Why Tourists Ruin the Places They Visit

a cruise ship waiting in a port in Venice
Updated 11/23/19 | November 23rd, 2019

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, out-of-the-way destination) and how overdeveloped that island has become in the last few years. Unfettered development has taken this tiny island and filled it with resorts and ruined coral reefs as drinking water needs to be pumped in from nearby islands to meet the needs.

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. “Go there! They are wonderful and crowd free,” I proclaim.

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 destinations become crowded destinations full of tourists and overpriced hotels. (And, these days, there are a lot of factors that go into overtourism. It’s a complex — and urgent — problem!)

After ten years of traveling the world, I’ve come to realize that it’s the tourists themselves who ruin a destination.

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.

Because, let’s face it, as a species, people are kind of assholes.

We can talk about sustainability and overtourism all we want but, if people really cared wouldn’t they stay in fewer Airbnbs, take fewer cruises, and try to avoid tours and animal tourism?

And then what happens?

You see many locals who are shortsighted and start 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. I don’t agree with that method of growth (not just in travel but in life in general), but how do you tell someone they can’t build something to feed their family?

I remember reading an article a few years back by Thomas Freidman from the New York Times talking about the rainforest in Brazil. In an interview, a local activist said that people need to eat, and, while most 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.

(I 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.)

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

But here’s why I put a lot of blame on visitors: 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. 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 competitors. 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.

But I can’t stop people from behaving badly when they get to a destination. I can just push them in the right direction.

If we push locals to be eco-friendly, they will. If writers push travelers to be eco-friendly, maybe they will. It’s a virtuous circle in which we all contribute.

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.

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Photo of Ko Phi Phi thanks to the Traveling Canucks. It’s a great blog; you should read it.