Changing Planet

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.

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
  • John Francis

    Sobering thought, Jonathan, but agree entirely that visitors should give as well as get when it comes to visiting a new locale. Tourism should supporting the values of places so they continue to attract for generations to come.

  • Albert Salman

    Excellent analysis Jonathan! I can’t agree more.

    25 years ago Barcelona, Venice and Florence were experiences of a lifetime, all unique and unforgettable.
    You could still talk with the locals, see how people lived, they weren’t absorbed or chased away by crowds, cruiseliners or sharing economy yet.

    Nothing of that anymore. Tourist hordes came, local people backed out.
    Mary unforgettable places became places to forget as soon as possible, and never to return. Barcelona, desperate for tourists, fell prey to the uncanny and the party folk, and clearly became less sustainable than ever before in its history.
    Eyebrows raised here and there as Barcelona was certified as the world’s first GSTC recognised “sustainable destination” in 2011 and again 2014. It is this you have to do to become a sustainable destination?

    Yes, the times they are changing.
    It is time for the new tourist, but part of the problem is in them too.
    The new tourist doesn’t expect a special experience anymore from a destination.
    The destination is just another background for your selfies when you have some spare time in between the apps, the tweets and the posts.
    Being in the crowds has become the experience in itself, and the nice thing about globalisation is that the experience will become more of the same wherever you go.
    The experience will be about your neighbours in the crowds.
    How small the world of global tourism is becoming in a world of globalisation.

    But I believe the end will be happy.
    More and more people will start realising that you can find your holiday experience and your favourite franchise shop close to your hometown too.

    Just as well, since the Paris Climate Agreement will hopefully make you think twice before trotting the globe again just for another bunch of selfies.

    Best wishes,
    Albert Salman

  • Samantha Hogenson

    I also could not agree more. The issue of World Heritage status is an interesting one especially- these incredible places are given World Heritage status in order to protect them, but as soon as that label is announced, they are more or less “loved to death.”

    This article also brings me back to thinking of the book “Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel & Tourism” by Elizabeth Becker – chock full of on-point case studies. All of us working towards “sustainable development” in the tourism industry need to reflect on your and Elizabeth’s case studies to try to find a way to figure out how we can reach the masses? How do we convince tourists and destinations alike that quality, not quantity, is the answer? It’s a difficult task and I certainly don’t have the answer, but hopefully the UN resolution and the Paris Agreements will provide some leverage for the conversation.

  • Lucy Matthews

    I also agree with the article — we need to be taking a careful look at what sustainable means in the tourism world, and focusing on quality tourism and reducing the tendency of popular destinations to exceed their carrying capacity. Policies put in place to ensure a manageable number of tourists can really help prevent this overcrowding, and provide a more enjoyable experience for the visitor. For example, I visited the Hypogeum of Hal-Saflieni in the often mass-touristic Malta a couple years back. They have a cut-off of how many visitors a day, and how many per tour. This process helps to both reduce pressure on the ancient site and to provide a better experience for the tourist. Because of the small size of my tour I felt I could really take in my surroundings in the prehistoric underground space, and could hear my tour guide when he announced that I should “watch my head!” in the low ceilinged areas (not that I listened — I ended up banging my head right after the announcement!).

  • Randy Durband

    I also agree with all the comments. Overcrowding is an enormous issue. We need to see real plans for visitor dispersion in order to protect the established destinations and to provide economic benefit to emerging destinations.

    Also we need to work on the total amount of carbon emissions from transport. Happily, emissions per flight are decreasing as new aircraft are more fuel-efficient than previous generations, but the aggregate of trips traveled and therefore carbon emitted will continue to increase. We need fewer and longer trips taken by air, and all of transport — air and land — need to be less oil-based and more efficient in oil usage.

    These are a few quick thoughts in response to an enormous and complex subject.

    Randy Durband

  • Anna Pollock

    Thank you Jonathan for this important post. Until tourism success can be re-defined from more to better and we allow receiving destinations (hosts and residents) to define what better looks like and works for them, the patterns you describe in your post will continue to repeat. You have 100% support from me for opening up a critically important conversation.

  • Eugene Kim

    Thanks for the great article Jonathan. One thing I wonder about is how tourism can be sustainable without it becoming elitist. Paying premiums to gain access to particular places or experiences might be a good way to shrink crowds, but that could narrow the type of tourist considerably.

    Maybe one way to help make tourism sustainable would be through voluntourism. Although many of the voluntourism trips also come with a fairly high donation fee, perhaps there are ways that travelers can exchange their time and talents for better access to popular sites or a unique experience. For example, in Oaxaca, Mexico the nonprofit Fundacion En Via allows volunteers who work with them to join them on one of their tours to learn about microenterprises in local handcrafts or traditional foods, for example, for free.

    In terms of cultivating tourists and locals who care about destinations and promote a responsible travel ethic that travel is about quality and not quantity, participating and supporting groups like couchsurfing, BeWelcome, Big Apple Greeters and similar groups could help.

    One example of this is the small group of fantastic organizers for an annual couchsurfing/BeWelcome summer event known as “Welcome to Friesland.” These Frisian locals volunteered their time to showcase the best of their home in Leeuwarden (Netherlands) and the surrounding area, including a few islands in the North Sea (a small fee was charged to defray costs of actual boatrides, etc. but the organizers really were volunteers). I went a few years ago to this event and had an amazing experience sailing in a Skutsje and mudwalking, among other very local experiences, with both locals and other travelers. I not only learned a bit about this little known gem of an area but got to know some of the great community of people who call that area home. The description of the event not only had me decide to travel to the Netherlands for vacation, which I hadn’t considered before, but having had such a great experience, I ended up staying in the Netherlands a bit longer than intended….sustainable tourism in the sense that it sustained my interest and appreciation for a place. I didn’t even end up going to Amsterdam, but if people like CSers and others can attract people to their locales, which may not be as well known or popular, then that in itself may help alleviate the crowding in the typical touristic draws.

    The WTF (as it’s commonly known) event has happened yearly since about 2010/2011 and consistently attracts travelers and locals alike, no doubt influencing travelers to visit that part of the world. And over the past 2 or so years, a couple of the organizers have started to lead their own guided (free) walking tours of Leeuwarden…now one of the top rated activities on TripAdvisor…with reviews noting, unsurprisingly, their high quality.

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