Over Tourism Part 1: What Is It And How Does It Impact Places And People?

As 2018 comes to a close many people are planning their travel for the next year. During this time there has been a lot of conversation about over tourism and how it is affecting all the wonderful places we all love traveling to. At TLA HQ we thought we would take this chance to start a conversation about this topic and talk openly about what we can do as travelers and as tourism professionals. This is Part 1 of a two part series.

Over tourism can be defined “as an over saturation of the tourism infrastructure in a specific place where the locals who call this area home, suffer negative consequences that cause permanent changes to their life, their community, the environment, culture and general well-being.” There is a growing understanding and conversation about how over tourism is causing irreversible damage to landscapes and communities. It is a very complicated and layered issue that deserves attention and careful consideration to ensure we are addressing its effects.

There are many factors that can cause over tourism, but one of the biggest factors is the concentration of visitors in few places or attractions in a location. When you see cruise ships dock and a thousand people get off and descend onto a small town, spend little to no money, and get back on board and leave the wake left behind is devastating for the local people. We could write an entire post on the cruise industry, but we will use an example that is more in our frame of expertise: Nepal.

Nepal is one of my favorite places to spend time. I feel connected to the place, the people, the land. In my heart I want everyone to be able to go and experience this beautiful country. But I want them to go with the understanding of their impact and how they can help mitigate it. Most people who dream of going to Nepal seem to think the only worthy place to see is Everest Base Camp. I know this isn’t true, but it feels that way, and the numbers aren’t too far off. According to the Nepal Ministry of Culture, Tourism & Civil Aviation, 75,212 tourist went trekking in 2017 in Nepal, and of those arrivals about 30,000 of them went to Everest Base Camp, accounting for 39.8% of tourist arrivals visiting Everest Base Camp. That is a lot of people in one place and we can see the damage being made to the mountains and the people are monumental.

For example, In 2011 the Sherpa organisation Everest Summiteers Association and the Nepalese government collected 1.5 tons of trash, hauling it by yak to Lukla and flying it to Kathmandu. This does not even account for the problems tourism is creating for the local environment. Increased population density, over-dependence on wood as a fuel and construction source, and the overgrazing and cutting of mountain slopes to feed livestock all have roots in tourism related issues. Tourism accounts for an estimated 10% increase in wood consumption, according to the Nepalese government, which leads to an estimated 240 million cubic meters of mountain topsoil lost on Everest every year, further triggering forest depletion.

At Travel Life Adventures we are passionate about and believe in responsible and sustainable travel, for the locals and the environment. This is at the heart of everything we do , and as well for the people we partner with in other countries. Recently we have had the pleasure of speaking with our partner, Juan Marambio, the Director of the community based travel company Travolution which is based in Santiago, Chile. Juan has many years of experiences working with locals and helping steer travel into a more responsible and sustainable way for everyone. He travels the world speaking at conferences and creating sustainable partnerships in the tourism industry. Not to mention he’s an all around cool guy! Juan shares some of his thoughts on overtourism and the impacts he sees in his country.

TLA: What are you thoughts on “over tourism?”

Juan Marambio: Over tourism seems to be the result of what happens when local authorities and business don’t have the intentions and means to regulate the growth in terms of arrivals to a place. The output is the logic of “more is better” meaning more tourism equals  more money equals more is better etc. This is totally the wrong way to approach this and is also not true. We can take examples from biology, that living things grow until a certain point but do not grow indefinitely because more growth will lead to a negative outcome for the organism. Tourism is the same type of organism. This logic of more is better brings many problems, for example it collapses the value for which the destination might have been renowned for by destroying whatever the draw was. It can ruin the quality of life for local population, many times leading to gentrification and displacement of local communities due to the pressure exerted by tourism businesses. I believe over tourism should be avoided as best we can in every case.

TLA: How do you think this affects places in Chili?

Juan Marambio: This affects many places in Chili, notably Easter, Island and Torres Del Paine, San Pedro de Atacama for example. For places like San Pedro de Atacama and Torres Del Paine, the impacts are very evident, not only in terms of the diminishing quality of the experience for the tourist, but also on an ecological level. You can see the erosion, and modification in how the wildlife moves and lives in certain areas or even how the vegetation lives as well. For example the fires that destroyed large swaths of Torres Del Paine National Park due to tourist negligence. Not to mention the pollution that affects the Atacama Desert due to plastic and other sources. In Social terms, it is quite complicated, in terms of the relationships of tourist,and local communities. The presence of too many tourist affects prices of goods in a way that makes them too expensive for local people. This changes the traditions  of what the local people might do and how they use goods. In the Atacama Desert specifically water is a big issue. More and more hotels are being built and the hotels drill new wells to get water for their guests, and in turn the local people are left without clean usable water for themselves and the land. I feel the local authorities and business associations and tourism businesses themselves have not been wise enough to raise, warnings about the impact of local tourism or create policy that would mitigate the effects. We are acting like the ostrich hiding their head under the sand. We are not taking the measures to first stop the ongoing impacts of over tourism, second mitigate the present effects on local people and places, and third regenerate what has been lost and damaged in terms of ecosystems and social and cultural well being of local people impacted by over tourism.

TLA: Do you think there is a benefit of spreading out tourism?

Juan Marambio: The spreading of tourism can only be beneficial as long as it is well planned. If tourism spreads only because other places have become too crowded this will ignore the proper process. If there is no preparation and planning for and with the local communities who will receive these tourists, then the damage will keep happening and will likely be even worse than in other places already impacted. I cannot say spreading tourism out by itself is the best solution. It is only good if it comes with planning, regulation,  and a very active, informed and prepared local community.

TLA: What are you thoughts on limiting the amount of people, per say to Torres Del Paine?

Juan Marambio: Tourism has to regulated. There are certain places which there should be limits to the amount of people who visit per day or per year or per season depending on the place.  We must limit, not just the number of people but also the time spent there, and especially the behavior of people who are there. This comes from education of tourists as well as local operators and businesses. For example, the use of plastic in certain areas should be totally forbidden. The use of water should be regulated to help keep the ecosystems healthy and ensure the locals communities are not negatively impacted by tourism. I believe that the only way tourism can be beneficial is by regulating its impact in partnership with local communities.

At the end of the day there is no easy, clean solution or one method to solve this problem. Over-tourism is a complicated issue, with many layers. But what we do know is that it is our job as travel companies to educate the public and communities to help lessen the effects of over-tourism as much as we can.  Here at Travel Life Adventures that is something we try to take into account wherever we travel, who we work with, and who we choose to partner with. Part 2 of this series will be about actions we can all take to try and participate in lessening the effects of over tourism.

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