When we look at all of the problems facing humanity and the environment , including nuclear radiation from Fukushima, oil spills, toxic chemicals, GMO contamination of our food supply, overcrowded cities, polluted groundwater, fracking, and EMF pollution, mass tourism’s effect on the environment seems a minor one in comparison. But its impact-on native cultures, ancient ruins, and natural landscapes- is significant and governments need to rethink their policies in regard to this.
Many thoughtful observers, especially older ones who have seen the impact that tourism has wrought on famous sites over the last three decades, have bemoaned the degradation. If you were lucky enough to visit Angkor Wat fifteen years ago, Koh Phi Phi twenty years ago, Bali twenty five years ago, or Machu Picchu thirty years ago, consider yourself lucky. As many distraught and disheartened travelers have noticed , those once semi-pristine places have been irrevocably changed, for the worse. We could, of course, add dozens more to this list. Chambers of commerce, travel agents, tour operators, and hotel owners try their best to put a positive spin on the changes, using phrases like ‘more choice,’ ‘superior accommodations,’ ‘better infrastructure,’ ‘reliable transportation,’ and so on, but it’s just the same old public relations. No honest observer, comparing any of those places today with how they were thirty years ago, would choose today’s version. What good is a five star hotel when you are looking out from your balcony onto a beach strewn with trash and covered with thousands of tourists, tossing their plastic water bottles onto the sand and taking selfies with a selfie stick?
Mass numbers of tourists tend to have a corrosive and corrupting effect on small ethnic tribes, regardless of how respectful the tourists try to be. Take the Sacred Valley of Peru, for instance. As the millions of tourists wind their way around the ancient ruins in tour buses, the local Quechua speaking people wait dutifully for them at the rest stops so that the tourists can snap a photo with them, along with the family’s alpaca. We, the tourists, are supposed to give them a small donation as a gesture of thanks for the photo-op. What could be more cynical than this? This scene is repeated at hundreds of other places all over the world. Many ethnic tribes which have adopted modern Western clothing will don their native garb when the tour bus rolls into town and throw it off the minute the buses pull away. Many ethnic groups now rely on the small amount of money they earn performing for tourists, enacting ‘traditional’ dances and such.
The impact on relics and ruins is substantial as well. The Cambodian government has allowed tourists to scamper, unsupervised, all over the ruins of Angkor Wat for decades now. It wasn’t a big deal when only a few thousand people even knew about Angkor, but today when the tens of millions descend upon the ruins yearly, the impact is far greater.
If you are going to invite millions of tourists to visit a place, then you need to build the infrastructure to feed and house them. Hence, surrounding areas are methodically stripped of forest cover and natural ground cover in order to construct hotels, resorts, restaurants and boutiques to serve the masses. Siem Reap, the small city adjacent to Angkor Wat, was a sleepy village just twenty years ago. Now, it is a mini boom town and new hotels are sprouting up every year. Meanwhile, the water table underlying the city is falling rapidly and could affect the ruins themselves in a short time. Aguas Calientes, at the foot of Machu Picchu, has grown in proportion to the exploding numbers of visitors to that popular site. There is not much room for it to grow except into the surrounding mountains, which contain some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.
The global tourism industry has now grown so large, producing billions of dollars in profits and supplying millions of jobs, that it now generates its own momentum, just as a hurricane makes its own weather. It’s not like you can just slam on the brakes and say ‘no more.’ One billion people now travel annually. With the Chinese market growing by leaps and bounds, we can expect this trend of increasing tourist numbers to continue into at least the near future.
Everyone who has been to an overcrowded holiday destination recognizes the problem, but nobody is willing to give up their dream or change their lifestyle because of it. People who have the means and the opportunity want to experience Paris and the Eiffel Tower. We now accept the fact that we must ‘experience’ Paris while rubbing shoulders with a few million other tourists, all visiting the same sites, taking the same photos, staying at the same hotels and eating the same food. Most of us accept this as a minor irritation to be endured for the privilege of seeing such a spectacular place.
I’ve never been to Paris but I suppose it might be possible for the city to absorb all these tourists without crimping its style and still offer a worthwhile experience. The same goes for Venice, Florence, Rome and Barcelona. Strong government regulations and a solid tourist infrastructure can mitigate at least some of the negative impacts.
When we look at other popular sites located much further away from major population centers, in developing countries, and with inadequate infrastructure, the problems become more severe and the solutions considerably more complex. In the rush to milk the tourist cow, governments and corporations tend to cut many corners with building codes, safety regulations, and historical preservation.
Floodwaters washing away overdevelopment at Aguas Calientes, Peru:
In fact, governments, which comprise mostly bureaucrats, technocrats, and functionaries, are generally clueless about how to deal with the demands of tourism. There are exceptions to the rule, Thailand being one. Here in Viet Nam, the apparatchiks in the government could learn a thing or two from their neighbors. Many tourists associate Viet Nam with Ha Long Bay, the most iconic site in the country. Unfortunately, Ha Long Bay has become a poster child for the disastrous effects of unregulated mass tourism. Thousands of tour boats ply the waters there, accommodating the millions who want to see the stunning landscape. The boats, alas, are mostly unsupervised and dump their waste and trash directly into the bay which suffers accordingly. If that’s not bad enough, tourists are accosted by rude, pushy, and obnoxious vendors when the boats pull ashore. And the government does nothing.
Where does all this depressing news leave the curious traveler? If you don’t want to be part of the problem, is it better to just stay home? Do eco-tourism, ‘responsible’ tourism, or volunteering offer more authentic experiences? They’re definitely worth exploring. If you’re looking for an authentic experience, then don’t count on finding it at a place like Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat. I feel fortunate to have visited both of these places, but I can only dream about what it would have been like to experience them without the hordes. Perhaps there are those people who are able to block out the distraction of other tourists, but I’m not one of them. Imagine what secrets these awesome places might whisper in our ears if only we had the peace and solitude to listen.
I wouldn’t discourage anyone from visiting these places. Any experience of Machu Picchu or Angkor is better than no experience at all, but my recommendation of these places comes with a heavy qualification.