Americans have long had a reputation for being terrible tourists: loud, rude and too often clad in tube socks.
In the years leading up to the pandemic, we got even worse. Not more boisterous or more badly dressed. But — driven by cheap flights and cruises, an explosion of vacation rentals and social media-fueled FOMO — we were flooding the world, and wrecking it.
Countless people benefit from and depend on tourism. But travelers have also contributed to climate change, destroyed coral reefs, and driven residents out of cities once praised for their livability. In 2019, passenger planes blasted record amounts of carbon emissions into the air. That same year, Mount Everest was so overwhelmed with trash that China closed the base camp on its side of the peak to tourists without climbing permits. The Louvre got so jammed that workers walked out in protest.
It’s not just Americans who are to blame for this mess. There were 1.5 billion international overnight trips in 2019, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization; Europeans accounted for roughly half of these stays, Asians a quarter. But we were the biggest spenders after the Chinese, lavishing some $150 billion on our holidays.
Then the pandemic forced a reset. Now that we are traveling again, we have a chance to usher in a better era. We can stop loving destinations to death.
To do that, we need to travel less — and more carefully.
The last time you planned a vacation, you probably spent a lot of time on research. You may have compared hotel costs and restaurant ratings, or tried to judge the cleanliness of a campground or the walking distance to ski lifts.
What if, in addition to asking how to maximize our enjoyment, we spent some time considering a different question: What impact will my presence have?
Travelers have to do research to get the answer. But if millions of people can scour Facebook, Twitter and other platforms for #travelinspiration, we can mine these sources for context, too. A search for “overtourism” on Twitter, for example, offers some useful information about fragile destinations to avoid.
This summer, Preethi Harbuck, a travel blogger, canceled a trip to Maui, which was struggling with a Covid surge, a water shortage and a tourist deluge. Her family could have blithely pressed ahead; many others did. But listening to locals on social media convinced her that doing so wouldn’t be considerate or responsible.
“The vast majority of Hawaiian voices that I could find were saying, ‘Please don’t come right now,’” Ms. Harbuck told me. Her family went to the U.S. Virgin Islands instead.
Approaching travel this way requires a mind-set shift. It may be more pleasurable to browse photos of five-star hotels than it is to review Friends of the Earth’s annual Cruise Ship Report Card. But there is a payoff: Caring about the places we travel to and the people who live there can make us feel more connected to them.
Some simple changes in how we plan travel can help. Rather than following the crowds, the hashtags or the influencers, look to old-fashioned sources of inspiration, from places mentioned in favorite books to memories of childhood holidays. You could even take that dusty globe off your shelf to get ideas.
Ask yourself what kind of trip you’re looking for — a beach escape? a culinary adventure? — then seek out a lower density version of the hot spot you initially had in mind. Opt out of Paris’s overheated restaurant scene, for example, and feast in Padua, Italy, or the Mexican state of Chiapas. Skip Yosemite National Park and try Pinnacles National Park, a few hours away. Travel during the off-season, stay in small inns and guesthouses, and explore the area’s cuisine as much as possible, to keep your dollars in local hands.
Of course, it’s always important to keep a close eye on any travel restrictions and recommendations from the places you want to visit — especially now, because of Covid — and make sure to comply with them fully, for your own sake and the safety of others.
One surprising way to be a more conscientious traveler is to book a group tour — with a responsible operator. Tours may get a bad rap from travelers who prize independence and authenticity, but some operators steer visitors away from over-touristed areas and use their deep local knowledge to support off-the-beaten track small businesses, says Megan Epler Wood, the managing director of the Sustainable Tourism Asset Management Program at Cornell University. “The kind of company you want to pick can show you how they’re measuring the impact of their travel,” she said. “That’s an important area where the consumer will have an impact.”
Governments and corporations have the most power when it comes to managing tourism, says Ms. Epler Wood, but they almost always opt for a more-is-more approach. Decisions about, say, how many flights can land in Maui are often disconnected from the desires and welfare of local communities. That’s why our own choices as travelers are so crucial.
Some of the most fundamental changes we can make start at home. Xavier Font, a professor of sustainability marketing at the University of Surrey in Britain, believes that often, we travel to escape unhappy daily lives. We even binge on travel the way we might on food.
“When you can no longer cope with your job and your bills and your pressures, getting on an airplane and going somewhere warmer and sunnier, where you’re not held to account, is really tempting,” he told me.
One antidote is to find more joy in your everyday life and community. We can start by getting to know our neighbors and neighborhoods better, as many people did during the pandemic. We can forgo the convenience of big box stores and deliveries, and patronize the kinds of small businesses we enjoy browsing in when we’re abroad.
Organize old-fashioned block parties, as the City of Santa Monica in California is encouraging residents to do, to channel Rome’s festive piazzas. Seek out nearby hot springs instead of spewing emissions all the way to Iceland. Grow — and share — tomatoes like those that your friend Instagrammed in Greece.
When travel is toxic, locals suffer the most. But it hurts tourists, too. We visit national parks to commune with nature, not overflowing parking lots. Being jostled by a crowd is no way to experience a great work of art or architecture. If we continue to exploit the world’s gifts, we may lose them as they degrade into ruins or are closed to outsiders.
Just as some of us are trying to stop stuffing our closets with disposable fast fashion, let’s stop gorging on cheap travel. Planning fewer, longer, more meaningful trips can mean more enduring memories — and destinations.
Sara Clemence is a freelance journalist and the former travel editor for The Wall Street Journal. She is also the co-founder of a website that focuses on family travel.
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