Overtourism: how to avoid contributing to it

Explore the Mekong Delta fields by bike
Explore the Mekong Delta fields by bike

While the word 'overtourism' has only recently been coined, even shortlisted in Oxford Dictionary’s 2018 Word of the Year, it’s a term that has put how we travel and where we choose to travel in the spotlight.

Travel writers in recent years have made the most of the social media driven concepts of the ‘Top 10 Best Places’, or the ‘Absolute Bucket List of Must-See Destinations’, ultimately driving tourists in their droves to just a handful of iconic landscapes, cities, cultural attractions or monuments. To top it off, the ‘selfie’ epidemic and travellers’ insidious desire to capture and share the most “Instagrammable” destinations, attractions and experiences has further narrowed demand.

Such influences have over-stimulated tourism to particular destinations, causing ‘overtourism’ which, according to the Oxford Dictionary definition, has negatively affected local environments and historical sites, as well as reducing quality of life for residents.

Japanese locals at Kinkakuji |  <i>Felipe Romero Beltran</i>

Tourist numbers have been growing exponentially for decades, fuelled by cheap flights and the world’s burgeoning middle class. This has seen 1.3 billion of us travelling in 2017 – a staggering jump from 25 million in 1950, and the number of tourists worldwide per year is tipped to reach 1.7 billion by 2030.

Impact of overtourism

The European summer saw overtourism in Barcelona reach a tipping point, with residents joining mass protests for its government to better manage the influx of travellers as a result of unsustainable tourist numbers. Services were no longer available for locals, but instead catered for tourists and short-term holiday apartments, making it difficult for residents to find a place to call home.

Ultimately, the concern is that such tourist hotspots were losing their identity – and what attracted the tourists there in the first place. The problem is being felt in other European countries, such as Venice and parts of Croatia, as well as Thailand, Indonesia and Australia’s iconic Uluru.

While people may gravitate towards “bucket list” destinations, a better and pleasurable way to travel is to seek out lesser-known places and unique and alternative ways to explore those destination.

The ideal approach is to travel more responsibly, being more socially conscious of one's impact when entering fragile environments, and being more aware of the footprint left behind when engaging with different cultures and visiting their homeland.

Whose responsibility is overtourism anyhow?

Governments need to take control to regulate and better manage tourist numbers to ensure that their tourism industry is sustainable – bringing benefit to people today without compromising the future.

Peru’s government has stepped in to protect Machu Picchu by limiting the number of permits issued each day. In 2017, the small island nation of Palau became the first country modify its immigration policy and made it compulsory for all tourists to sign an eco-pledge called the ‘Palau Pledge’.

Trekking the beautiful Machu Picchu |  <i>Chris Gooley</i>

There are numerous other regulatory mechanisms that governments and the industry can adopt to ensure tourist numbers are sustainable and at an individual level, we can each control our own footprint and avoid contributing to the problem.

5 ways to alleviate the pressure of overtourism

Travelling sustainably and being a part of the solution is to be mindful of the impact you have on the environments and cultures you come into contact with when you travel. Here are five ways to counter overtourism and embrace a more Thoughtful Travel experience.

•    Head off the beaten track. Steering "off the map" and away from well-trodden trails is a style of tourism World Expeditions has advocated since its inaugural Nepal trek in 1975. Choosing an adventure that goes beyond the crowds and into a more remote area will help counter overtourism and give travellers a better opportunity to forge greater connections with local people and their ways of life.

Thinking of heading to Vietnam's famous Sapa valley? Head to the country's remote north of Ha Giang instead with equally spectacular rice terrace views that escape the crowds and encourage more intimate local encounters. Check out 10 more "out there" treks that will take you on a truly remote wilderness adventure.

Enjoying the view after a day on the trail in western Nepal |  <i>Lachlan Gardiner</i>

•    Travel to popular destinations in the off-season. Popular attractions and destinations crowded with visitors negatively affect the experience for travellers and locals alike. If you plan to head to a place you know is popular, head there during its off-peak period, which will see significantly fewer tourist numbers with a better chance of more meaningful encounters and enjoying the beauty of nature with fewer crowds.

It will also save you the big bucks on airfares and accommodation, and you'll benefit from more availability when it comes to getting permits for activities such as mountain gorilla and chimp jungle trekking in Uganda or visiting iconic sites such as Machu Picchu.

•    Explore popular destinations differently. A destination's popularity can come at a price, so it's worthwhile seeking out unique ways to enjoy it. Spend less time in city centres and extend your travels into rural communities, head to popular attractions either earlier in the day or later in the day to skip the crowds, or venture on more remote adventures that avoid busier trails or which go beyond the classic routes.

Stunning turquoise waters of Tilicho Lake

Some suggestions include: camping by remote sections of China's Great Wall hosted by local families, exploring the other impressive Inca ruins with rare views of Machu Picchu, or trekking north of the classic Annapurna Circuit to wilder zones with unforgettable camping views of the striking Tilicho Lake.⁣⁣ Want more ideas? Here are ways to see UNESCO's newest World Heritage sites differently.

•    Smaller is better. Avoid big tour groups and larger cruise ships which have a larger environmental impact. When travelling in small groups, there’s more likelihood of animal encounters, more intimate experiences with locals and it makes it easier to control waste management, especially in remote regions.

With the chance to meet like-minded people, a small group of no more than 16 people provides opportunities for personal and immersive interactions, while your guide and support staff are attentive to your safety and comfort. It also means your group can access services and sightseeing attractions more easily than mass groups and enjoy small, local restaurants, cafes and accommodations. Read the 5 benefits of small group tours.

Pilgrims with traveller at Shah-i-Zinda, avenue of mausoleums, Samarkand |  <i>Richard I'Anson</i>

•    Opt for alternative destinations. Choose to travel to beautiful, lesser-known destinations whose economies need assistance. Turkmenistan, Bhutan, Papua New Guinea, Madagascar, Belize, Mongolia, Guyana and Tajikistan are among some of the most least visited countries around the world, according to IndexMundi. By avoiding popular sites and attractions this will help take the pressure off delicate environments already overwhelmed by travellers. View this list of 10 lesser-known hiking trails that avoid the crowds.

Engaging with villagers that rarely encounter trekkers |  <i>Lachlan Gardiner</i>

•    Book with an ethical tour operator that focus on responsible and sustainable adventures. When selecting travel arrangements, ensure that the company you choose employs local staff and provides safe and fair working conditions. Consider whether it selects small, locally-owned accommodation which are eco-friendly. How does it support local communities? World Expeditions' sustainable travel practices and commitment to supporting local communities at every level of the operation continues to underpin the way in which innovative and sustainable adventure itineraries are created. Plus, travel knowing that your trip is 100% carbon offset.

When visiting environments rich in wildlife and home to fragile and pristine ecosystems the importance of travelling responsibility is vital.

Remember you are holidaying in someone else’s home, be respectful and mindful of this at all times; think about ways to contribute to the local economy, which encourage communities to preserve their traditions, and experience local cafes, restaurants, grocers and markets, avoiding multinational or even national chains.

It’s all about visiting destinations more thoughtfully and leaving a positive influence in the special places visited, protecting what is delicate and minimising the impact of our presence.

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