Illustration by Ren Rader
“Traveling” was my immediate answer when anyone asked what I was looking forward to during my semester abroad. By the looks of the Instagram and Snapchat stories of everyone else abroad, that answer is a pretty common one. However, traveling way more often than I’m used to has given me an entirely new perspective on tourism.
Exploring different parts of the world is one of the most valuable ways to spend your time and money, but it’s important to be aware that the impacts of tourism are not always positive. We often think of bumbling American tourists as something to be laughed at and joked about, because of so many people’s flagrant ignorance when it comes to cultures outside of their own, but there are so many other aspects of tourism that are troublesome to say the least.
“Overtourism” is exactly what it sounds like: destinations becoming overcrowded with too many tourists. Of course, “too many” is a relative term, but certain cities have seen a dramatic rise in tourists over the last few years and have had to take measures to bring that number down.
By no means am I saying that visiting highly touristic cities is a bad thing; there’s a reason certain destinations are so popular. Too often, however, we fail to recognize or even have a simple awareness of what happens behind closed doors in many of the prime vacation spots we’ve been bombarding with our presence for years.
The economies of cities that are dependent on tourism are essentially designed for people to come and spend huge amounts of money. Meanwhile, the local people struggle to make a livable wage while others flock to these cities and do nothing but indulge in luxuries.
Additionally, for many highly touristic cities, employment is seasonal. For obvious reasons, this causes the people who work in these cities to struggle to find work the rest of the year, making their fluctuating earnings extremely unstable and unpredictable.
We often think of tourism in purely economic terms, but the socio-cultural issues that tourism conjures up are extremely significant. The hospitality industry, while a huge part of what makes tourism thrive, is an extremely exploitative industry. Hotel housekeepers, for example, often times make unlivable wages, work unfairly long hours, aren’t unionized and experience high risk of sexual harassment and assault while on the job. Meanwhile, the hotel owners and CEOs make in an hour what the workers who are critical for the hotel to function make in a year.
Of course, wage disparities such as that one are common in most industries, but when it comes to hospitality, especially in luxurious resorts and hotels, the exposure to a lifestyle that many of the workers don’t have access to, makes the conditions that much worse. Cancun, for example, has extremely high suicide rates for various reasons, but researchers have attributed it partly to the working conditions faced by many of the people who live in poverty but have to work in “paradise”.
The U.S. is no stranger to these issues either. A National Geographic article reported that certain ski towns in the U.S., in Colorado especially, have higher suicide rates because the mere “notion of living in paradise can amplify one’s feelings of depression and isolation. I can’t help but think that many of the locations we love to show off on our Instagram posts, myself included, are plagued by this problem.
The solution to this isn’t as straightforward as I’d like for it to be. As I previously mentioned, I think traveling is extremely important and I myself have visited multiple cities that are affected by overtourism while I’ve been on my semester abroad. A good place to start at an individual level, however, is to educate ourselves on the exploitative practices that tourism sometimes promotes. Before traveling somewhere, do some research. Look up their tipping practices, know what side of the street to walk on and how to count their currency.
On a much larger scale, it’s difficult to predict what overtourism might mean for the future. Being able to travel and be exposed to different cultures is already extremely exclusive and reserved only for those who can afford it. If our impact becomes too great on those cities, will traveling to certain destinations rich in history and art become an activity only the one percent can enjoy?