Travel. Is. Pure. Exhilaration. Bold. Poignant. Dynamic. Jarring. Scarring. Friendly. It can break down preconceived notions, shed light on forgotten biases, lead to friendships, relationships, and new states of mind. For the majority of people I know, especially those within the travel blogging world, travel is life, and life is simply a function of travel. People live to see the new and unexplored. This feeling of adventure permeates our western culture. Like pioneers crossing the Great Plains in covered wagons, we too are drawn to new frontiers. Even if that looks like visiting Boston for the first time, we are inspired by travel.
But it has not always been this way. The world travel actually comes from the old word travail. A woman in labor was said to travail, or be in great pain. For most of history travel was dangerous, uncomfortable, and beset with numerous risks. Highwaymen and robbers were the stuff of traveler’s nightmares.
Over the years, thankfully, travel has become popular, comfortable, and a sign of wealth and opulence. Despite all the upsides, some would argue that danger still exists, but this time it is not the traveler that carries the risk, rather the destination one travels too.
If you’ve been watching the news over the last few months, a question has returned to the mouth’s of commentators and the pen’s of journalists alike: are we over-traveling the world?
Planes, trains, and automobiles still provide the majority of transportation means to new and exciting places. But what about the carbon footprint associated with such travel? What about arctic wastelands trampled by the feet of well-meaning, but uneducated tourists? Is there an acceptable level of tourists a country should let enter their borders annually? For example, every year there is talk of permanently closing Machu Picchu to tourists due to irreplaceable damage caused by thousands of feet crossing the site on an annual bases.
The Untied Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) estimates we will see 1.8 billion trips by 2030, a massive increase from 1.2 billion trips taken in 2016. To put that into perspective, with 7.442 billion people in the world in 2016, that is equal to 16% of the entire population taking one trip a year. That doesn’t seem like much, but when you think about the amount of fuel consumed and the pollution created by that travel, 1.2 billion trips takes its toll on the world.
Countries around the world are taking notice, and more than one location has implemented quotas on tourism. VOA News reports that Dubrovnik, Croatia now limits daily tourists to 4,000 per day as the town was being overrun once news got out the location was a filming location for “Game of Thrones.” Ecuador allows only 100,000 annual visitors to step ashore on the Galápagos Islands. That’s less than the population of many average towns in the U.S.
Hostility is Growing
Environmental groups have also joined the discourse. The Chicago Tribune reports that the advocacy group, World Animal Protection, believes tourism is leading to animals being caged in zoos to satiate a growing number of tourists who want animal selfies. This comes from the fact that more people are traveling the world, and they want exciting things to take pictures with. Animals provide the perfect backdrop.
Some places have gone so far as to shut their sites to tourists for a given period of time the BBC reports recently. Maya Bay in Thailand has closed in order to give the ecosystem time to recover from its 4,000 – 5,000 daily visitors. Italy joined the party with closure of the famous path between the brightly painted towns of Riomaggiore and Manarola. Even top travel destination Manchu Picchu closes for the entire month of February.
Even if the natural environment is not threatened by tourists, some groups within a community are still hostile to travels invading their neighborhoods. I was backpacking through Lisbon in April, 2018 and was amazed to see “Tourism is Terrorism” scrawled across the historic neighborhoods I was walking through. Being a Marine Corps veteran, I had my own thoughts as to whether or not terrorism and tourism can be grouped in the same sentence, but that is beside the point. The point is that people are asking the question, “are we over-traveling the world?”
I remember growing up in a small town in the far north of California. Being a coastal town within a six hours drive of San Francisco, we attracted our fair share of tourists during the summer. Having to wait an extra 30 minutes for a seat at a restaurant was never appreciated when the summer tourists showed up. In my childhood example we are talking about waiting to eat a meal, on the global scale we are talking about eroding ecosystems, old neighborhoods giving way to hostels and Airbnb’s, and irreplaceable antiquities disappearing under the increasing number of visitor’s feet.
Have we reached a saturation point with tourism?
Unlike some anti-tourist groups I don’t believe cutting off all tourists is necessary. For starters, tourism brings revenues to countries such as Iceland, that otherwise would have to live off their meager exports of yogurt and fish. Once economics are considered, the next logical argument is that travel really does broaden people’s minds. Biases are hard to maintain when counterpoints are experienced while traveling.
But the fundamental question remains, is there a point at which tourism should be limited? Absolutely. When a community, ecosystem, or historic site is faced with ruin or a drastic change, then something must be done. The solution may be as simple as restricting access to certain days of the week, the month, or even the year. The site can be closed in order to give the area time to recover. The idea that tourism is terrorism is not accurate. The ultimate aim of tourists is not to spread a message of fear and terror, rather it is to enjoy something special and have a good time.
If an area feels that they are over visited, then that community or country should restrict the amount of tourists visiting. We only have the right to complain when we have done all else to fix a problem. And if we are complaining, then we are wasting valuable time and energy focusing on something other than the problem. Is the world over-traveled? Maybe. Can something be done? Absolutely. All it takes is for national and community leaders to determine a level of equilibrium between tourism and site protection.
The world may be over-traveled, but the solution is quite simple. Restrict tourism to saturated sites and tourists will simply travel elsewhere. When the site is ready to be reopened the tourists will come back. The heart of the issue is not if the world is over-traveled, but rather are leaders going to do anything about it. Let’s travel with future generations in mind. I wouldn’t mind passing on Manchu Picchu (high on my bucket list) if it meant future travels would be able to see its grandeur.