Are We Destroying the World? – The Impact of Travel

Turtle Bay, Isla Santa Cruz, Galapagos
Turtle Bay, Isla Santa Cruz, Galapagos

An article I read last week in the New Scientist rekindled concerns I’ve had about the effects we as tourists have on the world around us. The piece highlighted the Altamira cave paintings in Spain and the fact that reopening them to tourism could in fact destroy the Ice Age artwork. The most famous prehistoric cave paintings in Lascaux suffered a similar fate after years of mismanagement led to large scale damage of these remnants from the past. This made me wonder, what exactly is our impact as we travel?

This hasn’t been the first time I’ve had these thoughts. Wherever I travel it seems that endemic and iconic wildlife are always endangered and that tourists are trampling over sites considered sacred to others. I have a real concern that the rush to capitalize on the financial benefits of tourism may actually destroy the sites everyone wants to see.

Of course this isn’t a new issue, it’s been going on forever. What is new though is our ability to travel to remote and exotic destinations easily and quickly. This means that more of us can witness for ourselves these new found wonders and, in some cases, contribute to their speedy destruction. No, we aren’t the European tourists of the 19th century taking bits of marble from the Parthenon, but the hotels we stay in and the sites we tour suffer just the same.

Sacred ochre pits, Northern Territory Australia
Sacred ochre pits, Northern Territory Australia

I am not a hippie, eco-friendly or otherwise engaged in anti-industrialization movements. But that doesn’t mean I don’t care about the world around me and have a heartfelt desire to see it preserved. Last year, I touched on this subject as it relates specifically to the Galapagos. My trip there was life changing, it rekindled my love of conservation and preservation, particularly as I travel. I think it’s important for people to travel there not only to witness firsthand the wonders of the archipelago, but to aid in its preservation. That’s the double-edged sword when it comes to responsible travel. In many cases it is tourist dollars that go back to aid in the management and preservation of these places, but it is also our very presence that contributes to their desecration.

In 2005, Peru realized the problem of over-tourism at Machu Picchu and instituted a 2,500 person per day load limit. It’s a step in the right direction, but I’m not sure it’s enough to protect it indefinitely. At the heart of this debate, it is our very presence that is the real problem. The best way to preserve sites around the world is to never, ever visit them. But these sites are also integral parts of our collective history and discovering them is in part what makes travel so great.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but it seems the responsibility is twofold. It partly rests in the hands of the destinations and how they proactively manage the resource, but it is also incumbent on us as tourists to do our research and not contribute to the wholesale destruction of important sites. Just because sites like Altamira may be open to visitors doesn’t mean we should rush to visit them. As with all things, our patronage, or lack thereof, will dictate how others act.

What do you think? Is there a methodology tourists can employ to help in the conservation of these important sites?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

24 thoughts on “Are We Destroying the World? – The Impact of Travel”

  1. nice post matt… with the places that ive been to… trash seems to be the common problem… and it’s sad to imagine that in the future, our beautiful beaches and national/marine parks will be full of trash.. im not also an environmentalist but i want to see the beauty of these places for a long time… honestly, based on my observation, it’s not just the tourists that are leaving litters everywhere, i see some local people do it too in Asia… i think globally, the government should intensify an education program on how to better protect the environment…

    1. No question, you’re absolutely right. If the link between tourism and a clean environment is made clear to them, I bet governments around the world would take action.

  2. Great post Matt. It’s something that has been talked about frequently yes, but something that’s always good to revisit. I think to an extent, places and landmarks are going to always be impacted negatively, whether it’s weather, time, or humans doing the impacting. However, I think lessening the impact is the important point. I think travel for many people is more about what we’re getting than what we’re giving, although I’m glad to see a movement starting to grow among travelers and destinations to be more cognizant and address these issues. However, we’re still not there. I think there’s more awareness and particularly more action that could continue to be done.

    1. I agree and unfortunately, so much of what is ‘sold’ to tourists as being beneficial either environmentally or to the local culture is neither. Take carbon offsets for example, just a panacea to make people feel better. Real conservation is needed in order to prolong the beauty of the resource.

  3. An excellent topic and one that needs attention. I have definitely noticed the impact that tourism has on the environment, particularly when I have visited those really popular tourist destinations. I actually wrote an article just this week about how disgusted I was at the amount of rubbish on the beach on Koh Phi Phi in Thailand, an absolutely beautiful tropical island paradise that is being ruined by tourism. I think what it comes down to is that as travellers we have a responsibility to “tread lightly” and try to leave the place without any trace of our visit there. It’s not an easy thing to do when there are thousands of tourists in the one place though. Cheers.

    1. That’s right, which is why it is also incumbent on the destinations themselves to more proactively manage the resource. If they realize it will ensure more money for a longer period of time, I bet they’d jump on board.

  4. Yes, tourism has an impact on the environment and often leads to the destruction of attractions, simply because they are so many people on the places.
    But tourism can also be part of the solution – would national parks or ancient sites be preserved as well if they would not meet much interest? If there is no intact nature, travelers leave for another place – and this fact is more and more a reason to preserve nature….

  5. Interesting subject. Tourism has both positives and negatives. Obviously the major positives being that the money injected in to that economy can help grow the area and also (hopefully) sustain the reason we go there in the first place. The only problem being that quickly people can become greedy and thus a site is ruined. Places I have not been to but wanted to go to until they became over-commercialised include the ancient sites in Mexico like Tulum which now are apparently just a cheesy tourist destination. Good or a bad thing, bad for me, good for the local tourist operators, economy and the majority of tourists that love that sort of thing.

    1. Well, I have to defend cheesy tourist destinations. I am a firm believer that places are popular for a reason, they’re usually really great. Tulum, to use your example, is still a favorite site of mine. Just something so majestic about the ancient ruins abutting the Caribbean. BUT, there is a fine line that somehow must be negotiated.

  6. We try to practice what the signs on the Florida sand dunes ask: take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints. In some cases, we actually make an effort not to leave footprints. :)

  7. Well voiced, Matt. It’s a question I often ask myself too. I have started becoming more conscious in the travel decisions I make, right from how to travel to where to stay and how to support the local economy of a place. Thanks for reminding us that we need to step up in our roles as travelers.

  8. Today I have been reading about the retreat of Himalayan glaciers. They are essential for the provision of fresh water to literally billions. If our greenhouse gas emissions are contributing to the melting of these glaciers, then I am quite happy to reduce my carbon footprint.

    Another thing that bloggers can do is to highlight other less visited places. This can reduce the load on the well known sights as well as bring in income to poorer areas. This even applies to the USA, as bringing visitors to more places creates gainful employment in a time of recession with its sidekick, mass unemployment.

    From all I have read about by you, I feel you do care about the impact of travel. You are one of the few bloggers to discuss the subject. Others strategically add “eco” or “green” in their posts. I doubt that many readers are mislead.

    1. Thanks John, I appreciate it. I do genuinely care and would like to affect real change instead of just paying lip service to it. It’s a riddle, no doubt though.

  9. It’s important for us to consider the future of the sites we see as we travel. We want to preserve it for future generations without limiting ourselves to it’s beauty. Great article and very important points to consider in all future travels.

  10. Matt, great post as this is definitely a real issue in many places throughout the world. I wish I had answers, but I do think your point in being cognizant of where we choose to go and why makes a big difference in tourism impact and eventually government action. Also, always being aware of our behavior at these sights. It may tempting to climb all over the ruins of an ancient structure because it’s allowed, but we have to remember how that fares for the future of such structures.

  11. Glad I found a link to this post on one of your tweets today. This is always an important topic to actively think about when traveling.

    We interviewed Dr Tom Paradise, who has been studying the effects of tourism on Petra.

    Two of the contributing factors to its degradation that surprised me: the high quality of our new shoes, and breathing.

    We put our video about it here: (1:30 min)

    Regarding the problem of litter specifically, “The Crying Indian” ad from the 70’s always comes to mind:

    Even though it’s still fairly common in the States, initiatives like this have at least made littering socially taboo.

  12. Great post Matt. This is a matter that necessitates serious diligence and it is crucial to build environmental as well as cultural awareness, for instance through educational programs. I have witnessed the impact of over-tourism at Machu Picchu and was socked by the current situation. Tourism has a great impact on the environment and it is the travelers’ responsibility to respect the natural areas they are visiting.

  13. Personally, I do not throw away any trash beside the street, in water or any inappropriate place. I usually carry them home to throw into the dustbin if I do not find any beside the road. I know, only me can not change the situation, or solve the waste problem. I think government as well as the citizens must be aware of it from their own places. Otherwise, our beautiful world will turn into a massive dustbin in no time.

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