Are you ruining the places you visit?
While some places yearn to gain the tourism limelight, it seems that other destinations are having too much of it - just this week, the Koh Tachai, a small Thailandese island, has just announced that it will be closing indefinitely for tourists. Earlier this year, the Cinque Terre region in Italy declared that it will be imposing a limit on visitors in order to preserve the area.
What is happening? Are tourists really having that much of a negative impact on the places they visit? How can we change this?
The environmental impact of tourism
A mass influx of people in one focused area will always hit the environment of that place hard. Thailand's Phi Phi islands, for example, produce 10 tons of trash daily due to the massive tourism boom following Leonardo DiCaprio's film there 'The Beach'. As a result, the coral reefs suffered irreparable damage too.
Cruise liners stopping at Cinque Terre's ports have also had a devastating effect on the once quiet fishing villages. Besides the marine damage done by these heavy ships, the millions of tourists hiking the narrow cliff side trails connecting the five cities has also done permanent damage.
These are just a few examples; many tourist destinations become over developed and unsustainable just to make the maximum profit out of those visiting the place. Take a look at Ko Phi Phi before and after mass tourism, below:
(Credit: Nomadic Matt)
Are visitors to blame?
As a firm believer in discovering the next big thing in travel and stepping away from the beaten path, I always wonder if this will ruin the very nature of previously unknown destinations. While I do believe that this does play a role in the 'tourist-isation' of many places around the world, what really ruins a destination are your typical tourists.
Yes, by travelling to countries that are foreign to us, we all technically become tourists, but what I'm referring to here are those visitors who choose to support unsustainable tourism practices. As consumers, tourists have a very, very powerful role to play in the protection, or otherwise, of our planet:-
If I, as a traveler, choose to stay at the biggest, most lavish hotel or resort, built with complete disregard towards the environment;
If I, as a traveler, choose to travel with the most polluting private bus instead of readily available public transportation;
If I, as a traveler, choose excursions that evidently exploit the local population;
If I, as a traveler, choose to entertain myself in places that destroy, rather than preserve, the unique nature of that place;
then yes, I am destroying the place I love so much that I decided to travel to.
What can we do about it?
I'll be blunt: nothing talks more than money. So what can we, as travelers, do to change this disastrous situation? We can choose to spend our money wisely.
Over the years, locals and large businesses have rushed in to make the most of travel trends, lax environmental regulations and overall questionable laws by building the most obscene hotels and resorts. The appeal of profiting from millions of visitors is often too much to resist.
This is where our choices as travelers come into play. We have a collective responsibility to protect our planet wherever we live. We have the choice to demand good environmental practices from the travel business we choose to give our money to, and we have the choice to spend it elsewhere if that business has no regard to the environmental or social needs of that place.
Sustainability is key here. Iconic destinations will always attract a huge number of visitors, but if those visitors choose sustainable travel businesses to enjoy their travels with, then that destination can still be preserved. A little research goes a long way here; for starters, check out the Responsible Travel Report and National Geographic's tips for sustainable travel.
It all boils down to our love for this planet. We travel because the destination is beautiful and worth seeing - do we want our children and grand children to have that same experience too?