Overtourism: The Dilemma of Our Times

A cow in the overflowing garbage dump on Gili T (photo by Gili Eco Trust) overtourism is creating too much garbage.
A cow in the overflowing garbage dump on Gili T (photo by Gili Eco Trust)

We are Loving the Famous Places Too Much; Overtourism Reveals the Need for Offseason Travel

By Jared Shein

Gili Trawangan is a tropical paradise.  A small island in Indonesia, its crystal clear waters, white-sand beaches, world-class snorkeling, and artsy sunset photo ops make it a popular destination for tourists from all over the globe.

It may be hard to believe, as a quick google search for hotels on Gili Trawangan yields 255+ hotel options ranging from $5 homestays to multi-hundred dollars per night luxury villas, but Gili T used to be a quiet island filled with natives and prisoners working on coconut plantations.

Beautiful Gili Trawangan beach
Beautiful Gili Trawangan beach (photo by pixabay)

Gili T couldn’t stay secret forever though, and the pristine beaches and ocean life started drawing backpackers over to the island in the 1980s and ’90s.  More and more people came as the years went on, and the backpackers were joined by tourists who began to exploit the island’s lack of police by turning it into a spot for drugs and partying.

Drug Paradise

The Island now attracts around 2-3,000 guests a day, who produce up to 20 tons of waste per day, and due to Gili T’s lack of a modern waste management facility, all the waste gets dumped in a huge pit in the middle of the island.

Overtourism Around the World

Gili T and its heaping garbage pit is but one of the many issues brought about by the recent phenomena of global overtourism.  According to ourworldindata.com in just the past 10 years, global tourism numbers have skyrocketed from 883 million total tourists in 2009 to 1.4 billion in 2019, and these trends show no signs of letting up.

As flights become increasingly cheaper, and more of the world joins the middle class, more people have the time and money to take international vacations, and the exploding number of tourists can easily overwhelm popular destinations in a number of ways.

Garbage

Riding horses on the beach is just one of many relaxing things you can do on Gili T, Indonesia. Billie Tyler photos.
Riding horses on the beach is just one of many relaxing things you can do on Gili T, Indonesia. Billie Tyler photos.

Gili T isn’t the only tourist destination that is getting overrun with garbage.  Many other popular destinations—especially in less developed countries—are having similar issues.

I came face to face with this phenomenon for the first time while traveling in Thailand during the summer of my freshman year of college.

Southern Thailand has many tropical islands in the Gulf of Thailand to the east, and the Andaman Sea in the west, but the most popular of these islands is probably Ko Phi Phi Leh.  This island is home to the infamous Maya Bay that rose to fame in the early 2000s when it was featured in the movie The Beach starring Leonardo Dicaprio.

Like Gili T, Maya Bay is also a tropical paradise with white sand beaches and crystal clear waters; and also like Gili T, the Ko Phi Phi Leh infrastructure was quickly overwhelmed by the sudden influx of tourists.

I was one of those tourists, and I was shocked by what I found upon arrival.

There was garbage everywhere.

According to The Guardian, the island was recently receiving up to 5,000 visitors per day, who were overwhelming the island’s waste management capabilities, and bringing the local coral population to its knees with their litter, boats, and sunscreen.  The Guardian estimates that over 80% of the coral around Maya Bay has been destroyed.

All of this has caused Thai authorities to close the bay to tourists on June 1, 2018.

Machu Picchu, a true victim of overtourism.
Machu Picchu, a true victim of overtourism.

Overcrowding

I have also seen the overcrowding problem firsthand.  I was in Peru with my dad a few summers ago and we took some time seeing the sites of the valley before beginning a 4-day backpack on the Inca trail to Macchu Picchu.

The first time on the trip that the overcrowding problem stood out to me was at the ruins of Urubamba, where there were tourists all over the place snapping selfies.

Things quieted down a lot on the trail, as the Peru parks service limits the number of people who can be on the trail in a given day, but this quiet was short-lived.

We arrived in Macchi Picchu on the fourth day of the hike, and it was a madhouse.  The place was packed to the brim with people.  According to perutelegraph.com, the ancient site played host to 1,578,030 visitors in 2018 up 12% from the 1,411,279 visitors in 2017 and more than double the 2010 total.  This made it incredibly difficult for anyone there to actually enjoy the sight, as most of our time in Machu Picchu was spent trying to navigate through the crowds.

Overtourisms effect on locals

Overtourism is also causing problems for locals in more urban areas.  Barcelona has recently been thrown into this spotlight, primarily due to large anti-tourist demonstrations and protests against overcrowding, and rising housing and food prices.

Sagrada familia exterior. One of Barcelona's most famous sites gets better every year.
Sagrada Familia exterior. One of Barcelona’s most famous sites gets better every year, but so do the lines.

Many locals are also fleeing popular tourism cities like Barca and Venice due to the rising cost of living as tourists and developers move in and buy up local apartments to rent out on sites like Airbnb. There is a movement afoot in Venice to tax any visitors to just enter the city. It’s that bad.

Robbing Cities of Their Charm

This trend is beginning to rob many classic cities of the charm that make people want to visit in the first place. “While many tourists want to “live like a local” and have an authentic and immersive experience during their visit, the residents of many tourism-dependent destinations are seeing the unique sense of place that characterised their home towns vanish beneath a wave of souvenir shops, crowds, tour buses, and rowdy bars,” write Claudio Milano, Joseph Cheer, and Marina Novelli in their 2018 academic paper about overtourism.

Venice St Mark's square
Venice St Mark’s Square

Barcelona mayor Ada Colau echoed this sentiment in 2014 when she wrote, There’s a sense that Barcelona could risk losing its soul. We need to seek a fair balance between the best version of globalization and keeping the character, identity, and life of the city.

This is what makes it attractive–it is not a monumental city, and it is not a world capital like Paris–its main feature is precisely its life, its plurality, its Mediterranean diversity. We want visitors to get to know the real Barcelona, not a ‘Barcelona theme park’ full of McDonald’s and souvenirs, without any real identity.”

What Can We Do?

What can we do to mitigate the overtourism issue?  Stopping all travel isn’t a plausible or good solution as tourism still brings many financial and cultural benefits to both travelers and locals.  There are however many ways of amending traditional travel plans and activities in order to interact with foreign places and people in more responsible ways.

Travel out of peak season

Many overtourism problems stem not just from many people visiting the same place, but from people visiting at the same time.  responsiblevacation.com extolls the virtues of an off-peak vacation on its overtourism centered website, “You’ll not only enjoy fewer crowds and more reasonable prices but often the light is wonderful and the temperature’s more pleasant.

In Southern Europe, winter and autumn light can be magical and more bearable than the summer heat, as global warming pushes up average temperatures.”

Go Off the Beaten Path

This isn’t always easy, especially if you are pressed for time, or traveling with children, but those who can should do their best to seek out less frequented places.  When I was in Malaysia a few years ago, a friend and I met some people and went on a hike in a random national park and then took a boat to a random, out of the way beach.  The beach was nowhere to be found in travel guides, but it was one of the highlights of our trip. You never know what you might find when you go off the beaten path.

Travel With the Environment in Mind

A Gondola in Barcelona--one effective way to move large numbers of tourists around in crowded overtouristed cities.
A gondola in Barcelona–one effective way to move large numbers of tourists around in crowded overtouristed cities.

Responsibletravel.com advises, “Avoid large cruise ships which pollute the environment and swamp the cities they dock at. Think local in all you do, when you can. Shop local and stay local, avoiding international hotel chains and large resorts, so that more of your money reaches local hands.

Support those people protesting against overtourism by feeding back your ideas, or overtourism complaints, to your vacation company. Do your research, too, and choose a vacation company that feels the way you do about overtourism.”

We at gonomad also have to do our part to help combat this problem by being keenly aware of the places we recommend going to, and the companies we recommend using.

We have a responsibility to use our reach to promote eco-friendly and local-friendly tourism options and do our best to find new exciting places that can really benefit from tourists. We try hard to promote and reveal opportunities to visit less-traveled places.

To learn more about this topic, you can visit the responsible travel website here.

Gili Eco Trust can be found here

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