Anyone who’s traveled to Venice, Barcelona, or Machu Picchu recently and jostled with throngs of fellow tourists will be familiar with the meaning of “overtourism.” Simply put, too many people in one place at the same time strains the local infrastructure, threatens its culture, and degrades its environment; not to mention significantly reducing the enjoyment of visiting a specific location.
Places that were once distant, and innocently quaint, have become mainstays of vacationers, cruise lines, and Instagram snappers. The local infrastructure is frequently inadequate to accommodate a rapid influx of people leading to severe congestion in and around ancient narrow alleyways and town squares. Locals are up-ended from their homes (today, fewer than 1,600 people now live in Dubrovnik’s Old Town) as more and more tourists flood their streets.
Hotels, large chain restaurants, fast food outlets, and souvenir stores spring up on every corner. Consequently, the character, culture, and environment of the places that attracted us in the first place change, or in some cases, disappear forever. Additionally, tourism is today estimated to be responsible for 8 percent of global carbon emissions.
Recognizing The Problem
Some popular destinations are already waking up to the reality of overtourism and its negative impact. Venice has limited the number of cruise ships that can visit the city, Amsterdam has recently announced it will stop larger cruise ships entering the city, and Machu Picchu now limits the number of visitors to the ancient Inca citadel to protect against further soil erosion and ruin.
Whilst governments can legislate to limit infrastructure use, real change needs to come from within — the tourism industry, tour companies, and travelers themselves. The good news is that there are a growing number of initiatives (Responsible Travel, Sustainable Tourism, and Eco Travel) that more and more travel companies are promoting in order to minimize the negative impacts of their travel business whilst making a positive contribution to the communities and environments they visit.
The UN World Tourism Organization has created a formal definition of sustainable tourism as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social, and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment, and host communities.”
The objective is for the tourism industry to be fully aware of all the positive and negative impacts their activities have on the people, places, and environment they visit and to address these impacts. Put another way, tourism should maximize positive impacts (local job creation, wildlife preservation) whilst minimizing the negative (environmental harm, overcrowding).
Leaders In Sustainable Tourism
There are several travel companies globally (Journeys With Purpose, Byway, Audley Travel, and Amazonas Explorer to name a few) who actively promote sustainable tourism and provide transparency of their performance through verification by external third-party auditors. These certified B corporations bring a level of credibility to their claims of using travel and tourism as a force for good.
So, do their actions match their lofty claims? I recently traveled around Turkey on a 14-day tour with the first company to achieve B-corp status — Intrepid Travel. They are an Australian company whose mission is to “Create positive change through the joy of travel.”
We were overrun by large groups from a cruise ship that had docked 20 minutes away at Kusadasi cruise terminal. Suddenly, there were thousands of people swarming all over the ruins. Pathways were crowded and people jostled to snag that Instagram-ready shot, making it difficult not only to fully appreciate the historical significance of the ruins, but it also caused us to wonder what physical damage such a high density of people was doing to the fragile site. Further along, the guests were shipped in and out quickly with little time to contribute to the local economy.
We, on the other hand, traveled in a small group (maximum 12 people). It not only lessened the physical environmental impact on each site but also allowed a much more meaningful appreciation of the site’s history and importance as we huddled around our local guide. After the tour, we ate at a local restaurant that could easily cater to our small group.
Offering many (over 100) hot air balloon rides every sunrise to admire the landscape, it’s no wonder tourists flock here. We avoided large chain hotels and stayed at a small, locally owned boutique hotel thus ensuring our revenue remained in the local community rather than ebbing away to corporate coffers elsewhere. We stayed at Aya Kapadokya, a renovated cave dwelling whose young owners provided us with an authentic experience, fascinating history, excellent food in cozy surroundings, and unparalleled personal attention.
Our small group enjoyed a boat tour and lunch aboard a former fishing vessel. The owners, a local Turkish couple, used to fish for a living, but since tourists discovered this quaint fishing village, they now use their vessel for guest charters. The captain caught and cooked bream on his small grill while his wife prepared all the “fixings.”
When asked what they thought of tourism coming to Kas, they replied that they liked it because it brought them money but were concerned that there were already too many tourists. Their sleepy fishing village culture is being replaced by a more vibrant tourist feeling, though many online reviews of Kas maintain it “still remains relatively unspoiled.” Nonetheless, our tourist dollars went directly into the pockets of our hosts and supported the local economy.
The following day, we enjoyed lunch at the home of a local woman. It was a wonderfully authentic affair and the money she received from our tour company enabled her to send her two daughters to college. She is now sponsoring two more kids to go through higher education. This is a tangible example of tourism income going directly to benefit the local community.
Responsible Travel In Action
Responsible travel focuses more on the behavior of the individual traveler, though, for certain, tour companies can set the expectations for responsible travel. Being a responsible traveler means showing consideration and respect for the people, culture, and the places you visit.
With thousands of years of dynamic history, Turkey is a complex blend of customs and cultures. Understanding the basics of what is and isn’t appropriate behavior is key to respecting your hosts and their values. Intrepid provided us with a suggested “reading list” prior to departure. It was a great idea and reading these (or any good travel guide) made me better prepared to understand the history and customs of the Turkish people, which made the tour so much more meaningful. My wife came prepared to cover her hair before entering a mosque. I happily haggled for bargains in the market and was ready to take the time to enjoy tea in the process.
Learn key words in the local language. We frequently said “Hello,” “Please,” and “Thank you” in Turkish even though English was widely understood. It’s respectful and much appreciated by the locals.
It may seem daunting to some, but traveling on public transportation or trying unfamiliar foods in smaller local restaurants immerses you into the culture and will generate a more authentic travel experience. This also fosters a relationship, albeit fleeting and tenuous, with the locals who are more likely to engage with you and help you understand their way of life. It simply shows respect for your hosts.
We eschewed fast-food chain restaurants and always ate locally. We did not always recognize the items on the menu, but trying new things is half the fun.
Leave A Small Footprint
Traveling on local buses or metros rather than hailing a taxi or Uber minimizes your carbon footprint. Istanbul has a wonderful tram system and we were shown how to purchase tickets to get around. During one short ride, I struck up a conversation with a local about politics and the upcoming election — perhaps not the wisest topic but a great way to get an authentic insider’s view.
Avoiding single-use plastic (especially the ubiquitous water bottle) prevents a waste disposal burden for your hosts as well as a reduced reliance on the fossil fuels that generate the plastic. Intrepid sought out hotels where we could refill our own water containers.
Offset Your Carbon Footprint
The elephant in the room when considering the environmental impact of travel is the CO2 emissions from our continent-hopping flights. Some companies (like Intrepid) will estimate the CO2 emission from your trip and offset this amount by buying “offset credits.” These funds go towards various global projects being undertaken to sequester or absorb CO2.
Nowadays, you can estimate your carbon footprint online and calculate the offset needed to claim a net-zero impact. Although companies like Intrepid donate part of the tour cost to an offset project, it won’t hurt to do it yourself too. It doesn’t break the bank and you know you are doing good.
If future generations are to enjoy exploring new places and faces across the world as we have the privilege of doing today, then sustainable tourism and responsible travel need to become the norm. The solutions are available to us; we just need to be judicious in our choices and behaviors.