2019 was the summer of Europe. Everybody and their dog visited sun-drenched Spain and sailed the azure-blue seas that surround Greece. Instagram was brimming with FOMO-inducing snapshots that left everybody else at home already planning next summer’s euro trip. What you didn’t see in the carefully curated photos was throngs of tourists waiting in line to take that same snap, overflowing rubbish bins at popular tourist attractions, and the infuriating traffic that clogs up otherwise quiet towns. It gets worse, some of these destinations have had to close…
In need of a little inspiration to get off the beaten track? Here are 7 Under-the-Radar Eco-Experiences in Southeast Asia to get you started and 5 Ways to Become a More Conscious Traveller.
Within the past eight years, international tourism has received the most positive growth since the worldwide economic crisis of 2009. In 2017, tourist receipts generated upwards of 1.33 million foreign arrivals. In Asia alone, visitors increased by 6%, and expenditure reached approximately US$390 billion. The high presence of tourism proves that it is one of the most necessary sectors for global economic development and job creation, as well as being a key driver in the development, well-being, and prosperity of ever-increasing destination locations. However, while tourism can bring many positive aspects, there has also been controversy over the negative stressors that are being imposed on host countries and communities as a direct result from the field.
Advances in travel technology, higher disposable incomes, and increasing awareness due to media coverage (cough, Instagram, cough) have all been factors driving millions more to travel each year. And as a result, overtourism has become the term being used to describe the heightened level of anxiety that stems from the negative environmental, economic, and socio-cultural issues in tourism hotspots.
Overtourism in action
One of the most infamous cases of overtourism on this side of the world is the 2018 closure of Boracay island in the Philippines. Boracay was thrust into a global spotlight when Condé Nast Traveller named the tiny four-mile-wide stretch of land the ‘Best Island in the World’ two years in a row. After the large-scale international exposure, Boracay began to receive an influx of tourists — breaking 2 million arrivals in 2017 (14% higher than 2016) — and generating about US$1.1 billion.
But because Boracay’s infrastructure was not prepared for this surge, issues like improper sewage treatment, pollution build-up, algae blooms, and over-development became some of the environmental matters that wreaked havoc on the island’s ecosystem. When Boracay reached its breaking point, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte declared the island a cesspool and temporarily closed the island in April 2018 in an attempt to recuperate and preserve the area.
Boracay reopened in October 2018 with a brand new Sustainable Management System in place (which includes capping the number of tourist arrivals allowed), and so far it seems to be working. Despite this temporary closure being necessary for the long run, shutting down the island for six months resulted in millions of dollars of lost revenue, around 30,000 displaced jobs, and significant local livelihood instability.
Unfortunately, downward-spiralling cases from tourism (like Boracay) are becoming more of a common occurrence. Just googling “overtourism” will bring up hits for Machu Picchu, Maya Bay (which is also currently closed to tourists), Komodo Island (which is slated for closure in 2020), and so on. The matter is becoming so extreme that in destinations like Venice, Amsterdam and Barcelona, anti-tourist movements have emerged as local residents complain that their environments are being damaged and their quality of life is rapidly deteriorating. At the same time, it is also recognised that by taking away this source of revenue, economies would be significantly impacted, trapping these respective destinations into an unfortunate “double-edged sword” debate.
Suggested Solutions for Overtourism
According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation’s (UNWTO) long-term forecast, trends suggest that growth within the travel and tourism sector is only expected to continue. So how is it possible to find a balance between cultural, socio-economic, and environmental domains to secure long-term sustainability, all while fulfilling the needs of the industry, host communities, the environment, and visitors?
In the world of sustainable tourism, tourism dispersal has become a hot topic. People are turning to their local governments and tourist boards to strategically market destinations outside of gateway cities, hoping to encourage tourists to have more outbound experiences and explore deeper. In theory, dispersing travel is meant to alleviate the environmental and socio-cultural stressors, while still allowing the host countries to reap the economic benefits. Furthermore, to ensure that scattering tourism maintains a sustainable structure, governments and tourism boards are highly encouraged to have Sustainable Management Systems in place before attempting to attract travellers to new destinations.
As a traveller, it’s important to stay informed on matters surrounding sustainable tourism, like overtourism and tourism dispersal, in order to actively make decisions that will allow for tourism to flourish and positively support host destinations. By choosing lesser-known destinations, conscious tourists have the chance to uplift local communities, experience a more vibrant culture, and have a minimal burdensome footprint.