“Take only memories, leave only footprints”. These famous words spoken by Chief Seattle (a Duwamsih chief who was an advocate for being responsible to the environment and to have respect of the land rights of his people) still ring true more than one hundred years later. With increased mobility and salaries, tourism has been booming in recent decades and has become one of the world’s largest industries. Most of us have a love for travel, a yearning to discover faraway worlds and cultures. While travelling can open our minds and transform the world, it is not always for the better. In recent times, countries around the world (both large and small) have been feeling the ill effects of mass tourism. Defined as travel by groups on pre-scheduled tours, mass tourism also encapsulates the huge waves of people visiting the same destinations at the same time. Tourism is essentially an economic force yet isn’t treated as one. Little is done to combat the impacts of tourism on communities, economies and the environment.
Unfortunately, this boom in mass tourism has led to some of the world’s most iconic attractions coming under severe pressure. Governments around the world have had to take measures to protect these destinations from further harm at the hands of tourists. While many countries are implementing protective measures, others are still milking their attractions for all they’re worth. Take Cambodia for example, a country famed for its magnificent temples, sandy beaches and impressive rural landscapes. Instead of fighting to protect and conserve their heritage, the government has allowed voracious tourism to endanger the very attractions that bring tourists in. A staggering 3,3 million tourists visited the country in the first half of 2019. Tourism is seen as a cash cow in Cambodia, and now the country’s rich culture is coming under threat. Historic temples are being bulldozed to create space for new hotels, while development in Angkor is putting so much pressure on the local infrastructure and draining the water table so badly that the temples are sinking. Additionally, the profits from tourism do not reach ordinary people in Cambodia, who struggle with poverty and fall victim to sexual exploitation and sex tourism.
While Cambodia can be seen as the country that’s doing it all wrong, there are numerous examples of countries implementing strict controls over tourism in a bid to protect their infrastructure. For many, these controls are put in place to prevent further damage, while other countries have been forced to shut attractions down completely due to the damage caused by tourism. Famous destinations such as Maya Bay, Amsterdam’s Bloemenmarkt and Komodo Island in Indonesia have all been permanently closed due to irreversible damage. After Leonardo Di Caprio’s 2000 movie ‘The Beach’, visits to the picturesque Maya Bay increased tenfold. Up to 5,000 tourists came to by boat each day, up until 2018 when authorities closed the bay indefinitely, in an attempt to conserve what was left of the ecosystem.
Other examples in Europe include the Spanish Steps in Rome. A popular spot for taking a rest of a group photo, the steps often became so crowded you couldn’t walk up and down. City authorities have now imposed a ban on sitting on the steps, with police on site to encourage tourists to move along, as well as impose fines of up to €400 to those who don’t obey the rules. Other cities are putting strict caps and controls on the availability of hotel rooms, AirBnB rentals and limiting the number of tour buses and cruise ships allowed at one time.
Thankfully, all is not lost. Authorities are stepping in before cultural gems are lost completely, and people are again recognising that travel is a privilege. A rise in sustainable tourism in recent years has helped slow down the ill-effects of mass tourism while feeding tourist’ to respect the culture they encounter and the places they visit. Finally, United Nations World Tourism Organization have created a global sustainable tourism council with a certification program to highlight which places are genuinely making the effort. Now, if we can all stop chasing that perfect travel selfie, popular travel destinations can remain protected and not be overrun by swarms of tourists all arriving at the same time.