They are everywhere. No matter where one goes—the highest peak in the Andes, a rural village in Taiwan, right in your own backyard—there is hardly a corner of the earth that tourists have not reached, visited, and documented on social media. Cheap methods of travel, the expansion of the middle class in nations such as Russia and China, and the omnipotence of the internet have led to a surge of tourism around the world, especially in remote and dangerous places previously unreachable by anyone save the daring and wealthy. But while the pleasure afforded by this unprecedented accessibility to natural wonders is undeniable, the cultural and environmental costs can be tremendous.
The recent string of deaths on Mount Everest is a prime example of how unsustainably high levels of visitation can both detract from a natural wonder and endanger those who visit. With a total of 11 fatalities, the 2019 climbing season was one of the deadliest ever recorded. Surprisingly, however, the heightened death toll was not brought on by natural means, such as an avalanche or unseasonably cold weather. It was an unanticipated influx of tourists. Sherpas have lamented the hordes of inexperienced, slow, and blundersome novice climbers that created a massive traffic jam. On Everest, where oxygen tanks create rigid time limits on trips away from camp, the backup created by the masses led to a lengthy queue that ultimately cost some their lives.
Unfortunately, Everest is far from the only landmark adding risk to splendor. Many attractions rely on a theme of danger and excitement, even without overcrowding. Thousands of tourists each year flock to the Devil’s Pool in Zambia, a sunken basin at the top of Victoria Falls that is only safe to swim in at specific points during the year, but at other points hosts too-strong currents that whisk a handful of daredevils off to their deaths. Off Ireland’s coast, the dramatic Cliffs of Moher offer a stunning view of where land meets sea, with the minor caveat that visitors risk falling to an untimely death. In the United States, natural parks like Death Valley, Zion, and Yellowstone all feature miles of beautiful hiking trails, on which a few visitors unfortunately perish each year. It goes without saying that some of nature’s most beautiful spots are dangerous to access; somehow, that danger becomes an attraction in its own right.
But the consequences of overcrowding extend beyond the most remote or dangerous parts of our world—tourist attractions and destinations on every continent are being damaged through unsustainable visitor growth. Venice has become the preferred destination of millions of visitors who at once disrupt day-to-day life, the activities of other sightseers, and the affordability of local housing. Meanwhile, Amsterdam’s famed floating flower market, the Bloemenmarkt, recently announced it was closing its waterways due to an influx of tourists, especially those who blocked stalls to take pictures. Even in California, this past spring’s super bloom of wildflowers fell victim to hordes of visitors stepping off the paths and trampling millions of the state’s trademark poppies. Across the globe, both man-made and natural attractions are being adversely affected by a seemingly unstoppable tide of tourists clamoring for more.
Social media, and the ever-increasing tendency of individuals to live lives dictated by their online presence, is equally responsible. Self-proclaimed influencers online have the unfortunate habit of finding a particularly beautiful location and photographing themselves (often accompanied by merchandise as an advertising ploy) there, inevitably leading crowds of unappreciative, egotistical fans there, and with them a cycle of destruction and disrespect. While there is nothing wrong with sharing a beautiful spot of land with one’s friends, the disregard for conservation and the exploitative nature of online personalities is a pernicious, dangerous tendency. So much so that one man devotes his time to calling out influencers through the Instagram account @publiclandshateyou. Perhaps not the most constructive approach, but certainly a step in the right direction in working against such self-indulgent behavior.
Overcrowding has become such a big issue that many locations have imposed fees in an attempt to limit the number of visitors. Venice has instituted a fee for every tourist that enters the city, and has banned large cruise ships from its harbors outright. Likewise, the Livraria Lello, a famed bookstore in Porto, Portugal where J.K. Rowling once found inspiration for Harry Potter, now charges tourists a fee simply to enter its premises. And countries like Japan, Switzerland, and Spain have expanded these tourist taxes to any foreigner that sets foot in their nation. Tourists in Bhutan are hit especially hard, spending between US$200 and $250 per day to visit the country. The fact that so many states have undertaken similar coordinated efforts to prevent overcrowding demonstrates truly global concern. Sill, even with such efforts, it remains an unfortunate reality that most measures have no real impact on visitation numbers.
So what, then, can be done about the cultural and environmental hazard of overcrowding? And in the same vein, is there anything to be done about the unfortunate few who perish in pursuit of the most beautiful and dangerous locales on earth? The persistence of vanity at the heart of tourists’ actions reveals a fundamental flaw of human nature. The example of the Bloemenmarkt, where tourists taking huge numbers of pictures detracted from the market so much it was forced out of existence, is just one instance of this. While some visitors certainly treated the market respectfully and courteously, pausing only momentarily to snap a quick photo or two, the unfortunate reality is that far too many tourists inconsiderately and vainly detracted from the experience as a whole. Even more unfortunate is when selfish behaviors endanger others in remote or dangerous locations. Mount Everest is perhaps the best example: the masses of inexperienced and ill-prepared mountaineers who die on its slopes should offer a serious warning to those simply seeking bragging rights.
In order for this cycle of obnoxiousness and inconsiderate behavior to end, fundamental changes must be made. While tourist taxes and additional fees may slightly alleviate the pressure local populations feel and the environmental havoc wreaked by crowds, these fees disproportionately affect low-income visitors without significantly curbing the horde. Tourism, an industry that up until recently had been purely a perk of wealth, has recently become more accessible to the economically disadvantaged. The nouveau riche from nations like China, Russia, and the Middle Eastwould not be discouraged by such measly fees, but the growing population of low-income travelers would.
Rather, the answer must lie in a significant cultural shift. Tourism, vacationing, and travelling, should be motivated by a personal connection with the space rather than external modes of validation (such as social media posting or bragging rights). Instead of spending time recording video upon video in a vain attempt to share one’s entire life on the internet, tourists should appreciate the experience more fully, perhaps snapping a photo or two to send to friends and family. This is in our best interest, in more ways than one: psychologistssuggest that taking fewer photos helps cement memories more permanently in the brain and makes experiences feel more valuable.
And as for those unreachable summits, those sky-high waterfalls, and those remote desert trails? The glorious—and treacherous—hidden corners of our planet should perhaps be left to the experts to explore and document. Risking life and limb for an impressive story at the water cooler is not worth the threat individuals pose to themselves and others who truly deserve to be there. Living in the moment will not just be better for the tourists themselves; it will be better for the world as a whole.