September 27, 2019 by Speakers' Spotlight
Robin Esrock: Overtourism is a Crime, and I’m Guilty
Dubrovnik is in the news. Since I visited as a backpacker back in 2005, Croatia’s walled medieval city has become a magnet for mass tourism, fuelled by an onslaught of cruise ships, the success of Game of Thrones — Dubrovnik is a key location — and countless articles detailing its many wonders, written by travel writers just like me.
The result today is crowds so thick you can’t see feet for cobblestone. The infrastructure is choked, there’s notorious price gauging, increased pollution, and Disneyland-esque line-ups outside attractions and businesses barely able to cope. This is the curse of overtourism, a word that travellers are going to be hearing more and more often.
Tourism is an industry of growth. More tourists equal more hotels equal more restaurants equal more tour operators equas more money equals a better economy. Rampant growth has little concern if roads or sewerage pipes or the food supply chain or ports or museums or hotels or attractions were never designed to accommodate it. Hence, Venice has become a disaster each summer. Hence, the reality of Paris is so shocking to Japanese tourists seduced by its image they have psychotic breaks (search Paris syndrome). Hence, available accommodation is limited — Airbnb has soaked up what’s left and locals can’t afford to rent a place in their own city. Hence, finding and keeping talented staff is impossible, and transient employees are exploited under the table.
Rampant growth has little concern if roads or sewerage pipes or the food supply chain or ports or museums or hotels or attractions were never designed to accommodate it.
I encountered this end game on full display in high season Bali, where crowded beaches were covered in garbage and the roads were choked with snarling traffic. I encountered it in the Masai Mara with Land Rover traffic jams and aggressive guides dangerously jostling for position to get a glimpse of a lion, the beast quickly retreating from the cacophony of camera clicks. Of course, you won’t see this reality in the marketing paraphernalia — videos and brochures depict dreamy sunsets, isolated beaches, goosebump-inducing landscapes miraculously captured just out of view of the tour buses, line-ups, pushy hawkers, and the tourists bewildered by ticket prices with more hidden fees than your last bank mortgage.
Overtourism never used to be a big thing because mass international tourism never used to be a big thing. Travelling abroad once signalled great fortune and privilege. But with cheaper flights, online tools, and the growth of personal wealth, well over a billion people travel each year now. The masses are inspired by advertising, by television shows, by books, by online Top 10’s, by travel writers promoting bucket lists. Oh yes, they’re inspired by people just like me, enthusiastically promoting destinations and activities that make life worth living. A destination’s prosperity brings more exposure, which brings more in-bound tourism, and the developers to build resorts and hotels to accommodate them. We may as well stick in a zipline, or a waterpark, or an open-top bus tour, and let the good times roll. And indeed, they have.
Mass tourism has been a boon for everyone. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, tourism generates over 10% of the world’s total GDP, supporting over one tenth of all the jobs in the world. Beyond the economic benefits, travel brings people together, inspires, enlightens, informs. I don’t need to write about why travel is good. Yet, when tourism is allowed to grow unchecked and without care, when greed and profit drive growth, there is an end game. I saw it on full display in Bali, and I’m not the only one.
The end game of overtourism is not a pretty place… It inhibits meaningful cultural interactions. It rewards the unscrupulous, the unethical, and the corrupt.
Two decades ago, Bali was paradise. But all that garbage has to go somewhere. All those buses have to use the same narrow road. All those tourists want to see the same show at sunset at the same temple. And all those taxi drivers know they can feast on post-show “I just want to get back to the hotel” desperation like overfed hyenas on the Serengeti.
The end game of overtourism is not a pretty place. It keeps us behind the safe walls of the resorts that protect us from the mayhem, and ensures we’ll never go back. It inhibits meaningful cultural interactions. It rewards the unscrupulous, the unethical, and the corrupt. And it sends tourists packing for somewhere new, which, in turn, might gradually grow to become its own overtouristed nightmare.
Overtourism has been on my mind because of the jarring contrasts between Bali and Hoi An, Vietnam. Last year, after five weeks renting a villa, my family couldn’t wait to leave Bali, and after five weeks renting a villa, we didn’t want to say goodbye to Hoi An. Oh, tourism is exploding here too. The word is out: Hoi An represents a country and its people at its loveliest: welcoming, beautiful, friendly, affordable. And yet I’m hesitant to spread that news because not far away from our villa, they’re building dozens of mega resorts all along the coast to Danang, 45 minutes away. One resort has over 8000 rooms, built to serve one exploding market in particular, China. And all these tourists will want to experience Hoi An like we did, and how could this small ancient town not become a Dubrovnik? How could the main in-bound road of Cua Dai not become a choked nightmare like Bali’s Uluwatu Road? And still, how could I not rave about this wonderful destination without contributing to the overtourism problem? Lots of questions to slurp back with my rice noodles.
Overtourism is changing and will continue to change the world of tourism. Some authorities are dealing with it, making world headlines in the process. In Thailand, they closed Maya Beach for six months to allow the famous cove — the setting of the film The Beach — to recover from years of tourist onslaught. After assessing the extent of the damage, they closed the beach indefinitely. Great for the environment and its surroundings, terrible if you own a local business and need tourists to put food on the table.
With overtourism, by the time you recognize the problem, it’s too late. When an experience eventually becomes so negative that tourists shift their focus somewhere new — a new ancient city, a new island, a new beach — they leave a path of environmental and economic devastation in their wake.
Dubrovnik and Venice both announced they are limiting cruise ship visits to deal with the problem, but will they ever turn down the millions of dollars cruise ships inject into the economy? Would Vancouver? Not likely. Will I stop writing about inspiring places, which puts food on my table too? Not likely either.
And there in lies the problem. To stop the grotesque trend of overtourism, great sacrifices will need to be made. Profits need to be pushed aside; the greater good must be pursued with long term vision. Apply the same approach to the myriad of issues facing the planet, and then look at the leaders who have been elected to face them. It’s not very promising, is it?
When an experience eventually becomes so negative that tourists shift their focus somewhere new — a new ancient city, a new island, a new beach — they leave a path of environmental and economic devastation in their wake.
As much as overtourism is a thing, so is responsible travel. We can choose to travel with companies operating with sound ethics and impressive policies, and visit places that genuinely appreciate our interest, not just our credit card. When authorities do use quotas and restrictions — as with gorilla encounters in Central Africa or in Peru’s Machu Picchu — we can respect them as opposed to putting our own interests above all else.
Give Iceland or Barcelona a break, consider Finland and Lisbon. And, yes do the research as to what a place will be like when you visit, as opposed to how incredible it was when the travel writer visited it back in, say, 2005. As for myself, I believe that, however small the impact, my work has inspired the world, and has made a tiny yet positive difference.
I’ve always believed that travel is so personal. Just because I didn’t enjoy it, who I am to write negatively about any place or activity, and what gives me that right? There’s more than enough negative reporting in the world. But my encounter with overtourism in Bali has taught this old dog a new trick. If I don’t start telling everyone it how it is — warts and all — I’ll continue to be part of the problem, as opposed to the solution.
Robin Esrock has visited over 100 countries on 7 continents sharing unique experiences through his bestselling Bucket List books, columns, and a 40-part internationally syndicated television series, Word Travels.
Through his multimedia presentations, Esrock shares lessons from the road on breaking boundaries, risk management, the power of good storytelling, and more.