Travelling To Popular Places: The Depressing Effect of Mass Tourism
It was a recent conversation with my son James that has inspired me to write this post. We are having a cup of tea in the garden during the recent British August Bank Holiday weekend, one of the warmest ever recorded in the UK. Our mother-son bonding chat goes towards our love of travelling….. when he hits me with this sentence “I don’t like travelling to popular places”… Me: “Are you serious? What do you mean?” He: “when everyone goes travelling to the same place… it puts me off…” So I argue that popular places are popular for a REASON…usually an amazing land mark, beautiful scenery etc.
But it got me thinking…would I avoid travelling to popular places that have been on my wish list for years because they are too popular? Crowded? Have been talked about, explored, photographed, shared on social media… to death?
Many of these travelling destinations have been on my “bucket list” all my life and are now all within my grasp, many I have already visited. Certainly, my desire to see these places has not been the slightest bit diminished by their soaring popularity. World regions that not too long ago would have been considered a-once-in-a-life-time-experience, a dream destination. Who would not want to visit Venice, Rome, Paris, Angkor, Machu Pichu, Galapagos, etc.? There is no arguing that these once exclusive, dream destinations have now skyrocketed in popularity, thanks to social media over sharing, review platforms, unlimited access to information, cheaper deals, the affluence of the Boomer generation, also the Millennial generation who have travel ambitions and want to experience it all now. This tech savvy generation is always on the look out for the best deals and they are happy to share it all on social media…it has never been easier and cheaper to travel.
But I can see my son’s point of view. Places are becoming spoiled by the growing tourism industry, the paradox of mass tourism, it is a double edged sword. On one side the immense benefits that can be brought to a country’s economy are certainly not to be ignored. Particularly for poorer countries, whose economies are now booming due to sudden increased popularity, there are many regions of the world that feed primarily on tourism, their economy depends on it. But the money does not always go to the pockets of locals. Cheap package deals mean that local businesses are seeing their profit margins declining and most of the money often being pocketed by the large international resorts and corporations. Thinking here of your cheap “all-inclusive” hotels, where meals and alcohol are all included in the price. Tourists have very little or no incentive to leave their luxury all inclusive resort, therefore spending very little of their tourist dollar on local hotels, bars and restaurants.
Mass tourism can change the character of a place for the worst. The once charming, full-of-mystery foreign land becomes another victim of the homogenized, standardized model of modernization.
Ko Phi Phi, Thailand
The very reason for its popularity can also become its downfall, mass tourism is changing the character of some places, once idyllic locations have now been turned into an over developed resort nightmare…looking at places like Ko Phi Phi, for example, which was thrust into the limelight by the Hollywood movie “The Beach”, it is now overrun by careless tourists. The all night “full moon” parties are not welcomed by all that visit this charming Island off the Thailand coast. Party goers have little consideration for the locals who have to put up with their all night parties and noise pollution. Brian and I loved visiting Ko Phi Phi back in 2013, but we did ponder, during our 4 days stay in this beautiful island, how it will cope with its ever increasing popularity?
As a resident of a tourism hotspot, I see few benefits of the crowded roads, beaches and beauty spots during the high holiday season here in the South of England. Local restaurants and hotels may welcome the high influx of visitors, but to what cost? Visitors cause inflated prices of food, housing and infrastructure. I can’t help longing for the end of the summer holidays and for an order to be restored. I feel sorry for the residents of other tourist hot spots that are busy all year round.
Invaded by the mega cruise ships Venice is under threat. The cruise terminal is in the heart of historic Venice, the passage of every single ship causes erosion of the mudflats and sediment loss.This beautiful Italian city, surrounded by water has its present and future blighted by the vested interests of mass tourism as it provides jobs and money to the Italian economy. Venice is the gateway to the cruise industry down the Adriatic, it keeps it “afloat”. Even though the huge cruise ships are turning the city into an environmental disaster, threatening not only the dimensions of the city (it now floods regularly) but also the Venetians quality of life. Local authorities continue to put the short term gains of tourism before sustainability and the long term environmental effect of mass tourism. Not surprisingly Unesco has Venice on its “endangered” list. Venice is a unique city, back in 2010, I took a cruise with Brian and our children from Venice down the Adriatic visiting Croatia and some of the Greek Islands. Standing on the upper deck of the cruise ship it was a travel moment of pure bliss, we floated past the historic centre of Venice, along the Lagoon, passing Piazza San Marco, Doge’s Palace, the Campanile (bell tower) and many other stunning Italian architecture and monuments. We entered the Lagoon in the early morning, La Serenissima felt every bit as serene as I have dreamt off all my life.
Almost 30 years ago when I first visited this site, the atmosphere was so different. Brian and I rode our motorbike and parked very near the site, we could walk right up to the stones, touch it even (I am not for a minute condoning that). There were very few tourists, the mood was of calm and contemplation. Now with the gazillions of tourists that visit every day the stones are protected (as it should be) by a separation rope, allowing for a good distance between the photo clicking tourists and the magnificent Ancient site.
Is there any untouched wilderness out there?
When we think of a remote, inaccessible corner of this planet Everest often comes to mind. The ultimate adventure for the climbers who return from it alive with tales of hardship and unwavering self-determination. Sir Edmund Hillary from New Zealand and Tenzing Norgay, a Nepalese Sherpa were the first to summit Everest on May 29, 1953. It was a British expedition lead by Colonel John Hunt.
The Himalayan Database shows that 641 climbers made the summit in 2016 alone. The adventure climbers are not deterred even by the sombre statistics counting the number of deaths on this Himalayan mountain range. The 2016 database counted 282 people who have died on Everest from 1921 to 2016. The highest mountain on earth has claimed their lives. The high altitude of high mountains makes it hard for the human body to acclimatize, as it uses oxygen faster than it can be replenished, the oxygen level is not sufficient to sustain life. There is a need for supplementary oxygen, something that some mountaineers are keen to prove otherwise, as they push their bodies to its physical limits.
It is my dream to trek to Everest Base Camp one day. No doubt I will do my best to realise this dream. James again reminds me of how popular it has become… instead of the great spiritual, cultural experience we might encounter a queue of people heading up the same path among one of the greatest Mountain Range on Earth. Surprisingly Mt. Everest itself is now littered with climbing equipment, empty oxygen cans, plastics, tins, glass, clothes, tents and sadly even the remains of failed climbers. A sombre thought indeed. It is not in my plans to ever attempt to summit the highest Mountain on Earth, but there is no doubt in my mind that if I ever achieve my goal of trekking to its base camp I will nonetheless feel a great sense of achievement to simply be there standing on its shadow looking up to it’s moody and ice covered peak.
The recent trends of Ecotourism and adventure tourism have brought an increased number of tourists to Antartica, keen to explore this ice-covered land mass, the coldest and southernmost continent on Earth. There has been a steady increase of cruise ships in the last few years. The worry is that if larger cruise ships start coming it could disrupt the very fragile Ecosystem, which can take many years to recover, if at all.
The Polar ice caps regulate weather patterns and temperature, it contains about 90 percent of our planet’s freshwater stores. Pollution and disruption to its delicate balance are a big deal for the future of our planet.
But although its popularity and accessibility are increasing Antartica continues to be, at least for now, one of the most inhospitable places on earth and certainly not your main stream destination, thankfully not an all inclusive in sight … Let’s keep it that way.
The Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Another dream destination is The Great Barrier Reef, James again reminds me of how its popularity has also been its greatest demise. Global warming is destroying this fragile and balanced marine environment. Large parts of the reef have become bleached by pollution, rising water temperature and even some recent oil spills have decimated parts of the reef. Without proper care, the Great Barrier Reef could disappear within a generation.
Even the slightest change in water temperature can have a huge impact on the coral ecosystem. Human actions are directly affecting and causing harm to the Coral Reef in a way that it could be forever lost. In our recent visit to Australia, we were in awe of this incredible underwater world, not visiting it would have been unthinkable. There has to be no doubt that preserving it for future generations is of great necessity and urgency.
Changing Tourism Practices and Mentality
My son James, like many of us, wants to travel to unique destinations, more off the beaten path places, undiscovered places. Do they still exist? And if so how can we protect it from the mentality of let’s build a monstrosity all inclusive resort here? Even the best-kept secret places will eventually become mainstream. In the world of social media, no stone will be unturned. How to protect and preserve for future generations is fodder for a lot of debate. I don’t proclaim to have any answers but as travellers, we are all responsible for doing our bit, to question ourselves whether it is our very desire to visit these places, to tick them off our wish list the very thing that will ultimately destroy them? How can we become part of the solution? We can certainly do our bit by travelling in a more ethical, responsible and sustainable way.
We all know that there is an urgent need for better planning of tourism practices. Governments need to engage with local citizens, local businesses, service providers and visitors to collectively look for innovative ways of ensuring economic growth without the loss of unique environments, landscapes, heritage and cultural value. Reducing overcrowding in some of the most popular places by diversifying its product range, opening up new opportunities, providing better distribution of tourist activities elsewhere in the country. It might even be a case of reducing tourist numbers in some more sensitive and endangered areas by creating more protected areas. Ensuring the tourist dollar is used appropriately with most of the money going into the local economy, but also ensuring that the income from tourism does not become a priority over the needs and interests of its citizens. Unhappy hosts in overcrowded cities can often become hostile to tourists resulting in a reduced quality and joyless experience for visitors.
Do we need to stop visiting places we love in order to save it? Are you put off by mass tourism? Are the most celebrated landmarks now becoming overdone, uninspiring and just …too popular? Over to you…what do you think?