If you want to preserve your sanity, then paying attention to recent news probably isn’t the best course of action. Of the many frustrating and downright infuriating news reports in recent months, those concerning the current state of our National Parks have left me positively distressed. During the government shutdown, the parks for some reason have remained open but unstaffed. That has led to problems from overflowing bathrooms to littering to even destruction of the natural resources themselves. It’s left me shocked, but a review of the last year or so of travel related news stories reveals a broader theme. Whether it’s cutting down a Joshua tree, scratching your name on the Colosseum or partaking in over-tourism, news stories make it seem that tourists are behaving worse than ever. Is that true though? Are we truly terrible people? I’m not so sure so today I want to devote some virtual ink to the issue.
This is the cause that prompted today’s post in the first place. I have been deeply troubled over recent news about the damage done to certain National Parks during the shutdown of the Federal government. For some reason the National Parks have remained open but unstaffed during this multi-week debacle, a strange decision to say the least. Rangers and other employees are vital in the proper running of any public space, not just in terms of enforcement duties, but more basic activities like taking care of garbage and ensuring the trails are clean and accessible. To be fair, most of the people visiting the National Parks during the shutdown have been respectful and courteous. In many of the country’s parks, there have even been volunteer groups who have stepped in to fill the void left by the closure, to ensure that their beloved parks are well taken care of. However, all it takes is a few people to wreak havoc and, sadly, in some parks that is exactly what we’ve witnessed. Most famously, vandals cut down Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park in order to clear the way for off-roading. In other parks the refuse and waste has been extraordinary and a number of people have even died in the parks during this time. I am so shocked by the behavior of these visitors, and it’s concerning not from a political point of view regarding the shutdown, but that citizens would willfully harm our national treasures in such a way is deeply troubling.
This isn’t the only way that we as tourists are failing when it comes to the environment however. A number of beaches in Southeast Asia had to be completely closed off to tourists because the sheer number of people visiting all but destroyed the resource. Conservation isn’t confined in definition to the land, it also reflects what we’re doing to wildlife around the world. Whether it’s abuse through elephant rides or scaring animals literally to death trying to take a selfie, many tourists simply don’t take the well being of wildlife into consideration when they travel and the consequences have been dire.
More people are traveling for pleasure now than ever before, which on the whole is great news. However, these neophyte tourists are damaging our resources in new and surprising ways, both willfully and not. Sadly, the effects are the same. Loss of public lands, befouling of beaches and reefs and even the death of wildlife: this has very quickly become the legacy of the 21st century tourist and it’s a trend that simply has to be corrected.
Last year I wrote a post about respectful travel. The spark came from a series of incidents around the world in which tourists frankly behaved very badly. Travel is not a right, it is a privilege and it comes attached to it certain responsibilities. It’s our responsibility to research places we want to visit, to learn more about the local cultures and to learn how to behave in these places. No matter your religious beliefs, you wouldn’t be happy if a guest to your community went out of their way to treat places sacred to you in a way that is rude or even blasphemous. There have been several incidents, particularly in Southeast Asia, of Western visitors behaving in ways that are disrespectful to local traditions and even religions. We’re not talking about wearing shorts into a temple instead of pants, no, we’re talking about the premeditated and aggressive plan to treat a very important place with violent disrespect. That’s not acceptable anywhere in the world and frankly, it should be a wake up call for those of us who find value in the travel experience. On the whole of course, most tourists behave themselves, but all it takes is one or two problems to ruin the experience for everyone.
With the increase in overall tourism has come an issue that I don’t think many urban planners ever considered. There are too many tourists in the world’s most popular cities. It sounds like a strange problem and, to be honest, it still annoys me when cities or regions complain about being too successful, but the truth is that it has become an issue and it’s one that should probably be addressed. Cities like Venice, Barcelona and Amsterdam in particular have become victims of their own success. Venice and Barcelona in particular have seen a spike in numbers, thanks in part to cruise ships, but not only. The results are a loss of well-priced and centrally located apartments, traffic, pedestrian congestion and more. Honestly, I’m not sure how much of a real problem this is versus a perceived one, but I suppose that doesn’t matter. Local citizens now believe it to be an issue, which in turn means that we as tourists much take the same approach, whether it’s factual or not. First time visitors should absolutely still visit these popular cities, no doubt there. But then branch out and discover more of the surrounding region. Within an easy train ride from Venice are a number of incredible towns and cities, all worth spending time exploring. The same holds true for Barcelona, which is in Spain’s Catalonia region, famous for everything from incredible cuisine to Game of Thrones filming locations. I think the key takeaway here is for tourists to be more mindful in how we visit new cities. We need to make sure we’re patronizing local businesses as often as possible and to be polite and well-mannered, just as we would be at home. We also need to broaden our horizons, leave the city centers and see what the entire country has to offer, away from these famous urban attractions.
We’re All In This Together
Every year, hundreds of millions of people leave home to enjoy time away. That’s great, it should only be encouraged. However, these trips don’t happen without consequences, whether intentional or not. We as a global community though must do better. Up until now, the vast majority of us have not been traveling purposefully, and that has to change. We don’t exist in a vacuum. The world is a dynamic and fluid place, and everything we do as participants has a ripple effect felt globally. This means the obvious precautions of not cutting down Joshua trees or hugging a wombat to death, but it’s not always so obvious. It means not participating in activities involving wildlife, it means deciding to skip the popular beach to find a more secluded spot and it means not being a brash tourist in a large city that is overrun with brash tourists. In other words, we have to practice the same level of self-awareness when we travel as we do in our daily lives. Tourists have a tendency to turn off their brains when they leave home, and that has to stop. The planet and those living on it can’t afford for mindless and reckless travel habits anymore. Not only is it unsustainable, but it’s just not the proper way to behave.
So, are we failing as a global community? On the whole, no, I don’t think so. I think that the vast majority of us understand what is at stake here and travel mindfully and responsibly. However, it only takes a small percentage of those hundreds of millions of tourists to cause grave damage, which they’ve done. This is the behavior that has to be curtailed, that can no longer be tolerated otherwise those places we love to visit won’t be so lovely for much longer.