Tourism has grown 50 percent over the past decade, with the number of international travellers reaching 1.4 billion last year. It’s a massive industry, accounting for 10.4 percent of the global GDP and one out of every five new jobs.
In many ways, that’s a beautiful thing. Tourism supports local economies and brings us closer as a global community, offering valuable opportunities to engage with people from different walks of life. But an unprecedented volume of tourists has obvious downsides – environmental damage, grinding traffic, unparalleled waste and endless crowds, to name a few.
Just last year, Thailand’s famous Maya Bay – which starred alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach – closed temporarily to let damaged coral recover from overtourism. Likewise, authorities shuttered Boracay, in the Philippines, for six months to clean up excessive waste and install new sewage systems. Now there is talk of a similar measure for Indonesia’s Komodo.
As travel picks up the pace, we talk to experts about how we can make a positive impact, from counteracting the effects of overtourism to improving our cultural sensitivity, etiquette and responsibility to the environment.
The issue: overtourism
If you’ve recently been to Venice, you’ll immediately understand the phenomenon of overtourism. Once a thriving hub of arts and culture, the Italian hotspot now feels a bit like a theme park thanks to an influx of touristy restaurants, alley-clogging crowds and sky-high prices that have driven residents farther and farther from the city centre.
‘We already live in the age of mass tourism, which mars the beauty of attractive destinations with ugly buildings designed to accommodate the multitudes,’ says Andrea Oschetti, founder of luxury travel agency Blue Flower Travel. ‘Destinations have become homogenised – we used to find inspiration in the diversity, but now many places look and feel the same.’
It looks like overtourism is here to stay – so how can we travel in a more sustainable way? Oschetti says it starts not with the where but the how. For instance, if you’re travelling to Siem Reap in Cambodia, one of the most-visited destinations in Asia, consider visiting the temples in a different way.
‘Angkor Wat should be on everyone’s bucket list. But instead of queuing at Angkor Wat’s main entrance, you could trek or bike through the various alternative paths to explore the huge temple complex,’ says Oschetti. However, it’s best not to veer too far off the well-trodden areas for safety reasons. ‘Also, certain temples get crowded at certain times. With the help of a knowledgeable guide, you can time your visit to stay away from big flocks of tourists.’
Most importantly, he says the antidote to overtourism is to approach every journey with an intention to learn about a destination’s history, culture, arts and people. Armed with this mentality, Oschetti says you will naturally veer off over-toured routes and become a more engaged traveller in the process.
‘When designing trips, we constantly ask ourselves, are these experiences helping to connect with the pure essence of a destination, the genius loci, and engage with inspiring locals?’ he says. ‘It’s about building travel memories and returning enriched from a journey, not just bringing back a few posts for your social media that soon will be forgotten.’
The issue: environmentalism
Last year, Hongkonger Hannah Chung went on a kayaking trip in Kota Kinabalu. As she paddled through a mangrove forest off the coast, she was shocked to encounter garbage floating in every direction. ‘It was absolutely heartbreaking. Our guides said they clean it up every day, but the trash keeps coming due to wind during the rainy season,’ says Chung, a prominent green activist who aims to live with zero waste. The group used their oars to scoop up as much as possible, then paddled back to shore where they could sort the haul.
‘Throughout Southeast Asia, there are many coastal areas where trash piles up, especially in the poorer regions,’ says Chung. ‘Seeing all of the everyday items – crisps packets, toothpaste tubes, lighters – just floating in the ocean makes you really see that we’re all part of the problem.’
For her own travels, Chung takes a few easy steps to curb waste, starting with a travel kit: a lunchbox, cutlery and a water flask, all reusable. This trifecta comes in handy, for instance, when Chung wants to enjoy street food but avoid single-use plastic. Her low-waste travel regime affects how she packs, too. ‘I don’t travel with liquids anymore. I pack bars of shampoo, soap, conditioner and Lush’s Toothy Tabs – little tablets that foam up like toothpaste when you chew on them – and it’s honestly way easier.’
When it comes to choosing travel experiences, Chung typically focuses on outdoor activities or volunteer work. ‘Travel is something we should all be grateful for: we can actually get on a plane and be out of a bustling city in an hour,’ says Chung. ‘Is there a way to give back to the places that have given you this beautiful environment? Whenever I go to visit natural sites, I look for a local tour or a charity that I can participate in to contribute to the community.’
The issue: cultural sensitivity
Part of being a culturally sensitive traveller is taking the time to understand the place you’re visiting. ‘It is crucial to talk with locals and listen to their views,’ says Anita Ngai, chief revenue officer of Klook, the travel activities booking app. ‘We should show respect and avoid judgment based on our own values… it’s important to learn why communities live and think the way they do.’
An avid traveller herself, Ngai has witnessed several examples of cultural insensitivity over the years, from visitors wearing overly revealing clothing in temples to joking about violence in areas that have suffered from conflict. But she’s seen plenty of thoughtful, engaged travellers, too.
‘On a recent trip to Cambodia, I was on a local tour and we had a chance to meet survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide,’ recalls Ngai. ‘One of the travellers in my group asked a lot of questions, interested to learn more about their lives at that time. Their response was very telling – it clearly made them feel cared about and remembered, and they could see that tourists aren’t just visiting to consume, but also to understand a significant part of history better.’
Ngai advises to learn a few words and phrases in the local language before your trip, and don’t forget to research the culture and customs of each destination. This will also help your packing: many places in Asia favour long sleeves and long trousers.
Often, cultural insensitivity can be accentuated by an egocentric mentality. Instead of thinking only about what you can gain from a trip, consider how you can connect with others. ‘It’s a fundamental human ability to be able to connect to the realities of others. Come with an open mind – ready to learn about the people, physical environment and history,’ says Ngai. ‘That’s critical to maintaining a future where our children and grandchildren can enjoy travelling and still be welcomed by local people.’
The issue: etiquette
Whereas cultural sensitivity is all about learning and understanding from others, etiquette refers to more precise codes of conduct that communicate polite behaviour within a society. In Japan, for instance, you should greet people by bowing; in Tibet you point with an upturned hand; in Morocco you take your shoes off when entering a home.
‘Travelling with respect earns me respect. By that I mean that I’m more likely to get opportunities to meet local people on their terms and really learn about their lives and culture if I’m polite and considerate,’ says Justin Francis, founder of UK-based online travel agency Responsible Travel. ‘So we suggest that travellers be well-informed, use a local guide and do their research before they go.’
Sometimes poor etiquette isn’t specific to a culture, though. Certain actions are unwelcome no matter where you are. Francis recalls witnessing a particularly distressing scenario last summer in the south of France: ‘At a market, vendors set up their stalls with very attractive spreads of fruits and vegetables, where local people were buying food for the day. A large group of tourists, I believe from a cruise ship, blocked up the entire market to take photographs. This infuriated both traders and locals. I saw not one of them buy anything – essentially they took and gave nothing back.’
Travel, he says, should be a mutually beneficial experience – places do not exist solely for our benefit. ‘We have to remember that we take our holidays in somebody else’s home, and this can cause real problems for them,’ says Francis. ‘Tourism brings together people from different races, languages, beliefs, customs and ways of life. Done right, it gives us a way to spread a little love and understanding. That’s the beauty of travel.’