Many of us know this scene: you arrive at your dream destination after much planning and set off to visit the city’s most famous tourist attraction. When you arrive, what you see is a crowd of people: giant groups, families of all kinds and groups of teenagers doing a million poses.
It doesn’t matter if it’s the Colosseum in Rome or the Salar de Uyuni, there are places that are really full of people. From the moment a place becomes accessible to tourists with an adequate infrastructure to receive them and the destination falls into their clutches, everything becomes a sea of people, photos and souvenirs.
The problem begins when these crowds become larger than the infrastructure the place has to receive them.
does one tourist inconvenience too many people?
Tourists have been “annoying” the locals for a long time. As early as the 1960s, the American sociologist Dean MacCannell described tourists as foolish creatures, attracted by “pseudo-events” and “staged authenticity”. According to MacCannell, tourists arrive, are enchanted by anything and leave, back to their reality, without noticing the reality of the other.
Today, entire cities such as Barcelona and Berlin are fighting against the advance of collaborative rental housing platforms, which use the homes of those who live there in the name of tourism. However, criticising or banning tourism is counterproductive, especially since a large part of these cities’ income comes from tourists. Scholars have already shown that blaming travellers is not the solution to the problem. First and foremost, it is necessary to understand the problem.
what is overtourism?
Just because a place is crowded does not mean that a destination is saturated. In tourism studies, this is called “crowding” and it just means that there are too many people in relation to the space. Think of the Eiffel Tower in the summer or Times Square in New York.
Crowding occurs when a massive influx of tourism threatens the culture, economy and nature of a place. A group of researchers commissioned by the European Parliament to carry out a study on the subject described “overtourism as a situation in which the impact of tourism at a given time and place exceeds its physical, ecological, social, economic, psychological and/or political limits”.
How Instagram has contributed to overtourism
Crowded places are not necessarily endangered places. However, with the rise of new communication technologies and the change in the way we travel, we must add another factor to the equation: the Instagram factor. When dozens of influencers visit a place, their followers are likely to want to repeat the photo.
An example of this is the monument called the Gates of Heaven in Bali.
There are so many beautiful photos on Instagram that nowadays there are lines of tourists waiting for their turn to have an “influencer moment”. The surrounding landscape, which does not appear in the photos, is nothing like what you would expect. But the Lempuyang Temple, where the famous gates are located, is sacred to the people of Bali and is worth a (more respectful) visit.
It is not only the ultra-photographed places that suffer from overtourism. According to the above-mentioned European Parliament study, the results may be surprising: overtourism does not threaten big cities and their annoying inhabitants, but it does threaten small rural towns and the environment around them.
In conclusion, when the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is full, this is simply crowding. But when the Thai government decides to close Maya Bay, its most famous beach, until 2021, it is because nature can no longer recover from the damage caused by predatory tourism. It is at this moment that we must turn on the warning signal and reconsider how we choose our dream destinations, how we travel and how we regulate tourism activity.
The most dangerous facets of overtourism
When overtourism gets out of control it can wipe out historic sites, native species and ancient cultures. The pressure that thousands of tourists put on a place is far greater than we can imagine. Tourists leave a lot of money wherever they go, but they also leave a lot of rubbish behind.
Think of a small town that has a sewage system designed for 10,000 inhabitants. When the government decides to host an international event that will host 2,000 people, they calculate how many dollars the visitors inject into the economy, but they don’t think about the daily waste that overloads the system (yes, we’re talking about pee and poo).
A simple prediction error can burst a pipe, disrupt the city’s water supply, contaminate the water table and rivers, and even an entire city! Sound like an exaggeration? Well, this is a common situation in some of South America’s most touristy cities during the Dakar Rally.
Laws to protect against the saturation of tourist sites
how to solve the problem? By stopping travelling? By locking ourselves at home and sobbing thinking about places we will never see live and direct? No, the role of the tourist is not to solve the problem of the infrastructure of entire cities. It is up to us to respect the rules, not to be a nuisance and not to waste natural resources. An example of relative success is the sacred mountain of Machu Picchu in Peru.
We backpackers have been hearing for years that Machu Picchu is about to close. Today there is a limit to the number of visitors the ruins can receive on a daily basis, as a result of pressure from the UNESCO committee that protects World Heritage Sites. The pressure worked and we can say that Machu Picchu will be open for a long time for visitors.
How not to be one of “those” tourists
Every backpacker thinks he knows how to travel better than the “mass”, the package tour visitors. It’s not me who says so, but there are studies on the subject. Backpackers have more freedom to make their itinerary, spend more time in one place and not just consume sights and souvenirs and disappear. This is a fact, although there are more factors to consider.
Respecting local customs seems like common sense, but it’s difficult to perceive the cultural nuances that set us apart from our hosts if we don’t pay enough attention. Inquire about customs before you travel, ask questions, listen and observe. You and your friends are super excited to travel by train to a European capital, in style, I know, but for others on the train, it can be another trip from home to work. It is important to respect the silence of others.
In short, put yourself in the shoes of someone who occupies the same space as you.
Sustainable ways to travel
There are already more sustainable ways to travel and you probably already practice many of them. The hostel is the best way to stay, as it allows you to have more contact with other travellers, swap accommodation for work and take up less space than a king-size bed in a five-star hotel.
In addition, you can cook and avoid the mountains of rubbish generated by fast food restaurants.
Also, with a backpack, you probably won’t spend all day busy with activities and going from tour to tour. By travelling at a slower pace and staying longer in one place, you reduce your carbon footprint, get in touch with the locals and discover what it’s really like to live there.
7 tips for sustainable tourism
These are some super simple tips that can be implemented on your next trip, helping to lessen the negative effects of overtourism and allowing us to visit these destinations for much longer:
- When possible, choose to travel by train or bus instead of taking the plane.
- Bring your reusable water bottle and metal utensils (straw, cutlery and plate).
- Do your research on where you are going and choose to travel in low season.
- “In Rome, do as the Romans do”, i.e. act and eat like a local, encouraging small family-run businesses rather than multinationals.
- Choose your souvenirs wisely to avoid contributing to predatory industries (no bird feathers, precious stones, pieces of archaeological sites).
- Don’t visit attractions that use animals, such as elephant rides.
- Never leave your rubbish lying around, especially when visiting nature reserves, the motto is “leave nothing, take only pictures”.
About the author
Mariana Eberhard is a freelance journalist and translator. She lives in Berlin, is the mother of a German-Brazilian family and a collector of tropical plants. In her spare time, she is trying to complete a PhD in the sociology of tourism, where she researches backpackers in South America and cultural conflicts. Some of her texts can be found on the blog Travel Praxis.