Why Tourists Ruin the Places They Visit (and What to Do About It)

By Nomadic Matt | Published April 23rd, 2013

Last summer while I was living in Sweden, I met up with travel writer Doug Lansky, the man behind several worldwide destination guides for Rough Guides. We were talking about travel (of course) and began discussing the philosophical question about whether, as traveler writers, we end up destroying the places we love by sharing them with the world.

By writing about those off-the-beaten-track destinations, those little local restaurants and quiet parts of the city where you’re free of tourists, do we inadvertently contribute to the demise and overdevelopment of these destinations?

When I consider this question, I think about two things. First, I think about Tony Wheeler, the founder of Lonely Planet, the guy who pretty much commercialized backpacking. He’s the guy who turned the world onto Ko Phi Phi, which used to look like the left image and now looks like the right:

Ko Phi Phi 25 years ago and then now

Secondly, I remember my own experience on Ko Lipe in Thailand (a tiny, off-the-beaten-path destination) and how overdeveloped that island has become in the last few years. And I think about how I always talk about Coral Bay, Australia—and other little towns and restaurants around the world—with great enthusiasm and encouragement.

By driving people to the next “undiscovered” place, do I just ruin it? Will I be that guy who returns and says, “Man, this place used to be cool 10 years ago.”

But while not totally guiltless, I don’t think travel writers are to blame when places become crowded destinations full of tourists and overpriced hotels.

What actually ruins a destination are the tourists.

And I don’t mean that simply because of the increase in visitors. I mean that because tourists end up supporting unsustainable tourism practices, and that’s what really destroys a place.

We simply love places to death.

I’ve seen far too many locals who are shortsighted, building hotels, resorts, and businesses to try to cash in on the latest travel fad. And who can blame them? People need to eat, kids need to be sent to college, and money needs to be earned. The future is someone else’s problem, right? And I can’t really fault a lot of people for that logic. I don’t agree with it, but how do you tell someone they can’t build something to feed their family? (I also think many countries in the world, including my own, should enact stronger environmental laws to help curb excessive building and development to ensure people take a longer view.)

I remember reading an article by Thomas Freidman from The New York Times talking about the rainforest in Brazil. In an interview with a local activist, the activist said that people need to eat, and while some understand the need to protect the forest, with no alternative, people are going to choose food over protecting trees.

And it’s not just locals who do this.

Large corporations come in and take full advantage of lax regulation, low wages, and corrupt officials. Greenwashing, the practice of pretending you’re engaging in environmentally friendly actions, is very prevalent in travel.

Development is good, but unfettered development is bad, and unfortunately, there’s too much unfettered development in tourism today.

That being said, I still mostly blame the tourists. I think as a writer, it’s important for me to not only highlight destinations (go here! It’s great!), but to also emphasize responsibility so future generations can benefit from the place and enjoy it. There are a lot of great environmental travel blogs out there, and while this site deals more with the practical side of travel, I’ve talked about ruined places before and the need for better environmental protection many times.

But as tourists we ALSO have a responsibility to the destination. This is where consumer choice and power really come to us. If we frequent operators, hotels, and services that are destructive—not only to the environment, but also to the local economy—we can’t really be surprised when we encounter mass development and “ruined,” overcrowded attractions.

How you spend your money is your vote for whether or not you accept what companies do. You know why companies have jumped on the eco-friendly bandwagon? Money. Sure, some actually care about the environment, but for 99% of them, it’s money. People will pay more money if they feel like they’re positively impacting the environment. Wal-Mart executives are pretty open about the fact that they began selling eco-friendly and organic products because their customers were demanding it and there was money to be made.

I think the same is true in travel. We have a choice in the vendors we use, the hotels we stay in, and the tour operators we hire. Our dollars go very far in developing countries, and the businesses there will change if we demand it. Start demanding good environmental practices, and suddenly you’ll find them. If more and more people tell businesses that they want to see better environmental practices, they’ll happen. You’ve found a company underpaying or mistreating their local staff? Or partaking in destructive practices? Let them know and use their competitor. There’s a lot of information online that can help you learn more about companies to avoid:

Responsible Travel Report
Green Travel Resources
Green Global Travel Blog
National Geographic Green Living Resources

I feel that many people, when given the right information, will make the right choice. And as a travel writer, I’d like to encourage people to make that right choice. That means looking up the environmental record of the hotel or resort you’re staying in, choosing a tour company that is ecologically friendly, and avoiding destinations that are already overdeveloped. How do you do that? A little research and common sense.

We go to these places because they’re beautiful. We may never come back, but if we do, don’t we want the magic to still be there? Don’t we want our kids and grandkids to enjoy these places too?

We all bear some responsibility, but those whose money supports the ruinous ways bear the most.

It’s not the volume of travel that matters, but how that volume is handled. And we have a responsibility to ensure that the volume we create is well managed. Or you could very well be the last person to see that destination in all of its splendor.

Photo of Ko Phi Phi thanks to the Traveling Canucks. They’re a great blog. You should read them. I’m happy to announce that they’re now our regular contributors on family travel for this site.

comments 69 Comments

Abe

It’s a double edged sword, Matt. Writing about these places helps people venture out and do something different and experience something amazing.

It also creates jobs and allows people to live better, hopefully. I’ve seen it happen and I don’t always like it but we have to keep exploring and sharing our knowledge. I think.

NomadicMatt

Tourism provides a lot of jobs. It’s a great way to develop economically but it’s important to do so that the benefits are long term.

I agree with Abe. This is a difficult topic… one that has many complexities. Because there’s good with the bad… and the solutions aren’t necessarily simple. Also, the responsibility as a travel writer is also interesting, too… I can understand that dilemma and appreciate that the answer isn’t an easy one. Thought-provoking post, Matt. Thanks!

NomadicMatt

You’re welcome! I like to get in the philosopher’s chair sometimes.

Christi

I don’t blame the tourists for this, because many of them don’t know that they are contributing to this problem. As a travel writer, it is more of your responsibility to educate others on how we can travel more responsibly, instead of you pointing the finger at travelers. You have to understand that when you tell people to go here or go there, and they actually take your word as legit, then more of them will go to these places…the more they go, the more these destinations will want to cash in. I understand the importance of preserving many of these ‘off the beaten path” destinations, but any time people catch wind about some place being “hidden”, and that place is supposed to be great..then guess what…here they come. If they bring the cash, then the local businesses and local government will want that money to create more jobs, put food on the table, and etc . So, there is always a risk for over development in a city or town, that will never change no matter what you say BUT, the more we have people like you talking to us (instead of blaming us) then we may make better decisions. Blaming the tourists (the ones who want to see new places and have the cash) is not the solution, its educating us that is the solution.

Great article, Matt! I feel the same way about tourism; there’s the good, the bad, and the ugly. As a global society, I think we’re figuring it out, little by little, through trial and error… however unfortunate that may be for the people and places involved. Hm.

P.S. Perhaps the bigger question is not why tourists do it (I hardly think it’s mostly intentional) but how.

Hey Matt, thanks so much for drawing attention to Green Global Travel!

I totally agree with your assertion that it’s not usually the fault of the travelers when a place is changed by tourism growth. It’s the responsibility of local governments and developers to ensure that tourism is sustainable in the long-term.

But of course we as travelers CAN make more conscious decisions about which destinations we choose to visit, and which airlines, hotels and tour operators we give our money to in the process.

I really love places like the Galapagos Islands and Churchill, Manitoba because they set a strict limit on how many tourists are allowed to visit at a given time, and require them to be with a tour guide (all of whom are trained in nature/wildlife conservation) at all times. This way, travel becomes a respectful, educational experience rather than an exploitative one.

Thanks for writing this article. I agree that tourism development helps bring jobs/money to the area and put food on the table, but people tend to overlook the negative aftermath of it. Some even get defensive and upset if you try to bring it up, but it’s an extremely important issue to shed light on, so that tourists are aware of how their actions are affecting the world and can make informed & responsible decisions.

I had so many conversations with locals about the negative effects of tourism when I was living in Costa Rica, and there is some really strong resentment there. I’ve steered clear of writing about it because a lot of what I was told was so controversial, and there was a lot of disagreement about it, even among locals. But I do think taking this conversation mainstream is essential for preserving so many cultures, languages, and ecosystems across the world.

This is one of the best posts I’ve read in a while. I think about this all the time. The way the world is now-over crowded and polluted-I think it’s our duty as humans to research sustainable travel and think about how we travel before booking a trip. From a writing perspective. I love/hate sharing secret paradises with others. Some really off-the-beaten track things that I love, I often won’t Tweet or post about. I don’t care if other people get it first. I like to keep a few secrets to myself as a traveler.

I totally agree – we DO have a responsibility toward the places we visit. We need to stop being only consumerist travelers, who take from these destinations, and start deciding that if we are going to benefit from our ability to experience these wonderful places, we have some sort of an obligation to do so in a way that won’t destroy them. And as travel writers, of course, we have that same responsibility to address this in our writing and inform people how they can make more sustainable travel choices. Thanks Matt!

NomadicMatt

Couldn’t agree with you more!

As someone from a country struggling to deliver a sustainable tourism image (Costa Rica) I can wholeheartedly relate to this. I can tell you that trying to preserve a sustainable, eco-friendly tourism model is a very tough balancing act, and that as there are many responsible tourism entrepreneurs and tour operators striving to make this work, there are also plenty of others whose only “green” they care about is that of the tourist’s money. And the advantage of big corporations able to “buy” favors from corrupt governments is very real. Not to mention that popularity also skyrockets land prices and cost of living, even for locals who sometimes are even priced out of their own lands. I don’t really think I’ve ever gone somewhere truly remote on Earth (if I can take a commercial plane or a bus to get there, it is not), but I think the same sentiment is shared worldwide, specially in places whose main allure is of the nature variety, under pressure from tourism and commerce.

This is an issue that has been going on for 30 years and it really depends on your view of it. On one scenario, you want certain places to be recognized and appreciated around the world. On the other, there is a chance of it being ruined.
100 years ago, Tokyo was in a time capsule, where its traditions lived on for thousands of years…try looking for pictures of Tokyo in the 1900s you would think it could have been in any era, and then compare it now, part of you wish that Tokyo was it was like it was before instead of a Megacity that it is now. But arguably, Megacity Tokyo is just as beautiful!
An over development that I regret and wish did not happen is Niagara Falls. I live in Toronto, and Niagara is a mere 1.5 hours away. When tourists come, they are in “awe” of the falls…but really…to me lost its charm as soon the city was built right beside it. I’ve seen other falls on other parts of the world where charm was kept. Trekking through the jungle, or going on a jeep safari first for hours before getting to see the falls – and coming out of that you get awestruck. But for Niagara Falls, you could get a hotel room with the view of it…there’s no adventure to it anymore. People now just drive there – take a photo – and leave for the casino. The appreciation of the megafalls is now just an afterthought because why bother when you can just get a room with a view?

Agreeing to what you have written and also witnessing the depressing effect of tourism in a a once bucket-list-destination of mine, I can very well relate to this posting! Tourism, tourists and lack of infrastructure and/or willing to invest into it, cash in whatever possible right now and today, exploiting environment, people – have seen and heard many faces to it. Most eye-openers were the locals at the respective places, esp. the lower most in the chains – the people putting up that “smile” for you and serving whatever the tourist requires/wants. Some working at most inhuman conditions, at unacceptable wages, abandoning families. Some even expressed their aggression – at the tourists and those “big bosses”. “Nothing” is done to develop the villages, we heard, no one cares about the garbage, the streets, the schools. The garbage just across the wall of those beautiful fairy tale tourist resorts speak a very clear and sad story! I had to climb the stairs of a very sophisticated boutique in Bali, that shamed the prices at Bahnhofstrasse Zurich, watching my step over a garbage heap! (I was too embarrassed at the prices to buy anything there!!) On the other hand, the willingness to change anything locally is too small: why should I? “Let them who make big money, do it?” – we hear time and again!
I was too disgusted at these attitudes! However, what to do? Something sustainable, however…Thanks for writing this piece, one of the best to the topic of sustainable travelling and thanks for reading!

For various things I have filled out surveys and graphed charts of my carbon footprint. I’m always sad by how huge it is and the biggest thing on it is flying. I’m not even traveling that much lately, only to go back and forth between school and home, but even the small things make a huge dent. I don’t want to stop traveling, but I also don’t want to hurt the environment more that I need to.

It’s a little bit of a touchy subject, but ultimately we as the visitors are obviously somewhat responsible for what is happening in other countries and it’s important to know that we have some sort of control over the development when we consider how we travel. So telling people which places to see doesn’t really seem to be the main issue, but make sure to give recommendations on how to travel responsibly might be it. Instead of being a tourist with lots of money, little time and no sense of awareness, it would already be helpful to rather be a traveler for a loner period time with little money, using local transportation, accommodation and restaurants. Travelling with as little impact as possible and consuming as little as possible that could be a good start….

It doesn’t sound like people are the problem to me, money sounds like the problem.

NomadicMatt

Money is the root of all evil, right?

Ryan

Hey Matt, Nice article and very true, there is at least one place(I am incredibly biased towards Uruguay to be truthful, there might be others) that recognizes what tourists do to a place and is trying to stop it. Uruguay. you have Piriapolis, La Paloma, and worst of all Punta del Este and its environs(Overdeveloped for toursits from Argentina, Brazil, U.S., and Europe) and then places they try to protect from this at least, albeit partially unsuccessfully(Punta Diablo and La Pedrera) Then you have the small resorts in between that the Uruguayans keep to themselves and don´t overdevelop, sorry no names. Finally a shining example is Cabo Polonia it isn´t overdeveloped yet, there is no water nor electricity and the government is trying to keep it that way for the people that love it, which is everyone.

Also final thought the problem is consumerism more than anything, which goes along with capitalism, which pretty much means the U.S. version of capitalism. This will change although it might be awhile.

Ryan-
You think consumerism will change? I surely hope so, but I’m not optimistic it’s going to happen anytime soon. The whole US economy is driven by people buying “stuff”…and that’s been spreading beyond our borders for years already.

NomadicMatt

I’m not so convinced either. People are very consumerist these days.

I also subscribe to this theory. Sometimes I just don’t want more people knowing about a gem and ultimately ruining what made it so attractive in the first place.

NomadicMatt

I’m selfish. I want it all to myself! It’s my paradise…..but then I go tell people about it! :(

There is a lot of contradictory advice on the ‘net about how to travel responsibly. Many think the solution is to “go local,” but I can attest to the fact that sometimes the local way of doing things is the most environmentally destructive of all. For example, oftentimes local operators of restaurants and accommodations dispose of their waste in environmentally unfriendly ways, cut corners on building codes and regulations, and purchase cheap, disposable/unsustainable items to facilitate their businesses (paper and plastic products, cleaners, soaps, etc.). Not to mention that cheap, local transportation is oftentimes the greatest contributor to poor environmental air quality in developing areas.

So is education the key? Choosing the most environmentally sound option whether it’s local or not? Excessively planning your trips so you don’t make “mistakes” in your environmental choices (which somewhat defeats the purpose and joy of spontaneous travel)?

In the end, I think the responsibility lies more with the governments and business owners to put sustainable development ahead of making money at all costs. Tourists can do the best they can with the information they have, but the true planning, management, etc. should come from the groups and organizations making larger, more long-term investments in a region.

NomadicMatt

Businesses won’t change unless consumers force them to. Without an incentive, they will continue to engage in bad activities. (Most that is.) Same goes with government. I agree there needs to be more rules.

Money is certainly the route issue here. Until it’s as easy and cost effective to travel responsibly as it is to travel irresponsibility — nothing is going to change on the grand scale. Sure, some people will go out of their way to stay at sustainable places and go on environmentally friendly tours…but the masses won’t change. This is the same reason that alternate energies aren’t really taking off — they are still more expensive than what’s at the gas pump.

NomadicMatt

The pessimist huh? I’m with ya!

I completely agree with you post – it is a very hard balance to strike. I think so many people want to find those off the beaten track places and the more you talk about a place the more it gets known. Maybe I’m lucky for me an off the beaten track place can just be a small town filled with locals without much tourism appeal – so maybe others won’t want to come.
I wonder how you find out about hotels/guesthouses etc enviromental friendly policy and practices, especially when you might not speak the language.

NomadicMatt

There’s a lot of information out there on the web that people can use to find environmental information!

It’s so easy to take responsibility, at every scale. Not only how you plan your entire trip, where you spend money, etcetera, but also how you behave yourself when you get there.

Try to integrate, don’t be an idiot, don’t pollute, don’t try and take a piece of Angkor Wat home, it’s all very simple, and yet, I see all these things and more happen on a daily basis. Especially people who completely ignore local culture and standards irk me. (Like walking around drunk in just hotpants and a tanktop in rural Thailand, it’s just not done). I guess it all comes down to: behave yourself. It’s a very basic life skill. /rant

A little research goes a long way.

This is *exactly* what tortures me!
I live in Greece, and I’d LOVE to write about beautiful spots around the country, places that make you feel you’re visiting a piece of Paradise — but, at the same time, I want them to remain unknown and hidden for as long as possible.
I still remember Oia, Santorini like I’ve seen it some 25 years ago — I went back in 2010, and I cried… from horror.

NomadicMatt

That’s why I won’t visit Ko Lipe again!

I think you hit a number of nails on the head there! You are right – as travel writers, we are not going to ruin a place just by sharing stories of exotic, unknown locations. People have to take how they behave in these locations and remember that they are influencing it on an individual basis! I get so mad when I hear about backpackers negotiating the life out of vendors in countries that are so poor in the name of saving a few dollars. (I remember reading someone talk about the demands for group discounts – saving what amounts to pennies for themselves but a weeks earning for some of these people an Asian country – it isn’t hard to find stories like this all over the web!). The way people demand to have their whims catered to, destroying the landscapes and creating vast quantities of garbage! (Don’t even get me started on trekking in the Everest region!!!), it makes my blood boil!
Thankfully, green travel is so much more than a passing fad – the more people who allocate their tourist dollars to places that respect the environments, cultures and traditions, the greater the chances are that these places will be saved, profitable and sustainable! Afterall, like the old saying…we do not inherit the earth, but protect for our children

NomadicMatt

I think younger travelers are much more conscience of the environment now and demanding more change. I think that’s a good sign.

Great article…I have thought the same thing numerous times as I’ve revisited locations that 10 years ago would have afforded me privacy and untouched beauty. An interesting challenge to your article though is that you are looking from the perspective of a tourist who is looking for a specific environment or who is looking for a specific scene. It would be interesting to explore the local perspective some more because obviously the need for revenue and stability, especially in some of the more remote locations, may far outweigh the need for serene beauty. As you are now a resident of NYC, you may find some interesting perspectives from long time residents of Chelsea, the West Village, and the Meatpacking District. I am sure that there are some purists who fondly look back on the “good ole days” of unvarnished grit, but I also imagine that these same people are looking forward to their 7-digit real estate pay day for having endured such a gentrification and neighborhood renaissance.

Regardless, great article and great website.

Wow, that split photo of Ko Phi Phi is really shocking and puts this issue into perspective. I think the best we can do is try to be responsible tourists and encourage others to do the same. I experienced this phenomenon in a completely different way during a recent trip to Amish Country in Ohio. The Amish there are now largely reliant on tourist dollars to continue to survive, so rather than avoiding “the English,” they must embrace them and market to them (via the internet, even – which is bizarre.)

In some cases, building a sustainable tourist industry can help preserve wildlife. I am very passionate about saving wild birds from poachers and being captured and sold into the black market bird trade. Eco-tourism is one way of providing jobs for these people so they learn there is more income from providing birders with guides, lodges, food, handicrafts and local transport. They need to eat like everyone else but capturing wild birds and other animals is wrong. Many of the places I blog about are very remote and will never be mainstream tourist destinations and birding is very much a niche of the overall tourism industry. Many of the birding guides I have had in my travels were former poachers and they have not only turned their lives around with a good income from eco-tourists but they have also started to appreciate wild birds for themselves and not see them as commodities to be sold.

You get to the point on the businesses side. It’s about money. It’s difficult to blame them as they are in a really competitive environment were ethics are near as powerful as profit.

In a similar way, “the tourist” is not moved by the profit but for the value and their needs. It’s the other side of the business.

Sometimes might be difficult to identify a “green” accommodation in the first place.
Or maybe there is no alternative!
For someone who has the money and looks for a comfortable place with all the services maybe the 5 star resort with a 10-floor building right next to the beach might be the only option.

Anyway, while I disagree with the statement that the right information will make people change, I agree with you in the sense that writing about green tourism to make people aware of the damage that is being done and how the way we spend our money affects a place.

Making people check their ethics while traveling might help make a difference.

Have fun!

Great post Matt,
I’ve often thought of this whenever I recommend a place. But, I think that the dominance of one source (i.e. Lonely Planet) as the sole authority is also to blame. With a diversity of sources and recommendations, the people can be diluted.

NomadicMatt

There’s definitely a Lonely Planet trail that’s for sure.

Carmen

Great article Matt.

I love Coral Bay and as an Aussie from Perth I grew up going on family holidays there. About 10 years ago we fought against a massive hotel being built in the area to stop a large amount of tourists descending on this pristine location.
Sadly, I don’t think it’ll stay like this for long.
But there are things the locals can do to keep places sacred, like fighting against big hotel chains moving into the area.
If enough people say no, it often works.

But I love visiting beautiful places, so it is a double-edged sword. We just have to try and be as sustainable as possible when we do it, I guess.

The good side of tourism is that it spreads money through all social levels in an economy when it is kept localized.
It’s when big investors step in and take away the money that used to be spread throughout and funnel it into their pockets.
Part of the responsibility of a traveler is to keep the money in the hands of locals as much as possible – a B&B for example, not a major hotel chain. The local food stand, not a lavish restaurant financed by the moguls of the country.
Ethical Traveler tries address some of these issues. They pick the 13 worst and 13 best countries at handling these issues each year. They also have a list of best travel behaviors. Check out their website.
I understand the travel writer’s dilemma, Matt.

NomadicMatt

Tourism does spread a lot of money around. It has a lot of good benefits and can lift people up from poverty a lot but it’s important we practice sustainable tourism. As tourists, we have a responsibility.

Kiwi Kaye

“The only village that is left untouched is the one never visited by others, yes even you” I recall reading this in a Eco-tourism paper on Development Studies I did at uni. Sorry haven’t got the name who wrote it, but your photos Matt are proof of this. I remember returning to Malawi in 1989 after 8 years and was so shocked at the incredible change, so much that I wasn’t sure that I was in the right place. It was also sad, grandiose hotels had replaced a tiny pub and camping spot right on the lakeside, where the local villagers were not permitted to walk on the beach in front of the hotels. Before it belonged to the local people, where they fished, bathed etc. The worse part was seeing the change in the locals, their open friendliness and trust was not the same towards the tourists. But who could blame them as I noticed how patronising many of the tourists were towards them, almost a ‘master, servant’ mentality! I think it’s the difference between being a tourist and a traveller and what I notice here on this site are that we are travellers, responsible, with respect for Mother Earth and all it’s occupants. One of my favourite all time songs is ‘The Melting Pot’ . It pretty much says it all for me. K

Sustainable tourism has become a hot topic in the travel industry, and many tour companies are taking on board awareness for the footprints they leave in the destinations they travel to. G Adventures and Intrepid Travel do a great job of promoting awareness and responsible travel.

NomadicMatt

That they do! Both are far better than the majority.

I agree with the “local” dilemma… but please keep in mind that this was us 30 years ago. We burnt our rubbish in the backyard incinerator, we used plastic knives and forks when we had parties, and we did the car maintenance ourselves because we couldn’t afford the better option. And the word “environmental” didn’t exist. Part of the problem when we travel to developing countries, is that we are going with the experience of a society that is more developed in systems, infrastructure, rules, ethics, and education.

So for the local operator, they likely do not have the money to invest in more sustainable products, because they have borrowed heavily, probably at a rate starting at 35% interest. They are also likely applying practices they learnt during their own childhoods to their current business. Which usually means not friendly to the environment. Hence the businesses that are more environmentally friendly will usually have financial backing. Therefore the money that you then end up investing in the local community mostly goes out of the community to the external financier. It is true that locals get jobs, albeit at very low pay, but often resentment can grow due to the fact that travelers are coming but the lives of locals never seem to get any better.

This post and all of the responses is keeping me up… thinking!!!

Just for reference, the above post was in response to Mike (above).

And the below is a further comment to Matt’s response to Mike.

I wanted to add that if we bring in too many rules (possibly in the image of the more developed societies) then often it is only the rich who have the capacities to meet the regulations. And / or bribery simply increases (exponentially) because locals still need to eat, and the only way to keep on doing business is to now pay off the government officials who are now enforcing the new rules that we encouraged.

Again – I am loving this post.

It’s such as shame that price is just a huge driver when choosing hotels and resorts. Obviously, travelers should be more responsible for their actions when abroad but I think your point about education is the key factor. Travelers need to know more during the booking/recommendation phase in order to make the right choice.

Great post and something that resonates with me following a recent trip to The Gambia. I really wanted to follow the path of the writer Alex Haley who traced his “Roots” back to before his family descendants were kidnapped into the slave trade and taken to the USA. Obviously the writer was telling his story when he published his famous book, but the resulting tourism on the island has undoubtedly changed the face of this small community forever. It was heartbreaking to see children shunning the prospect of school to beg and the adults so desperate for the sale of handicrafts. I hadn’t appreciated the mass tourism scale before I decided to visit and in hindsight, I think I might have given the trip a pass, which is sad in itself. Thanks for raising the topic. As a full-time traveller it can be hard to find a balance, but discussing these things can only help.

TCR

Vang Vieng reminds me of a beautiful and peaceful place that has been ruined by young tourists there just to party and raft down the river. I guess the same could be said of several places here in SE Asia.

I get into heated debates on Elephants also. Many come here to ride elephants but have no idea the abuse they go through so they can be around humans. Even then, many are killed and hurt while around these beautiful animals.

Kiwi Kaye

I really agree about Vang Vieng, it’s a truly gorgeous place, but seemed to be turning into a party Thai like spot,. When I was there 8 years ago the cafes played ‘Friends’ DVDs constantly. It was quite bizarre. The locals do buy into the needs of tourists. Hopefully the way of life for these people will remain as simple as it can and they don’t lose their beautiful values by seeing us only as $$$. Cheers for this lively discussion, it’s great to share with like minded travellers and hear others point of view. KK

Hey thanks for the shout out Matt!
It’s an interesting debate, one that will only evolve as we get more educated about the cause and effects of travel. It’s a good conversation to be having!

I think what we’re seeing here is the growing pains of a global culture. It’s easy to forget that commercial jet travel has only been mainstream accessible for slightly over 60 years, and the Internet for about 15. I agree that the industrialization and commercialization that takes place in formerly unknown hot spots can be destructive and sloppy, but overall i’m definitely optimistic for the future. We’re just hitting our stride on dealing with the freedom that allows even people of modest means to travel across the globe.

Whatever you wrote here is completely true Matt. This is unfortunate that people act selfish when it comes to the environment and places. But if we think it in practicality, every human think about the value he is getting for his money completely ignoring the fact that there are some underlying effects of this transaction. When people come to know about a new place and go there with their family, they expect it to be a little touristic with all facilities to accommodate their needs. This expectation give opportunities to big firms to ruin the beauty of that place. While people call themselves travelers, they are not. They are tourists eager to struck a place off from their list.

The impact of world wide use of plastics has had one of the biggest impacts on our travel environment. I recently witnessed this at a remote section of beach off the Gulf of Mexico. Made me sad to see all the plastics on the beach yet no one was around. This was just plastics discarded from all the countries around the Gulf. I hope some changes are made with regard to the use of plastics.

Great post Matt. Definitely a topic that needs to be talked about more often. People need to consider the environment and book with responsible/reputable companies when booking tours, hotels and excursions, it’s not all about saving a couple of bucks and going with the cheaper co.

A great example of how people can make a difference was when we were on safari in the Masai Mara in Kenya. The jeeps aren’t supposed to leave the track marks in the parks, not even if there is a lion out there, STAY on the tracks. We made sure our guide didn’t veer off of the marked paths, but there were many other companies with full jeeps going right up to the wildlife and totally disturbing them…and ruining the grass and environment along the way.

All it takes is for tourists to speak up. If people keep allowing their tour co. to break the rules, then the animals will stop going to certain popular spots and will just hide away…plus, the beauty of the landscape will be ruined.

Cheers.

I’m always trying to seek out the unspoiled, but man… it is hard these days! Even if it’s just your own little slice of remote beach. Getting away from the throngs can be as easy as just getting off the main drag. Sadly (or not) most people really don’t go beyond the busy main streets. Me? I love the side streets and back alleys best. Thats where you find the best stuff IMO…

NomadicMatt

The best stuff happens when you get lost.

This is a great post Matt, thanks for sharing your thoughts. We just visited Malaysian Borneo and flying over the area from Kota Kinabalu to Tawau I was shocked to see most of the area covered in planted palm trees. What I assume were natural forest areas had been entirely cleared and re planted with rows and rows of palm trees. Again, this is an example of a region trying to earn dollars from their natural resources, but in the process completely destroying a natural habitat. 11% of the world’s palm oil comes from Malaysia. If the government was offered more dollars to keep the land in pristine condition, then there would be more tourism and therefore tourist dollars and therefore development. Would that be better or worse? I don’t know the answer but I agree that awareness is key, and travel writers and journalists writing about the issues does help to raise awareness, “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink” though.

It is such a dilemma, whenever you discover a unique “off the beaten path” place on your adventures if you go sharing it with everyone you know all of sudden it loses it appeal as being an “unspoilt” paradise. But I would agree that it’s not the act of visiting the place that can ruin it, it’s the use of unsustainable tourism practices

We’ve seen this happen way too often. Re-visit somewhere spectacular only to find the changes made have left the location less than appealing. Thanks for bringing this subject to our attention, so much can be done to help improve the way things are being done now to keep these locations looking the way they did in the past for future visitors. I know we will try to do our part!

Totally agree with you, I am always amazed how just a few blocks off the beaten path can be totally different from the main drag. Not sure if its just that people are lazy and don’t want to venture out, or we’re conditioned to only go to those ‘recommended’ places where you only encounter a million other tourists.

Amazing post (as always) Matt- forces one to think long and hard!

Hi Matt,
If you have ever been to Bali you will see a prime example of how tourism can RUIN a once beautiful place. Hoards of drunk Australians use it as there piss up away from home as with all the mining in Western Australia – they have loads of money and Zero respect for the Balinese. .

We headed to the Gili Islands to get away from it!

NomadicMatt

The Gili’s are filled with tourists too.

Christi

First, we need to stop talking “down” to tourists and blaming tourists, which many of us are doing here. If we want a true solution to this problem, it comes down to better information, great communicators of this information (travel writers, friends, relatives), and showing how sustainable tourism truly improves the travel experience by 100%. The travel getaway is a “fantasy” that most of us have…seeing new places, meeting new people, having our desires of being treated as valuable guests when we travel, and coming back with great memories and a few souvenirs to remind us of this experience..and show our family and friends. If you can’t meet those desires, then you don’t get the traveler.

This issue of sustainability and tourism have several sides to it, including the challenges that many cities and towns have with becoming more environmentally sustainable (which does take financial investment and also may take time in some countries/locations to develop a plan for sustainability). We do forget that not too long ago, our own country (USA) was all about the plastic forks/plastic plates….many of us didn’t really think about the environment. Now, we are more educated and more aware.

My issue is more with the “educated environmental champions” who certainly mean well when we talk about the negative impact tourists have on destinations and how the locals feel..BUT we often come off as sounding “holier than thou”. Its like we have all the answers and we can tell the tourists what to do and guilt them into seeing things our way, and we think we know how all the locals feel about tourism in their home cities or towns. As some of us have read in a few of the comments, this is a debate even among locals who disagree with one another on how they should handle tourism in their cities or towns. Some of them don’t agree with any of us commenting here.

While its great to discuss and try to figure ways to help or assist a destination to become more environmentally sustainable, the decision will be up to the local businesses, government, and the people who live there. Tourists have the money, but chances are if a destination lose some tourism because it isn’t following a plan that is environmentally sustainable, then that same place will find more tourists elsewhere. Its up to the people who live there what they want to and need to do. Us blaming the tourists won’t get us anywhere, it will just make more tourists not listen to us .

If we want to get the bulk of the tourists on your side, then we first need to start with NEVER talking down to them, which many of us are doing right now in our comments. The solution is providing the appropriate information about how sustainable tourism provides a greater and more exciting experience to their travels. Education and Marketing…people want the “experience”, so let’s give them that when we talk with them about improving their travel experiences by being more mindful of sustainability.

Tourists will go to the places where they can find a great experience, value, a cost that is reasonable, and a place that will meet their particular needs. Some of the comments here that talk about how tourists want a destination to meet their every whim…I agree that some tourists are overbearing and rude, but a tourist will go to a place where their desires are met. Part of the travel experience is to enjoy a new place and also be treated as a valued guest who receives services that he or she doesn’t always get at home. Travel to many people is like a fantasy come true. All of that means, there will be an expectation of having some “whims” met.

Tourism is a business, and businesses bring money to a city or town. Money is used to buy food, clothing, shelter, etc. Yes, many people are into consumerism, but guess what most of us are into consumerism as well …if you buy any object you are a consumer..and into consumerism. If you have an iPad, you are into consumerism. If you have a car, you are into consumerism. If you buy a pair of cool shoes or sunglasses, consumerism.

As far as the big hotels, yes they can be bothersome and lend to over development. On the other side, a chain hotel does offer at least some consistency in services that many travelers desire and can find in a chain regardless of which city they stay. Also, if you have a problem during your stay at a chain hotel (if you were mistreated by its staff), they may have a stronger system put in place where you can call the headquarters to inform them about the issue you had. That hotel chain may give you a reimbursement like a discount off of your next stay in any one of establishments. We can all talk about how staying in a chain hotel or a major hotel can take away from the travel experience, and there are certainly trade offs if you do stay in a major hotel as opposed to a local mom and pop establishment. The great thing about travel is that we have the freedom to stay in a place that suits our needs and the needs of our families. We also have the freedom to choose a more sustainable path in travel. The more solid information we receive, where informs us of how sustainable travel improves our overall experience and which places offer that, the more you will see us travelers taking that responsibility.

I have an idyllic snapshot of Ko Phi Phi that looks just like yours on the left. I don’t know when your photo was taken but mine was taken 4 days before the tragic tsunami. (Fortunately, we just missed it.) However photo doesn’t tell the entire story. You can’t see all the bungalow, low-rise hotels and dozens of souvenir shops under the trees but they were there. And, so were massive piles of garbage (8 feet high!) behind a fence next to our bungalow on the edge of the village. Even at that time, the island had no way to handle the number of visitors. In my opinion, it’s a matter of local and national government planning to strike a balance between the positive and negative aspects of tourism.

After Ko Phi Phi we went to Ko Lanta and experienced a more relaxing, tranquil paradise. I read your recent post on Ko Lanta and was happy to hear it hasn’t changed much.

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