Why Travel is Bad for the World

travels negative impactTravel is a good thing. I’ve encouraged people to do it in countless blog posts. But, in the rush to get people to travel, we often over look the negative impact of it. We talk about how travel can be a force for good- breaking down social barriers, connecting people, teaching people about life, but we often overlook the bad. Is too much travel a bad thing? Is there an argument to be made for traveling less? Are we all, even with the best intentions, doing harm to the very thing we want the most?

Nothing is ever perfect but if I had to make an argument against travel, these are the points I would make:

Travel destroys local cultures – The globalization of food, travel, hotels, and language diminishes the very culture we traveled so far to see. Instead of going out to seek the unknown, most people stay in resorts and hotels, never experiencing the country they are in. We go to McDonald’s or eat food we can get at home. It’s as though we travel to never leave home. Wherever we go, we seem to bring our western culture with us.

Travel makes the world Disneyland – From the hill tribes of Thailand to the Andes to cowboys of America, travelers have a certain expectation of what a place is and how the people should act. We travel to see that expectation. We travel to see Crocodile Dundee, Mayans, Native Americans, and hill tribe cultures in Asia. Cultures around the world then put on a show to give us what we want and in the process “Disneyize” their culture. I hate seeing the little hill tribes in Thailand or Native American shows in America or “traditional” dance in Vietnam. It’s not how they really act. It’s how they act for tourists. Doesn’t that just cheapen the experience and, in the end, cause more harm than good?

Travel destroys local economies – All that travel in big hotels and global restaurants doesn’t help the local economy. Most of that money is removed by corporations to the head office. Travelers go with what they know and most will stay at the Marriott before they stay in some unknown place, never thinking about where the money is going. Travel can be a huge economic boon but only if the money stays local.

travels negative impactTravel hurts the environmentTraveling is not the most eco-friendly of activities. Flying, cruising, eating out, and driving around all have a negative impact on the environment. Most people when they travel constantly use towels in hotel rooms, leave the air conditioner going, or forget to turn off the lights. Jetsetting around the world in airplanes or driving around in an RV all contribute to global warming. Between waste, development, and pollution, we are doing exactly what The Beach said we would do- destroy the very paradise we seek.

Travel produces short term profits – Everyone tries to grab that last dollar. Travel isn’t the only industry this happens with but it’s the most relevant to us. Instead of building for the long term, people overdevelop in the name of short term gain. You see it in Thailand with the built up beaches, you see it in Cambodia, you see it in southern Spain, you see it in Las Vegas with all the casinos (where’s all that water going to come from?). It’s everywhere. Money now, forget later. Eventually, the tourists will stop coming because they will be so put off and so sad the beauty they came for is gone.

While there is a growing effort among people to mitigate these downsides, the truth is we can’t ignore the negative side of travel. Yet I don’t think these reasons should make us stop traveling. In fact, I’m just thinking out loud here. Simply letting the wheels turn. At the end of the day, these negatives come down to personal choice. You can easily travel the world and not do any of these things. I don’t fly much, I don’t stay in giant hotels, I avoid chain restaurants, I stay in local guesthouses, and I won’t do tours that exploit animals or the environment.

While many travelers are good about thinking about the environment and cultures, the majority aren’t. And so I do think there is a strong argument to be made that travel does cause a lot of problems that should make us rethink how and why we travel. I may have overblown my statements above but the point is the same – there’s a downside to what we do and we should take it upon ourselves not to do those things so we can keep travel the benefit that it is.

Don’t stop now! Continue reading these articles on travel and society:
The truth about meeting locals abroad
All travelers are created equal
When the expats come and take over
Is this really travel?

  1. Nick

    I think you make some good points, here. It all comes down to how people travel, especially how and where they spend their money. Perhaps the new travel meme for our age should be the idea of conscious travel.

    Let me give just one example of how travel can bring huge benefits to local communities. My sister’s fiance organises a music festival on the shores of Lake Malawi each year, called Lake of Stars. The aim is to promote cross cultural interaction and understanding, through the medium of music. (Plus, of course, to have a storming wicked time!)

    The festival works with local NGO’s (this year was a micro-loan foundation, I think) and pumps profits back into the local communities. Since the festival began, Malawi as a whole has seen an increase in tourism. New hostels and hotels and restaurants have opened up; more money is going into local economies. At present, it’s the local people who are benefitting – large chains are yet to move in.

    The impact has been so significant, that tourist boards from other countries have approached Will (the organiser) to discuss starting similar festivals in their countries. Rwanda is a good example – it still suffers from a very negative public image, and the hope is that something like a music festival, if sensitively done, could help kick-start tourism in the country.

    Whether we like it or not, many countries are very reliant on tourism for their income. The challenge, as you point out, is making sure that as much money the tourists spend as possible remains in the local communities, rather than being siphoned out by big multi-nationals. I believe this is possible.

  2. I agree with a lot of what you write above, especially regarding Disneyfeying the world and contributing to diluting local culture. Ironically, the more we travel, the less we like the tourism industry. Seeing big tour groups to through markets sticking their cameras in people’s faces and treating them like objects instead of people really gets under my skin. Same with tourists who don’t ever visit local restaurants and shops, not only to distribute some of their tourist dollars around but to get a better feel for the country they are visiting (i.e., get outside the bubble).

    But, as both you and Nick point out, there are some fantastic ways that travelers/tourists contributes to the local economy and even can help the community. We just met a Dutch woman who traveled through Bolivia and got involved with an NGO for street kids. Now, she runs a cafe in Sucre, Bolivia where all the profits go to support this NGO. Some fair trade shops and tour agents combine capacity training with business so your money goes to teaching someone to read, in addition to getting a beautiful handmade whatever. It’s all about making conscious decisions when you travel so that you minimize your negative footprint and do the most to benefit the local community with your engagement/dollars.

    Thanks for bringing up these issues.

  3. Unfortunately, your observations are quite true; although, environmentally friendly travel seems to be steadily gaining popularity.
    We often forget about how pumping thousands of gallons of water to places like Las Vegas and beach resorts in Southern Spain impact the geology of the region, contributing to desertification and even collapsing inland farming towns.
    I like to call the kind of traveling you describe in this post “vacationing,” as opposed to low-impact, community conscious traveling many backpackers strive to accomplish.
    Thanks for reminding us of these important, though unpleasant, realities of travel.

  4. All the points you made are why I prefer travel by bicycle and other slower forms of travel like walking or horseback. They take you mostly to places the buses, planes and trains don’t go through, allowing you to truly support the local shops and get to know the local people.

  5. Your points are well made though western money doea a lot to fund local initiatives. I am very fond of wildlife travel as readers of my blog will know and there is little doubt that the tourist dollar is doing positive things for mountain gorillas in central Africa, whales and numerous other animlas where they are more valuable to authorities alive and in their natural habitat than dead. Similarly some places of great natural beauty around the world have been rpeserved based on the same tourism value outweighing the value of turning the land into farmyards, houses or equivalent.

  6. Isn’t the trael experience similiar to the scientific principle that says the act of observation changes that which is being observed? Just because we can’t change that law, doesn’t mean we stop observing–or traveling.


  7. Some very valid points – however, most of them can be mitigated by being conscious in our travels.

    As RV travel is our current form of travel, I’ll address this one directly in its environmental impact. Yes, some super huge monster RVs can have quite an environmental impact. RVs burn gas/diesel in order to move. An engine that is not well maintained can pollute more than a standard vehicle.

    However, RV travel – especially if in place of living in a traditional fixed home – can actually be better for the environment than a traditional fixed living lifestyle. For instance, many full time travelers opting for RVing have installed solar panels as their primary electrical source. The typical miles we put on in a year is comparable to what most individuals put on their vehicles to commute to work and travel for leisure – perhaps even less. The amount of resources needed to operate a small square footage of space in a RV (ours is about 80 sq ft.. even the largest of RVs are only around 400 sq ft) is significantly less than the environmental impact of operating a 1500 – 3000 sq ft home. Living mobiley and having to carry and dispose of your own water tends to make for significantly less water consumption as well (we generally only use about 30 gallons of water a WEEK between the two of us – some folks can use that much in a single shower in a hotel/house). And on and on I can go…

    Anyway, just pointing out some contrasting things.. as folks tend to want to jump on RVs as being huge environmental pigs. :) And they don’t have to be.

  8. Cool post.

    There should be a distinction between a “tourist” and a “traveler”. Tourists stay where they know and just “splurge” at least the ones I’ve met. A traveler is someone who is traveling for no other reason to experience the difference, seek it out and throw themselves into local culture…

  9. I like to do a lesson with my ESL classes that centers around tourism in China. Some of the discussion points include ‘when is there too much tourism?’ It always leads to very interesting views from my students. Things like over-commercialization, destruction of local culture, and pandering to tourists/foreigners usually come up.

    For me, as a foreigner in China, it’s interesting to get the Chinese viewpoint on tourism in their own country. I try to make it ‘black and white’ for purposes of the discussion in class, but nonetheless it’s great to hear it from their side.

  10. points well taken especially the short term profits. Working in a tourists driven business, the impact is significant. there is considerable drop of business because of the current economic situation.

    As you said, it is short term profits. now, we are suffering and so do the staffs.

  11. Ronald

    Nothing much to add here except to say thanks to you Matt for this post and the interesting replies it prompted. I do agree with Rob, who makes a distinction between those who can be classed as “tourists” (who holiday in a foreign country to see a few popular sights, get a tan and bring home some souvies) and “travellers”, genuinely motivated by the excitement of new discoveries and cultures.

    If you’re a family with jobs to return to and bound by a firm deadline, the options are a little more limited in terms of true travel, but much can still be said for renting a holiday home off the beaten track, and doing some local “immersion”: visit the markets to buy your food, engage with whoever’s propping up the bar at the tiny café round the corner, etc. A smattering of the language is a clear advantage of course, and it helps not to be shy!

  12. Forest

    I think your main point is spot on. Travel can be good, travel can be bad. It’s all about traveling responsibly. Like you, I stay at small locally owned hotels, and eat at small locally owned restaurants. I try not to participate in any of the “disneyesque” shows that are put on. When I was in Istanbul I avoided a bunch of whirling dervishes shows, that were just put on at restaurants and such for tourists amusement. If I had more time there I would have sought out a real example of whirling dervishes, not just something put on for tourists. I am a firm believer in authenticity.

    Great post Matt! It’s good to keep the bad aspects of travel in mind, so we don’t hurt more than we help. As long as we travel responsibly, I think the benefits far outweigh the bad. There are certainly people who only stay in huge chain hotels, and fly everywhere, and participate in many fake touristy activities. I highly doubt the people reading this blog are that style of people :) Keep up the good work!

  13. Great post Matt. Yes there is a risk that as we travel more and more we are collectively responsible for creating a more bland world, where the most remote places try to create ‘a bit of home’ for us visitors, in the hope that it will encourage a greater tourist trade.

    And yet if it does, and it encourages the fanny-pack brigade to arrive and spend their dollars liberally into that country’s economy, who are we to tell them to reject the advances that this might bring them? Where we might see disappearing shacks along the river and loss of traditional ways of life, others may see a refrigerator, running water or affordable education as a result of this influx of money. In the end, we may be more interesting in preserving a way of life for our own tourism purposes than those who live it.

    As an aside, I would encourage all those who make such sharp distinctions between the behaviour of travellers and tourists to spend a few days with both camps. I have seen many a fanny-pack wearer engage freely and meaningfully with local people they meet while travelling, and have met countless backpackers whose immersion in local culture centres on getting drunk/stoned/laid with other backpackers. The stereotypes might be convenient but they don’t reflect the reality. We all choose the way to travel that best suits our time/money/desire for comfort. The tourist/traveller label is unhelpful. Those who travel with the real desire to to experience and to learn are equally present in all types of travel; our instinct to lump people into groups and assign those groups with communal behaviours is a powerful and dangerous one.

  14. I think a lot of the problems you describe comes down to the fact that most people travel very short term. One week or two at the most. They are looking to escape their life and home more than seeking the actual travelling experience. Comfort and convenience is more important than experiencing the “true” local culture.
    They go for easy solutions supplied by big hotels and travel agencies that they recognise from “home”.
    The environmental impact of a one week return flight versus the same flight for a much longer stay is quite substantial.
    These reasons are mostly good arguments for why we like to encourage more people to travel long term. The bad effects are maybe not quite as bad for long term travellers…?
    Like you said Matt, the travel choices you personally make does not have the bad impact than that of a lot of other travellers. And you travel long term for sure…

  15. So many of these points are right on – I think one of the most important things to keep in mind is slow travel. Traveling overland and at a slow pace cuts down on some of resort to resort type of travel, forces you to interact more locally, and it’s better for the environment :-) But you’re right, no matter how carefully you’re traveling, there are going to be some drawbacks and negatives.

  16. great points, we can´t just keep on traveling and not think about (at least a bit) on the negative sides – so we can try to be more conscienscious – but keep on traveling!

  17. so true…

    though a lot of countries are gearing up towards sustainable tourism, i’m sure that action could help protect the environment, but i’m not sure if it could protect the local culture from disappearing…

  18. Me and Lin were just talking about this. It puts a burden on a traveler to see what your quest for exploration does to the local economy and culture. Being in India it is always in your face how much cultural destruction is brought on by tourism. I think responsible travel is the obvious best way to reduce our cultural impact. Kills me to see people giving money to beggers, giving children pens or cookies, and only eating at the guidebook restaurants. Which in my opinion are in the top tier of what is destroying cultures and cultural pride.

  19. allow me to retort; RE: Travel makes the world Disneyland:

    I agree with your opinion on this, however, I believe that it might not necessarily be a bad thing. Let’s take Hula for example. I wonder if Hula dancing would have even survived as an art form if it weren’t for the “disneyization” of it? And another example, in my native Wyoming, there are several “chuck wagon dinners” that cater to tourists. Cheesy? Yes! But the chuck wagon dinner isn’t practical for anything other than being a tourist attraction these days, but at least the history of it is being preserved. History is important and anything that can be done to preserve history (and culture for that matter) is a worthwhile effort.

  20. Péter

    Tourism is indeed a huge and rapidly growing industry. The problem is not travel itself, but when the experience of travel is turned into a profit making industry. See:

    food vs. food industry
    sex vs. sex industry
    health vs. health industry
    and travel vs. travel industry

    However you seem to overestimate the impact of tourism on the world. Vast areas of the world are hardly affected by tourism at all(How many tourists travel to Siberia or Nigeria or Bangladesh?) and even in countries that are popular tourist destinations tourism is concentrated in relatively few points(points not areas!). Despite the lack of tourism these places have to deal with the same problems you mention: the local culture and environment is endangered. It is not so much the impact of travel, but modernisation and globalisation in general that is responsible for this.

    “All that travel in big hotels and global restaurants doesn’t help the local economy.”

    That’s sure, but why do you assume that there are only big hotels and global restaurants in the world? Almost every Alpine village in Austria lives very well from tourism and there is hardly any big hotel or global restauarant in sight. Instead there are locally owned pubs, restaurants, small pensions, bed and breakfast accomodation, farm stays, etc.

  21. Hmm, it made me think deeply how traveling can be really bad to the world. But yeah, I have to admit you got some points – it can be bad and good at the same time. The bottom line here is be responsible enough of your life. Be mature and be kind to nature and all living things. That’s all. And by the way, I like this post :)

  22. Nice post. I have been thinking about this lately and it is a certainly a very serious issue.
    As more people realize that the tourist destinations are being commercialized or Disneyfied, they will head towards the ‘offbeat’ destinations.
    It is scary to think that we may actually run out of offbeat destinations.
    One way to prevent is to do what the Bhutanese government does. Only their airlines (Druk Air) can fly into the country, they have limited flights and the Government charges a fee for the tourist’s stay.
    Such measures can really help.

  23. Very great points! It’s true, many people only stay at big hotels and are afraid to venture out into more unknown territory (rightfully so to an extent when it comes to safety). Also, because traveling brings people out of their comfort zone, many of them are going to be defensive and stick to what they know whether or not it helps or doesn’t help the local territory they are exploring. Traveling vs. not traveling, obviously I pick traveling. It just has to be done right. Great post.

  24. soph

    Thankyou so much!!! You have opened my eyes to traveling and you have really helped me with some english travel writing!!!
    thanks for posting this

  25. Bryn Thomas

    I think it’s interesting, the difference between ‘travelers’ and ‘tourists’. Think about how each person effects the local area they are in. Travelers are the ones that expose ‘secret little places’ they discover to the rest of the world. They have ‘first interactions’ with local villages and underdeveloped communities. Maybe they’re lucky enough to take home a picture surrounded by local children, all playing with blow dart guns. Maybe they’re even the reason currency becomes introduced to an area that has been happily trading away for centuries. They leave the place, soon to be frequented by more and more travelers. even if these are sensitive people, patronizing only local businesses and family guest houses, they leave the locals stimulated. Those of financial capability open businesses catering to tourists, even if it only means renovating the back suite where Grandma used to live, and renting it out for $5 a night. The kids of these people, they all grow up not wishing to be a sugar cane farmer like father, but a traveler. Or, a doctor. Or an actor, or a big city business man. Generation passes, Sugar cane farm is gone, dad lives alone off the rent of 3 rooms in his house because all the kids have moved out and gone to the city. One example. Any travelers run into this story? Globalization is clearly terrible for local culture, and travel has become an even bigger sin on local culture than trade. Every ‘curious person’ who wants to immerse themselves into a small, intimate local scene and taste unique, local food, maybe chat in ‘beginner’s first page’ with a local, paves way for everything else that follows of bigger mass tourism.

    Secondly, the impact of a ‘tourist.’ Goes somewhere already ruined (if you will), or at least completely inebriated with the sense of offering everything they can feign (and for real to, I’m not being mean) for the viewing delight of foreign curiosimas. Pays top freaking dollar for everything, leaves with 2 lamps, a picture, a hooka, and about 20 local bracelets for gifts to mates and family back home. Supports the Disneyesque portrayal of a local wedding dance. Tips. Maybe even huge. Buggers off home at the end of his trip without planting a seed into the head of an unexposed local, or telling one more story that swells the already steady stream of curious travelers up a river in front of some local fisherman with a homemade outboard chinese motor (or even worse, a paddle) to that small village 2 hours up the way where they’re just starting work on a road to connect to the outside world – the village needs more beer to be brought in on sale for the thirsty foreigners who can’t handle the humidity. The worst are travelers reading about these destinations in Lonely Planet, along with how many other million readers? Right then, and the tourist goes home.

    Ever see those small african villages or Laotian tribes and walk away commenting on how happy these people are, and how silly we are in the west? There’s a reason for that! And it’s because they haven’t boggled their minds with a million different career options in 14 different countries, after finishing a degree 1200 km away from their family because the university in that town was marketed well.

    Clearly, the biggest problem here is the way tourism dollars flow. If foreign investors weren’t able to build what they do, where they do, and local governments, out of pride (or sense of cultural preservation) insisted that their countrymen were the ones to decide what, and where, things would be offered to tourists (something like Myanmar, I think off the top of my head? Anyway, that’s a different topic), then we’d really be talking. Then we’d really be saving a nation’s culture, their happiness. Then, if we purely visited these places, as tourists rather than as travelers, then we’d really be talking.

    Just occurring to me, off the top of my head. If a Russian bloke opens a resort in Thailand, how much tax does he end up paying to the Thai government? And, if the Thai government didn’t have the money to invest in building this place and advertising for tourists, then maybe one could understand why this Russian would be in the shoes that he happened to be in. So, through this investment, a small, isolated area is used for touristic income, and taxed to high hell. Most of the resort staff is local, and all the produce and most of the liquor (or maybe just some, but at least your local flagship beer) is local. Tourists pay 4 times as much as they do in the outlying villages. Villages that have been surviving for a very long time just fine enough thank you on farming and fishing and don’t need those Euros anyways. Right, so getting back to that tax money. What does the Thai government do with it? Well, that’s a pretty important thing, once again clearly a political issue that could be organized really beneficially for the rest of the country, and if not, well then that’s not so great.

    So, say you really, really love Thailand. Do you want their original culture to be preserved, or do you want every Thai to be wearing Nike sandals, adidas shorts, pink shirts and caps that superimpose the letters N and Y on them, because some 22 year old Belgian man ‘connected’ with your fifteen year old and left it as a momento? Would you want more tourists supporting a well run government initiative – or more travelers gently caressing the curves of the country and infiltrating their villages – to visit there in the future?

    By the way, I’ve been traveling sensitively for the last 5 years, only supporting smaller local businesses. My girlfriend is studying tourism management and just recently ran into a bargain ‘5 star resort half board 7 nights’ trip, so we took the plunge into something that we’ve always disliked and criticized as backpackers. It was terrible. Phony. We had some brilliant turkish belly dancers in the hotel lobby one night thou. Everyone there (except us) spent a bloody fortune on just about everything, everywhere. Amazing. I never want to do it again. Anyways, the experience got me thinking about the whole thing. And now I sort of feel like a cultural criminal and my travel bug has turned a guilty shade of green.

    Am I just crazy?

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