Less Is More: The Challenge of Overtourism
The outside world is a beautiful place. So, let’s remind ourselves what a delight it is to travel and discover wonders like hot air ballooning in Cappadocia or sacred Incan ruins. However, there’s a cautionary tale that accompanies wanderlust, a lesser-known companion named overtourism.
In the way that we’re consuming single-use plastic beyond our means, we’re consuming a lot of mainstream tourism. Much like plastic, once it’s served a temporary use, we cast it aside and move on without thinking of the long-lasting impact.
Does skimming the surface of a destination have a truly positive impact? More to the point: is single-use consumption the world’s number one hobby in all respects?
It’s time to tilt our perspective on sustainability. As well as carbon offsetting flights, we can start to think about travelling responsibly: treating destinations in a way that they can survive for the future.
What does this mean?
I’ve witnessed the effects of overtourism first hand, travelling to Peru in 2006 and again in 2017. After an adventure to South America as a young girl, I decided to set myself the goal of returning to hike the Inca Trail.
I first became acquainted with Machu Picchu, arriving by train in time for sunrise. An awe-inspiring moment which cast a spell across both the site and me. So much so that it sparked an interest in historical civilisations and later a decision to study Classics at university.
However, 11 years later, the sun, clearing the early mist merely revealed swarms buzzing around a touristic hive. The magic was gone, replaced by herds of people following designated footpaths. With long queues and less time to take everything in, Machu Picchu: The Sequel arrived at a huge anti-climax.
The site itself was never built for mass habitation, as told by a guide of the park. With the city sinking due to too great a daily footfall, will it survive? Half-day permits were introduced in early July 2017, mere weeks before this visit. Was this a move to spread tourists more evenly through the day? Or to cram more visitors into a clearly oversubscribed hot spot?
If ever there was the chance to return to that small pocket of the world on the rather large continent of South America, I’d consider a different trail. New trails like the Quarry Trek run almost uniquely by Intrepid. Here lies access to newly opened up Inca ruins which are just as crucial for understanding a past civilisation.
Why is this happening?
To simplify the situation, the world is more accessible than ever before.
An example of this arises from an increase of outbound tourists from China due to more flexible visa requirements and rising incomes. Outbound trips to China are due to reach 160 million by 2020. With an ever-increasing middle-class sitting within a rising global population that has the means to travel, tourism is bursting at the seams.
Not to mention, ‘ice cream tourists’: relating to large groups of cruise ship guests, so called for having all their meals on the ship, disembarking only to buy ice cream. The resultant purchase being the extent of economic impact left behind in the community. These repercussions go unnoticed to the masses.
To top it off, airlines are able to provide seats as cheap or even cheaper than trains. So it’s no wonder that UK travellers, hop on a plane to far-flung destinations before considering other options.
Consider a short-haul trip to Edinburgh from London. Flights are evidently more wallet and time friendly. A weekend return with flights from London Heathrow to Edinburgh with BA can upwards of £86 or EasyJet from Stansted only £79.98.* While a return train ticket from Kings Cross could set you pack a whopping £147.40. You could easily be off exploring the medina of Marrakech for that!
*Lowest available fares correct as of 23/09/2019 for 23/11/2019 departure
What can be done?
It’s not all doom and gloom! By delving into hidden secrets and choosing local experiences like a cooking class with locals, a world of experiential delight opens up. With the added benefit of having a long-lasting positive impact on a community. Local businesses and authentic restaurants can continue to trade from thriving tourism.
Travel is a portal to escape the everyday rather than a chance to replicate it. By choosing to ‘go local’, learn a bit of the language, try new foods or even avoid the crowds, it’s easier to reach the heart of a destination.
Once you’re off the beaten track, you’ll never go back!
On a trip to Toronto, I made a bold decision to take a day trip to the Scarborough Bluffs instead of Niagara Falls - and to great success. I spent the day in a beautifully picturesque landscape where the land meets the water, basking in the sun as I read my book on an EMPTY beach. It’s moments like these that make travel so memorable and unique.
There’s a lot of fearmongering and skepticism floating around the world. But this doesn't have to penetrate travel. Travel is a gateway for beating stereotypes, breaking down cultural barriers and promoting community values.
There are magical world wonders like Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat or the Taj Mahal which are a must-see. But let’s also make a pact to travel deeper and more responsibly.
Written by Caroline J,
also known as @carolinej294 on Instagram