The Overtourism Dilemma
After over a year of being confined to our homes, people around the world are thrilled to take advantage of new opportunities to travel safely. In some ways, this release of our pent-up energy for exploration is exactly what the world needs – the tourism-related businesses can finally start to recover, and vacationers will get a long-deserved break from all the anxiety of recent times. However, at the same time, the world is dangerously unprepared for this “revenge tourism.” When everybody tries to make up for all the travel experiences they’ve missed at the same time, the inevitable result is hordes of tourists like we’ve never seen before. If we don’t change our ways of travel to fit with this new era, this overtourism may do damage that we’ll never recover from.
Trouble in Paradise
For instance, take one of the world’s most classic travel destinations: Hawaii. With its sparkling waters, picturesque beaches, and lush rainforests, it’s no wonder everyone wants to visit this unique island paradise. Nevertheless, as you may have seen on the news, Hawaii has been facing major problems since tourism restarted. For example, even with many COVID restrictions still in place, Maui has already rapidly rebounded to 2019 visitor levels. Wait lists for restaurants and hotel rooms are growing to unreasonable lengths, parks are turning away tourists, and friction between locals and certain uncivil visitors is reaching a breaking point. After a year without crowds, many native Hawaiians enjoyed a sense of peace (for the first time in their lives) that has now abruptly been shattered. In response, the mayor of Maui has actually asked airlines to temporarily reduce flights to the island, and more proposals such as tourist taxes or required beach reservations have been offered.
But it’s not like this disturbing tourism situation is anything new. Hawaii has been overcrowded for years, turning what is actually a home for over a million people into something more like a theme park. In fact, in a 2018 survey, 2/3 of Hawaiians responded that “this island is being run for tourists at the expense of the local people.” While it’s true that the economies of Hawaii and other similar destinations rely heavily on tourism dollars, shouldn’t there be a solution in between zero tourism and destructively rampant tourism?
Regeneration, not Revenge
Rather than significantly restricting travel, the solution to this problem is to reform how we travel. Instead of what some are referring to as “revenge tourism,” we need “regenerative tourism.” In this mindset of travel, it’s all about leaving the places we visit better than we found them. We shift our focus from ourselves to the actual places, not only seeing them as tourist destinations, but also as cultural sites, natural habitats, and perhaps most importantly - homes. Rather than simply hoping to not fully destroy these amazing locations, we can turn our presence into something that truly benefits them.
While a large part of the shift to regenerative tourism must come from the industry itself, we still have significant power as travelers to spearhead this progress. To put it simply, becoming a better tourist centers around respect. If you can’t recall the specifics of the tourism tips we’re about to share, just remember that you can’t go wrong by being more respectful of the places and people around you.
Respect the culture:
If you really want to immerse yourself in the culture of an unfamiliar place, it’s going to require a bit of background research. Rather than sticking to the same touristy beaches or buildings, go out of your way to appreciate the cultural sites, foods, art, and everything else that forms the local identity. There is always each place’s assortment of special actions that you can use to show respect (and disrespectful ones you need to be sure to avoid.) With all of these things in mind, you can demonstrate that you value the local way of life rather than disrupting it. Everyculture.com is a great resource for a quick overview of cultural norms in any given country.
Respect the environment:
Your treatment of the natural environment will be what is most clearly reflected once you’re gone. Obviously, you should leave no trace of litter or damage while you’re exploring nature. But even past the minimum of not making things worse, you should strive for that extra step of regeneration. For instance, you can commit to picking up trash you see left by other visitors, or you can even donate to or volunteer with a local nonprofit working on environmental sustainability. Patagonia’s Action Works platforms make it easy for you to do just that!
Respect the people:
This one is the easiest to understand, but seemingly the hardest for so many people to follow – just be kind to the people you encounter! If you're reading this article chances are you’re not a total jerk but like most people you do probably underestimate the value of small gestures of kindness. Since the hardworking service providers are probably especially overwhelmed in this sudden resurgence of tourism, that extra bit of kindness goes a long way. Ever heard of the “waiter rule”? The basic premise is that how people treat wait staff reveals a whole lot about their personality. Nice people treat other people nicely 😊.