Death by Tourism

Tourboat passengers vie to Tourboat passengers vie to photograph the Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot

2017: U.N. Year of Sustainable Tourism—Meaning?

Last week the United Nations declared that 2017 will be the “Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.”

This will no doubt launch a thousand new debates on just what “sustainable” means.

So I’ll get things started. For tourism to be truly sustainable we must face a swiftly growing problem: Too many tourists! Of all the malaprops attributed to the late, beloved Yogi Berra, none rings truer in the tourism world than: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

If you want to see how the headcounts are escalating, take a look at China. I was privileged to visit four World Heritage sites in China this year. One of them was Mount Huangshan National Park—a lovely cluster of dramatic mountains in southern Anhui, served by three gondola-lift lines. Our group had just wrapped up the annual meeting of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, and as special guests of the park, we were allowed to cut in line for the gondola lift. A good thing for us, as the queue was two hours long. The mass of Chinese waiting in the rain looked patient, even upbeat. Such waits are nothing unusual.

We need to transform our thinking about how we travel.

After a truly spectacular ride up through the craggy mountainsides, we found the walk among the summits equally packed. This was supposed to be a nature experience, but the paved walkways supported four-abreast traffic, and there was plenty of it. Guides with loudspeakers narrated for tour groups. A paved rest-area-cum-basketball-court—a basketball court up here?—was set aside for smokers. Also packed.

Sure, the crowds were friendly and well managed, but the quality of the experience was questionable, even for crowd-loving Chinese.

OK, but that’s a country with a billion-plus population. Is crowding a problem in the rest of —> Read More