Overtourism is a concept I never really considered until I moved away from home and started seeing more of the world. I soon realized that I was easily taken by what was in front of me: what I saw, what I felt and whom I spoke to. I wasn’t focusing on the impact my visit can have on a place or the lives of the people there.
In the process of focusing on the good, I forgot to unpack the darker truths behind it.
Overtourism is a relatively new term that's finding its way into discussions around sustainable travel. One dictionary defines it as "the phenomenon of a popular destination or sight becoming overrun with tourists in an unsustainable way.”
So how exactly does my expat life contribute to this growing phenomenon?
The problematic need to travel
As a twenty-something millennial working abroad, I’ll admit that I'm guilty of seeking any chance to explore a new city. Having a powerful visa-free passport is a privilege that I constantly exploit to explore places freely.
However, my short weekend getaways might be contributing to the demand for more attractions and holiday homes—and may ultimately be harmful to the local culture and residents.
After some research, I discovered that travelling itself isn’t necessarily the problem; it’s the consistent travel to popular destinations that contributes to overtourism. Following the crowd and seeking out the exact spots you've seen splattered across Instagram only exacerbates the problem. Many of us travel because we’re inspired by the images we see and the stories we hear, so we do it for the aesthetics as well. The façade portrayed on social media is partly to blame, but it is time to admit that we, too, play a part in failing to travel sustainably.
Following the crowd and sourcing out the exact spots you see splattered across Instagram only perpetuates the problem.
Overtourism contributes to overloaded infrastructure, environmental degradation and poor experiences in the long run (where tourists don’t feel welcomed and do not care to return). In some cases, overtourism has led to the eviction of locals from their homes, because the demand for short-term rentals (such as Airbnb) in trendy neighbourhoods drives up the cost of living. Other times, it fosters a feeling of hostility towards tourists, as locals may feel alienated in their own homes, or like they're being overlooked by the government.
How to travel sustainably
Many destinations are struggling to balance economic growth through tourism while respecting the needs of their own residents. Some have responded by promoting lesser known locales in their country.
Fixing overtourism isn’t about relinquishing the ability to travel for pleasure, but it is worth considering how our travels can be sustainable.
As expats, there are many ways we can make a difference—be it at home or during our travels. For one, we can immerse ourselves in the local culture in a way that values and preserves a country’s unique qualities. That includes frequenting local and family-owned establishments and seeking out unusual activities.
We should also give the locals recognition and a platform for their voices by interacting with them regularly. Gaining insight into their lives paves the way for their stories to be heard and decreases hostility towards tourists. We give cultural traditions the respect they deserve.
Next time you draw up travel plans, try heading off the beaten path. There are many countries in that world that are experiencing undertourism and would love to be listed amongst "places to visit." That way, more countries are able to practice sustainable tourism and travellers a reason to "travel with purpose."Add this article to your reading list