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:
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:
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.