or National Parks does not ruin surrounding nature and wildlife. In fact, they can be very educational. Many safaris and National Parks do a great job educating and inspiring visitors to take care of Mother Earth.

That being said, the overtourism that is present as a result of certain natural attractions does have the potential to ruin surrounding nature and wildlife. Not every safari and snorkeling/scuba session is environmentally conscious. And, although I love National Parks, the concentrated tourism in certain parks like Zion and Yosemite is frightening for local conservationists.

Have you seen what has happened to Mt. Everest? Climbing the famous Himalayan mountain is no longer a huge accomplishment. Businesses have figured out how to charge large groups of tourists for a guided “expedition” to the peak. Climbing Mt. Everest has evolved from being a mentally, spiritually, and physically challenging experience to a classic tourist attraction. As a result, the mountain is increasingly prone to avalanches and tourist/local fatalities. It cannot sustain so many people climbing the ridges at once.

an insane amount of people climbing the ridge up Mt. Everest
May 2019 (Thank you PBS.org)

Remember that the environment can be impacted both directly and indirectly. Even if you’re staying in the city, your actions as a tourist can still result in environmental stress.

As responsible tourists, how can we make sure we protect the surrounding environment?
  • Do your research. Does the cage diving experience chum the waters for sharks? Choose another business. Does a conservation area offer educational tours on site? Seems like a legit safari.
  • Recycle when you can, and reuse certain utensils: reusable straw, water bottle, etc.
  • Shake off your hiking shoes before you pack them. You never know what kind of foreign bacteria, seeds, or fungus is stuck to the bottom of your shoe that you are introducing to a vulnerable, new environment. It could be the equivalent to transmitting the Spanish Flu or COVID-19 (plant version).
  • Avoid purchasing re-purposed natural items as souvenirs (rocks, sand, feathers).
  • Refrain from inhumane animal entertainment. A classic example includes riding elephants or visiting zoos that exploit their animals for photo ops.
  • Stay on hiking paths to protect soil from erosion.
  • Consider that, maybe, some natural attractions are better respected from afar.

You Can Help Save Your Favorite Cultural Destinations

This is a global problem. So many countries have areas that suffer from overtourism, and it’s up to us to save these cultures from going extinct.

Many, if not all, of the solutions revolve around simply being a mindful human being. As stated in Crowded Out: The Story of Overtourism: when we visit the countries of others, we must remember that “we take our holidays in [their] homes”.

Keeping this knowledge in mind, go forth and create your own adventures! Go see the world, as it has much to teach us.

Have you seen the effects of overtourism? Do you have any tips to add? If so, comment below!

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