Can we save the world from overtourism?

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When Portueguese nobleman Bartolomeu Dias sailed around the Cape of Good Hope for the first time in 1488, he opened up a trade route between Europe and Asia via water instead of land. A stupendous feat of human endurance.  

Mr Dias couldn’t possibly fathom that in the future, humans would make their way to the orient, not for expeditionary reasons, but for ‘pleasure.’ 

By ‘pleasure’ I mean getting herded around in buses, gondolas, trains, and boats like cattle to see one tourist attraction after another, selfie stick in one hand and a novelty snow globe in the other.

No doubt, he couldn’t comprehend ‘holiday season’ where visitors are concertinaed into famous locations like sardines from the Book of Kells to the Mona Lisa to the Hillary Steps on Mt Everest during peak climbing season.

Overtourism-  the ‘phenomenon of a popular destination or sight becoming overrun with tourists in an unsustainable way” is making a mockery of the ‘once in a lifetime experience.’ 

Thanks to rising incomes, cheaper air fares, the internet, population growth and millennials with instagram accounts, most people travel. Great for humanity, hospitality and jobs, bad for carbon emissions, waste, the Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower. 

It seemed to happen so quickly. I recall being on‘ The Beach’ in Maya Bay, Thailand (original photo above) in the 1990s- alone, now it’s closed indefinitely due to tourists. 

During Mr Dias era, the global population stood at 490 million. Currently there are 7.7 billion people on the planet, many of whom enjoy increased mobility.

Back in 1950, only a handful of the 2.5 billion global population could afford to fly Pan Am, enjoy lobster, cigarettes, endless martinis and lots of legroom, now less than 10 percent of us live in poverty. By 2050 it will be anecdotal. 

According to the World Tourism and Travel Council 1.4 billion international tourist trips were made in 2018. 

Last year, 40 million people visited Paris, Amsterdam had 18 million visitors, which will rise to 42 million in 2030. Around 4,300 tourists crowd the narrow walkways of the 15th century Incan citadel at Machu Picchu every day. In 2010, there were 500,000 visitors to Iceland, in 2018 it was 2.3 million. 

The Chinese Market is opening up. In 2000, 10.5m Chinese residents made made 10.5m trips overseas trips. By 2030 it will increase to 400m.

So much for ‘getting away from it all.’ 

There’s nothing like a few hundred thousand people ramming into you on Times Square while you’re enjoying a romantic hot dog. 

But where will it end? Last week Ireland’s tourism minister Shane Ross announced that targets for overseas visitors were hit seven years early and 11.6m visitors are expected, up from 9.5m last year. Will Ireland be next? We’re already tripping over each other in the Cliffs of Moher. 

Dr Bernadette Quinn, a senior lecturer in the College of Arts and Tourism says we don’t have to worry- yet. “The government increased targets, but they weren’t overly ambitious when they were initially laid out. We’re nowhere near anywhere like Amsterdam.”

But she warns, that very large scale tourism can cause places to change. “In Rome, for example, people are no longer allowed to sit on the Spanish Steps.” 

“The new era of tourism is unprecedented. In most cases, cities are the hardest hit. You can’t stop people from traveling- or limit them to x number of flights per year, so efforts need to be made to switch attention to other locations.” She says, it ‘can work for everyone if management measures are put in place.’

In response to there being too many of us, Venice is introducing a daily levy, while Machu Picchu is installing a four hour time limit. Amsterdam’s tourist board has stopped advertising and is stopping ‘red light district tours.

Lord mayor of Bruges, Dirk De fauw, banned more than two cruise liners at any one time in nearby Rotterdam stating; “We don’t want it to become a complete Disneyland here.”

While, last week, in a bid to eliminate a ‘Lord of the Flies’ scenario on the world’s highest mountain, Nepali officials proposed that climbers have to scale a 6.500 meter peak, while tour operators are required at least three years’ experience at high-altitude, before scaling Everest.

Good, but difficult to prove and easy to get around. I think they should remove WiFi at Base Camp instead.

It seems, the great age of discovery is over. The work of Sir Rannulph Fiennes, David Livingstone, Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner, who first climbed Mt Everest without oxygen in 1978, is outdone by millennials enjoying ‘experience culture.’ 

 In his last ever interview at a packed Base Camp, before he fell to his death in 2017, Swiss mountaineer Ueli Steck said. “Everyone has as much of a right to be here as I do.” 

He’s kind of right.

But to maintain respect and good relations, tourists need to partake in local taxes, especially for rubbish, while higher airfares will stop the swarms. 

Travel is a gift and we should treat it as thus. We are lucky to live in the now, so lets respect it and not just tick boxes. No need to leave a mess, irritate locals, destroy scenery, crash into corals. 

In the meantime, if tourist numbers are overwhelming, I suggest banning Instagram, thereby answering the age old question,If its not online- is it even worth visiting?

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