Death by Tourism

2017: U.N. Year of Sustainable Tourism—Meaning?

Last week the United Nations declared that 2017 will be the “Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.”

This will no doubt launch a thousand new debates on just what “sustainable” means.

So I’ll get things started. For tourism to be truly sustainable we must face a swiftly growing problem: Too many tourists! Of all the malaprops attributed to the late, beloved Yogi Berra, none rings truer in the tourism world than: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

If you want to see how the headcounts are escalating, take a look at China. I was privileged to visit four World Heritage sites in China this year. One of them was Mount Huangshan National Park—a lovely cluster of dramatic mountains in southern Anhui, served by three gondola-lift lines. Our group had just wrapped up the annual meeting of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, and as special guests of the park, we were allowed to cut in line for the gondola lift. A good thing for us, as the queue was two hours long. The mass of Chinese waiting in the rain looked patient, even upbeat. Such waits are nothing unusual.

We need to transform our thinking about how we travel.

After a truly spectacular ride up through the craggy mountainsides, we found the walk among the summits equally packed. This was supposed to be a nature experience, but the paved walkways supported four-abreast traffic, and there was plenty of it. Guides with loudspeakers narrated for tour groups. A paved rest-area-cum-basketball-court—a basketball court up here?—was set aside for smokers. Also packed.

Sure, the crowds were friendly and well managed, but the quality of the experience was questionable, even for crowd-loving Chinese.

OK, but that’s a country with a billion-plus population. Is crowding a problem in the rest of the world?

You bet. Just look at Venice, Dubrovnik, Florence, Angkor, Cozumel, Barcelona—the list goes on. Over the past half century, international travel has increased almost 20-fold in terms of arrivals. Domestic tourism worldwide has kept pace, at four or five times the volume. An increasingly affluent world of seven billion people powers the growth.

Tourism Crowds from Cities to Glaciers

The number of travelers keeps climbing—more than one billion international arrivals annually—but the sites they visit stay the same size. Florence, for example, now copes with 16 million tourists a year, many of them day-trippers who clog the streets and force out local merchants in favor of international franchises. The new mayor of Barcelona just rode into office on a promise to limit tourism—“We don’t want to end up like Venice.”

Tourboat passengers vie to Tourboat passengers vie to photograph the Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot
Tour-boat passengers vie to photograph the Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

Earlier this year I visited Argentina’s Perito Moreno glacier, famed for steadily calving into an Andean lake. It’s part of  Los Glaciares National Park—another World Heritage site—at the bottom of the world in Patagonia, 1700 miles (2700 km) south of Buenos Aires. Except for Antarctica, that’s almost as far as you can get from the world’s mass-tourism travel lanes. Yet annual visitation here ranks in the hundreds of thousands. Our little party of four was put on a standard, one-hour glacier-watch cruise, loaded with over a hundred tourists. We learned almost nothing about the glacier. Selfie sticks abounded. Passengers jostled for position against the railing. The purpose of this cruise seemed more about posting photographs on the Internet—me in front of the ice!—than truly experiencing the place. At the pier, tour buses waited to take everyone back to their hotels.

That’s the kind of hit-and-run tourism overloading the more popular sites around the world, encouraged by government officials who brag breathlessly of tallying thousands more arrivals each week.

We need to transform our thinking about how we travel, about how the great heritage destinations of the world manage themselves. Invert the conventional model: Quality tourism, not quantity tourism. By “quality,” I don’t necessarily mean expensive. I mean depth. That’s one reason we started National Geographic’s Geotourism MapGuides, based on geographical character: Here are the authentic, unique things a destination has to offer, recommended by the people who live there.

Expect changes. Barcelona is just the start. We’ll begin to see proposals for new incentives, and disincentives. You want to visit our city? Fine, but stay at least three nights, maybe with a discount incentive for a whole week. Help out the economy and get to know the place; become part of the solution, not part of the problem. Still want to take a quick tour with a couple of hundred others before sailing off on a cruise ship? Then pay a premium. Or use a tour company that contributes more to the destination than tour-bus exhaust.

The U.N. wants “sustainable tourism for development.” OK, but we need to get serious about what kind of tourism development equals “sustainable”? That won’t happen if tourism leaders in government and industry continue to set goals in terms of ever-climbing headcounts.

Yogi also said, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Too many tourism leaders try just that: Quantity, quality, can’t we take both?

In most cases—no, you can’t.

Changing Planet

National Geographic Fellow Emeritus; Founding Director, Nat Geo Center for Sustainable Destinations; former Geotourism Editor, National Geographic Traveler; CEO, Destination Stewardship Center; President, Focus on Places LLC