How Responsible Travelers Can Help Fix Overtourism

Practical steps responsible tourists can take to mitigate overtourism.

Editor's Note: In this piece, Katie Diederichs, author of the responsible travel blog Two Wandering Soles and one of the judges for the 2020 Emerging Destination Awards, shares some guidance on how travelers can aim to make responsible choices and help mitigate the impacts of overtourism. You can find more perspectives at our Overtourism Solutions Center.


Barcelona, Boracay and Machu Picchu are objectively very different places, but they do have one thing in common: They are at risk of being, quite literally, loved to death. 

Residents in Barcelona have fervidly protested tourism in recent years, claiming among other things, that it has made their cost of living skyrocket. The Philippine island of Boracay was closed for 6 months in 2018 because the infrastructure of this small island couldn’t handle the sheer number of tourists. Machu Picchu has started showing damage from too many visitors, leading to the government’s decision to limit the daily number of tourists. And these places are not alone. 

According to the UNWTO, 2018 saw 1.4 billion international tourists, and 2019 is on track to break this record high. These numbers say it loud and clear: International tourism on the rise with no signs of stopping.

With increasingly affordable airfare and accommodation, a rising global middle class, and social media that encourages us to “just pack your bags and go,” there’s no question why we’re seeing such a spike in international travel. 

It is only in recent years that the general public is recognizing the negative impacts this spike in tourism can create. The term ‘overtourism’ is a growing buzzword making a splash in headlines and on social media. In the most basic sense of the word, overtourism is when too many travelers are in a place at once. 

The consequences of overtourism can be devastating and irreversible, making this an issue we can’t ignore for long. An excess of tourists can damage the environment, bring waste and pollution, threaten wildlife, diminish local culture, and cause a shortage of housing for residents. Even the travelers’ experience is negatively impacted by overtourism. Let’s be real; it’s not pleasant for anyone to be in a herd of selfie sticks.

So this begs the question, what can actually be done? 

Sure, you could simply not travel, but the data says it’s not a viable solution to rely on people just staying home.

There are many choices, both big and small, that travelers can make to help mitigate overtourism. They can be distilled down to three major categories: 

  1. Research and plan in advance
  2. Be flexible
  3. Practice respect

Research & Planning

This is not to say you shouldn’t travel with room for spontaneity, but putting effort into your planning will help you avoid some cardinal mistakes.

When possible, choose less popular destinations. 

Research countries and cities around the world that don’t get the fame and attention of Rome and Barcelona, yet have the infrastructure to support tourism.

Want some inspiration? Check out the 30 winners of the 2020 Travel Lemming Emerging Destination Awards

Research issues that the destination is facing. 

Residents in some major cities can no longer afford housing because of the rise of Airbnb. Yet in other destinations, staying in an Airbnb can support a local and offer an authentic experience. Some cities have overcrowded public transport and locals are having issues on their commute to work. But in other places, public transportation is a way to get around with the smallest carbon footprint. Research these issues so you can make an informed decision about where you stay and how you travel so that you aren’t part of the problem.

Get off the beaten path. 

When traveling in Cambodia, for example, every traveler visits Angkor Wat. Therefore, the crowds and tourism dollars stay in one general area. Getting off the typical tourist track can help spread the benefits of tourism while lessening the negative impacts. A simple Google search for “Cambodia off the beaten path” or “unique things to do in Siem Reap” can offer a plethora of places and activities that don’t see the same crowds as the hot spots.

Spend with community in mind. 

Think about every dollar you spend on your travels as a “vote”. It sends a message about what types of places you support, such as a family-run inn over an international hotel chain. If we start “voting” for locally-owned establishments, there will start to be a shift in these economies. Instead of large corporations expanding, there will be motivation for small businesses to grow and to flourish. 

Pack items that will help you avoid creating unnecessary waste. 

​Think of how much waste is created when millions of travelers come through a city each year. You can lessen your own impact by packing items that help you avoid single-use plastic. Here’s a good list of items to start with: reusable water bottle, water purifier, reusable bag, utensil set, and a reusable straw.

Think twice about cruises. 

Cruises are unarguably bad for the environment as they come with a massive carbon footprint. However, an equally big problem is the impact they create in the cities where they stop. Many port cities around the world have been utterly overwhelmed by cruise ships that flood them with tourists who stay for a couple of hours, then leave. The temporary influx of people doesn’t often pay out in the right way, since they aren’t staying overnight. Plus, with such a limited amount of time, cruise guests often stay in the same small footprint of an area, making crowds unavoidable. 

Note: Cruises can be a good way for older or differently-abled travelers to visit many different places at once; so if you do choose to cruise, try to pick a smaller ship and one that stops at cities that aren’t already suffering from overtourism.

Be Flexible

Not every traveler is going to have the luxury of a one-way ticket and a go-with-the-flow attitude, but there are some ways you can make your travels a bit more flexible, which will in turn lessen your negative impact. 

Consider traveling during shoulder or low season, especially if you’re planning to visit a popular place. 

Not only will you personally avoid crowds, but the money you spend on your trip will come at a time when the community needs it. Even in some popular tourist places, low season can be a struggle for business owners.

Stay longer. 

One major issue with overtourism is the fact that people tend to be in a hurry at popular sites. They get there and want to take pictures so they can move onto the next place to tick off their list. When many people are doing this at once, it creates congestion and an overall unpleasant experience. Instead of getting to the Taj Mahal with a strict 2-hour time limit, for instance, consider spending the night nearby so you won’t feel rushed and be forced into crowds.

Go early or late. 

​Another way to mitigate your impact while visiting a popular place is to get there before the major crowds start to trickle in, which is a good choice for people who don’t mind early wake up calls. Alternatively, going later in the day can be another way to stay away from the masses. 

Respect

We’ve all encountered people who are loud, rude, and ignore common courtesy. Don’t be person. Especially when you’re traveling to a place that is dealing with overtourism. Being disrespectful only amplifies your presence and shows locals the negative aspects of tourism.

As a respectful traveler, do your part to learn about local culture and customs. Follow the etiquette of the place you’re visiting, even if it’s not what you’re used to. Recognize that you are a visitor in someone else’s home, and act as such.

When you show respect, your presence is going to be much less of a burden. And in turn, you’ll get more out of the experience. 

Final Thoughts

Travel inherently leaves an impact, and it’s up to you as a traveler to determine what type of impact you want to have: Will you add to the crowds and the housing crisis in cities that are publically struggling? Or will you bring your tourism dollars to communities who could use it, and ensure your presence isn’t a burden?

Tourism, when managed well, can be a beautiful thing. But as the old adage says, too much of any good thing can be bad.

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