We’ve all done it: scrolled past snapshots of dazzling waterfalls, paradisiacal beaches and jaw-dropping mountain ranges and instantly felt a burning desire to see them in person. You might follow this up by adding them to your ever-growing bucket list or, if you’re anything like me, by immediately searching for flights. Just a few weeks ago, I went to perhaps one of Asia’s most well-known natural beauty spots. Nestled on Vietnam’s north coast, Ha Long Bay’s craggy limestone karsts and deep blue waters have long made it the poster child of the country’s tourism board (and for good reason – it is stunning). Nevertheless, due to the area’s beauty and UNESCO World Heritage recognition, it’s become a classic ‘tourist trap’ in recent years, with visitor numbers topping a whopping 11 million in 2022 alone.
I can’t deny that I wasn’t filled with trepidation in the days leading up to my visit. After hearing stories of it being clogged up with noisy party boats and floating plastic bottles, I’d been in two minds about adding it to my itinerary at all. Ultimately, though, it ended up being 100% worth it.
Sure, the cruise terminal was utter chaos and there were at least 30 other boats embarking on exactly the same route at the same time – but none of that ended up spoiling the experience. What’s more, I saw very little evidence of the rubbish that so many reviewers had mentioned.
The trip did, however, get me thinking about other popular natural beauty spots and how they’ve been impacted by tourism. With environmental concerns – from coral bleaching to pollution – very much in the limelight, should we really still be visiting these places?
Why we SHOULD still visit natural beauty spots
Wonderfully vibrant plants, incredible native wildlife, stunning vistas – there’s a bounty of reasons why natural beauty spots are so alluring. In a world where so many of us live in big, traffic-ladened cities, there’s definitely something therapeutic about spending our free time somewhere famed for its scenery. All the better if it’s warm and has great cuisine.
For me personally, the highlight of my Ha Long Bay visit wasn’t the excursions to the caves or the kayaking trip around one of the region’s natural lagoons. Instead, it was simply sitting quietly up on the sundeck of the boat and soaking up the sheer gorgeousness of the bay. It’s certainly a happy memory that will stay with me forever. And isn’t that partly what travelling is all about?
Another obvious reason people travel is to experience different cultures. Beauty spots often form a major part of a country’s identity; they can be important habitats for native species and be intrinsically linked to a community’s way of life. For the most part, these communities want to share them with the world and boost their local economies in the process.
Nevertheless, there’s no denying that tourism can come at a cost. Many beauty spots have taken the sensible step of restricting how many people can visit at any one time – a decision that not only stops the place from becoming overcrowded but also helps to protect the landscape and all that live within them. America’s national parks, including Yosemite, are brilliant examples.
Even Ha Long Bay has measures in place – from limits on how many cruises are allowed to operate to natural preservation projects – to help safeguard its natural beauty. You could just look at the thousands of photos of it on Instagram. However, if you have the means and the time and you’re sensible about how you visit, nothing beats actually experiencing a place in person.
Why we SHOULDN’T add natural beauty spots to our agenda
Over-tourism, coral bleaching, noise pollution – these are all things that are commonly thrown around these days when describing some of the world’s most famous natural beauty spots. And, as with many things, the demise of so many has been entirely down to us humans.
Whether you’ve seen The Beach or not, you’ll have likely read about Maya Beach. The secluded Thai cove made popular by the Leo DiCaprio film famously closed in 2018 after years of over-tourism which had led to significant coastal erosion and the destruction of most of its coral reef. While it reopened in early 2022 after some serious environmental repairs, there are now a whole bunch of restrictions in place to make it a more sustainable destination.
There may be other natural wonders that have followed suit but there is still plenty to be done to help protect these places for the future. It’s not just the damage caused to the sites themselves, either. Some have become so overwhelmed with people that it’s begun to affect the local communities around them, too.
Take the tiny island of Boracay in the Philippines, for instance. It used to be a peaceful, pristine fishing enclave (and regularly voted one of the best beaches in the world) before tour boats scared away the fish from its turquoise waters and most of its authentic Filipino restaurants were replaced with soulless fast-food chains. Nowadays, many people opt to visit Palawan instead. Is it just a matter of time until that suffers the same fate, though?
These are just two out of dozens of examples of places that have come dangerously close to being ruined by tourism. A beauty spot certainly begins to lose its appeal when you’re walking past piles of rubbish and jostling through noisy crowds of people waving selfie sticks in your face.
And then there are those natural wonders that are just downright dangerous for the majority of humans. When it comes to admiring the soaring peaks of the Himalayas, I’m perfectly happy to do it via a screen.
So, what’s the answer?
At the end of the day, whether you choose to go to a natural beauty spot or not is entirely up to you. Everyone should have the chance to experience these places on their travels – they’re there to be admired, after all. It is, however, always worth asking yourself whether you’re going to truly experience the place or simply just to say that you’ve been.
It’s almost always the case that there’s a brilliant, lesser-known alternative nearby that’s equally as spectacular. Take Snowdon – the UK’s third tallest mountain – for example. No matter what time of year or how early you wake up to climb it, you’re almost guaranteed to see crowds at its summit. Why put yourself through that when you can soak up the same dramatic views in a more peaceful setting at countless other Snowdonia peaks like Moel Siabod or Rhinog Fawr?
Social media certainly has a lot to answer for when it comes to encouraging people to visit certain photogenic locations. If you do make the trip to Ha Long Bay, Maya Bay, Boracay or similar, make sure you’re conscious of what impact you might cause and act responsibly. Go off-season if you can, never ever litter, be mindful of the local communities and try to choose a sustainable method of travel and/or tour company where possible.
One final thought: you don’t have to go where everyone else goes. Beauty can be found everywhere and some of the best natural beauty spots are still likely yet to be discovered.
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