Why We Need to Rethink the Way We Travel

Spice Bazaar, Istanbul
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A note to my readers: None of us can travel during the current coronavirus crisis. However I am continuing to post content for you to enjoy at home and to inspire your future travels. Happy reading and stay safe!

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Regular readers of this blog will know that I normally write about specific destinations rather than about the travel industry itself. However I’ve read two articles recently that have got me thinking about the future of tourism. It seems to me that we’re going to have to rethink our attitudes towards how and why we travel.

Spice Bazaar, Istanbul
The day we visited Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar there were so many other tourists that it was impossible to see anything

What’s Wrong With the Tourist Industry?

These two articles seem to sum up many of the problems with the tourist industry as it is now, and as it could be in the future. The first was How A Bucket List Ruins Travel by Betsy Wuebker of Passing Thru. Betsy describes the way so many travellers concentrate on the “must do” sights, rather than focusing on what they actually want to do. It’s an easy trap to fall into – I’ve often done it myself. And it is reinforced by guidebooks, tour agents and all those articles with titles like “10 Places to See Before You Die”. (Have a look at Betsy’s piece for some alternatives to bucket lists.)

Manarola, Cinque Terre
Italy’s Cinque Terre is one of the places that is reported to be considering limiting the number of visitors

The second article was I Have Seen the Future of Tourism and It’s Designed to Keep You Out by Sean Thomas on The Spectator website. This predicted that there would be much more tourism from the growing economies of India and China in the future – potentially billions more tourists crowding into already overcrowded places. Sean describes the way in which some destinations have started to “ration” travel, through price or other mechanisms. He thinks it is inevitable that other places will do something similar in the future.

The Problem With Bucket Lists

The obvious problem with bucket lists is that they create tourist jams by sending everyone to the same places. So two million people visited Angkor Wat in 2015, and Machu Picchu gets up to 5,000 visitors a day at busy times. Unless something changes, those numbers are going to increase as the number of world travellers grows. Which means an awful lot of getting stuck in traffic, standing in line and dodging round other people to get your photos.

Another problem is that the places featured in guidebooks or Bucket List features are someone else’s choice, not yours. Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why you want to see Stonehenge or the Mona Lisa? Are you planning your trip to Giza because you’re interested in ancient Egypt, or because you want to cross it off your list? Or just because you want to take a selfie in front of the Great Pyramid?

Taj Mahal
We got our selfie in front of the Taj Mahal but we didn’t really enjoy the day!

Finally, you are likely to be disappointed. You’ve eventually got to Paris and seen the Eiffel Tower, and – surprise – it looks just the same as it does in all those hundreds of pictures you’ve seen in the past. There is no sense of wonder or discovery. (Of course, it might surprise you that all those pictures didn’t show the hordes of tourists, or that you can’t see much from the top on a cloudy day, but that’s another matter.)

Is There Room for Everyone to Travel?

Is it inevitable, as Sean Thomas suggests, that the most popular tourist attractions will start to limit access? That travel will become the province of the rich and privileged, as it was in the past? In practice, it does seem likely that extreme measures will be taken by some destinations; however this should not mean an end to travel as we know it. We just need to do things differently.

I’m no stranger to popular sites myself. I’ve been up the Empire State Building and I’ve been sucked into the crowds on Florence’s Ponte Vecchio. And I had a miserable day (chiefly remembered in terms of traffic, crowds and too much sun) visiting the Taj Mahal. However my best travelling experiences have been the simpler and more unexpected ones. Like the back street café in Al Ain, in the UAE, where we used sign language to indicate we wanted something to eat and drink. We ate a plain but delicious meal surrounded by friendly locals who were happy to communicate with us despite not sharing a word of the same language. Or there was the time when, on a whim, we turned off the road in Puglia to follow a battered signpost to the Grotta di San Michele, a fascinating church in a cave that doesn’t seem to feature in any guidebook.

Garden
The view from the garden of an AirBNB on the Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand – I prefer this to a hotel!

Fortunately, there seems to be a trend towards non-conventional destinations. This is reflected in the growing importance of the sharing economy, with people choosing AirBNB, home exchanges or even house sitting for their holidays. These choices don’t just make travelling cheaper; they help travellers to have a more authentic experience, spending time in a local community rather than a tourist resort.

The travel hot spots will always be there for those who don’t mind queues, crowds and exorbitant prices. But it’s time for the tourist industry to address the growing problem of overcrowding and to realise that there are plenty of alternatives for people who want to do things differently.

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17 thoughts on “Why We Need to Rethink the Way We Travel”

  1. Hi Karen – Thank you so much for the mention. I’m glad our article could spark these important thoughts. You poor thing, you really do look miserable in the Taj Mahal photo! 😉 I think this is part of the reason we’re not in a hurry to get to certain places that people are surprised we’ve never been. (Or maybe we’ll go in the off-season.) But for those who write about travel as we both do, these aspects can create conflict: do we share our fabulous discoveries and then risk them being overrun? So far, the answer has been yes, but we really do wonder.

    1. I sometimes wonder too about sharing my “discoveries”. Some years ago I wrote (for another site) about the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi and how we had it almost to ourselves. It’s not like that any more! Of course I didn’t cause the explosion of visitors, but I was a small part of the publicity that did cause it.

  2. I agree that places featured in guidebooks are someone else’s choice, not yours which is why I am constantly seeking out the unfamiliar….places that are still authentic. I feel grateful for having visited Cinqueterre last year as I had heard they were going to limit the number of tourists. I’m sure the locals will be happy. I went, fortunately, when it wasn’t too crowded, particularly on the trails.

    1. Only a handful of people will ever take ‘the road less traveled’, which is kind of the point otherwise it would be the road more traveled 🙂 Let the masses flock to the usual places (although I do agree crowds ruin the experience a bit). We were visiting friends on the Italian Riviera last year in September, and we went to one of the Cinqueterre towns and it was PACKED. PACKED! We queued an hour for lunch. We had to stake our claim on a tiny patch of rock beside the sea and defend it with our lives, and then we squashed onto a train and literally had to carry the kids so they didn’t get crushed. Yet 2 days later we drove to Portofino and had the place to ourselves! I think we need to get more creative in how and when we travel so that we avoid the masses!

    2. Hi Janice, I agree! I was lucky enough to go to the Cinque Terre a few years ago, when it was almost unknown here in the UK, and I’m very glad that I did.

  3. Overcrowding is a topic I’m also wrestling with. More people, new tourist sources, finite destinations – how can everyone fit? The issue of quotas is an interesting one but if limits are imposed, how will they be set? Will people be chosen at random? Will diversity be a factor? Or will only the wealthiest be ‘admitted in’? As for guidebooks I do use them – but then I’m also the kind who reads cereal boxes. I want to know what everyone thinks and suggests – and then I go my own way. Thanks for a thought-provoking piece!

    1. Hi Leyla, thanks for your comment. Like you, I’m not sure how quotas will be set. I know some places (like Bhutan) are using financial means but I’ve also heard of ballots or advance ticketing. And I think the Cinque Terre will just be closing the doors to anyone who isn’t a resident or booked into accommodation. The only certainty is that it will happen somehow.

  4. It’s scary in one sense to realize that visiting certain places in the world will eventually be limited to the rich or famous. It’s always money that talks loudest. Because you’re right, the growing numbers are just not sustainable for many reasons, not the least of which is the preservation of the sites themselves.
    I completely agree it’s the little things that connect you to a place that you remember most, not necessarily the photo of that famous landmark. But it’s sad to think that we can’t do both.

    1. Hi Jane, I agree it’s sad we can’t do both. But I rationalise it by saying that the world’s a big place and I can’t go everywhere anyway! So why spend valuable travel time crowding into places that are already crammed full of people.

  5. These are excellent topics. I always find myself evaluating crowd control mechanisms when I’m at popular sites. Even the national parks are learning how to handle people and keep the wild wild, but it’s a constant challenge. The advice to ‘stay longer’ mentioned in our interview with Paul Bennett is important. This gives us the chance to visit places at off-peak times, on our own, or even multiple visits that aren’t possible with groups or when you are in a rush.

  6. It’s a very interesting topic. Like you, I’ve seen many standard bucket list items but the really memorable sights tend to be smaller and quirkier and less well-known. That goes for accommodations as well. Amsterdam, I’m told, has become so overrun with tourists that they’re cooperating with other cities — the Hague, Den Bosch and Rotterdam, in particular — to help them lure people away from Amsterdam for a day or two. So it’s not rationing; it’s just targeted PR.

  7. Thanks for touching an interesting topic. I was immediately reminded of our visit to Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is a destination that I always wanted to visit because I am fascinated about the history and how the people have been able to build these amazing temples already years ago. And for sure I wanted to see the famous sunrise. But I think, if I would have taken a selfie, I would have looked like you at Taj Mahal, squeezed and pushed by crowds of people.
    Looking back, I was much more fascinated by the smaller temples around where you had time to look around and get a feeling for this incredible architecture.

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WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren.

I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), and I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…

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