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Overtourism: Cheap tickets, budget stays and overhyped tourist spots are creating an unsustainable ecosystem

If you have spent your vacation ticking off an invisible checklist — shooting (on camera of course) the Big Five game animals in South Africa, relishing crepes with strawberry preserve in the shadow of Paris’ Eiffel Tower, or posing at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul — you are among those who have contributed to ‘overtourism’.

The phrase, that has gained currency in recent weeks after the release of a documentary titled Crowded Out: The Story of Overtourism by online travel agency Responsible Travel (RT), refers to popular destinations being overrun by tourists in an unsustainable way.

As the documentary, presented by founder of RT Justin Francis, proves, overtourism is disrupting not just fragile cultural and ethnic landscapes, but also creating an uncertain future where neither the tour operator nor the traveller is in charge.

The problem is not confined to the big name holiday destinations alone. There are innumerable smaller towns and cities that are losing the fight against a globalised travel experience that reduces local communities to click-worthy vignettes.

As one Venice resident in Crowded Out, rues, “They think we are animals.”

Machu Picchu, Peru

In the recent past, protests and government action against mass tourism have been reported in places such as Amsterdam (The Netherlands), Venice (Italy), Machu Picchu (Peru) and Dubrovnik (Croatia). Residents of cities like Barcelona and Mallorca in Spain and Skye in Scotland have openly complained against the influx of visitors during summer, and even held public protests at popular tourist sites.

Taking things a step further, the local government of Barcelona has prohibited the construction of new hotels in the city centre, and also started fining tourists who walk around in their bathing suits outside the beaches.

Drubvonik, a magnet for worshipful fans of the TV series Game of Thrones, set a limit of 8,000 visitors per day in 2017, and chances are that this number will be halved over the years.

In India, as of this year, visitors to the Taj Mahal in Agra can spend only three hours per person, to curb overcrowding at the UN World Heritage site.

Pastime or industry?

Tourist journeys around the globe rose from 25 million in 1950 to 1.3 billion in 2017, according to figures mentioned in the RT film, and this is set to increase to 1.7 billion by 2030.

A banner in Barcelona, Spain

“Everybody thinks that tourism is a pastime, not an industry,” says former New York Times journalist and author Elizabeth Becker, one of the experts interviewed in the documentary.

She also notes mainstream media’s under-reporting of the way the tourism industry has been taking advantage of a world where norms are being redrawn everyday, whether it is in relation to borders between countries, economic systems or new technology.

How does overtourism affect a country like India, where the travel and hospitality sector is an important source of revenue?

For us, the Taj Mahal remains the country’s top revenue generator, with the Government earning ₹56.83 crores out of ticket sales alone (source: Archaeological Survey of India). Poor maintenance and discolouration have not stopped lakhs of people from visiting the world-famous marble mausoleum.

The popping up of hotels and resorts in hitherto pristine forest areas and tribal settlements is one of the most visible signs of tourist overload.

Arm yourself with knowledge

  • Try and avoid these pitfalls of irresponsible tourism:
  • Canned hunting – When animals such as lions are reared specifically for the purpose of being hunted on private game reserves; don’t patronise these resorts that encourage their volunteers to interact with wildlife.
  • Captive animals – Safari rides to see tigers or elephants ‘in the wild’, are a major tourist attraction in many countries, but the practice is often a cause of stress in wild animals and also affects their natural behaviour. Bears, monkeys and snakes that are made to ‘perform’ in public are also a no-no.
  • Cultural insensitivity – Learn to respect the private space of the people you see in their natural surroundings. Wearing the wrong type of clothes or creating a public nuisance through binge-drinking or noisy behaviour is the quickest way to make yourself unwelcome in a foreign country.
  • Irresponsible hiking and biking – Though these activities are closely linked to Nature conservation, skipping off into virgin forests without thinking about the environmental impact of your own presence is dangerous. Make sure you don’t end up spoiling the very resource you set out to admire in the first place.
  • Information courtesy: www.responsibletourism.com

Hill stations like Yercaud and Kodaikanal are slowly getting carved up by real estate companies, eager to benefit from the travel trade.

“We have to see the world in a very natural way. Being a traveller is different from being a tourist,” says Kavitha Reddy, co-founder of Bengaluru-based Basecamp Adventures, a Ministry of Tourism-certified agency that specialises in mountaineering holidays. “Excessive commercialisation and infrastructure is bad news for any destination,” she says, citing examples of the large groups of campers at Mount Everest Base Camp, the laying of the road up to Kodachadri Hill and a cable car up to Nandi Hills. “To decongest visitor volumes, we have to create season-specific destinations and restrict numbers.”

Me Too attitude

Among the causative factors of overtourism are travel journalism and the creation of ‘honeypot destinations’ that everyone ends up flocking to during a certain period of the year.

“Don’t travel to impress your friends,” advises Tanya Oberoi of UnTravel, a bespoke tour operator based out of Gurugram. “The race to see the exotic and do the offbeat needs to be self-moderated. The Government must keep a tab on the number of tourists a place receives and if it feels that it is leading to destruction of the environment and the culture of the place, requisite steps need to be taken to reverse the effect. An exotic place will never remain so if it is over-burdened with tourism.”

At Mumbai-based The Backpacker Company, which offers backpacker tours to Europe, Japan and Israel, founders Yogesh M Shah and his wife Suchna stress on respect for the environment. “We make sure there is no littering on the streets or any other kind of damage to the environment on all our trips,” they say. “Every country has a different culture and its own rules and regulations. It is absolutely mandatory to adhere to them and respect the culture, however surprising or different it may be for us.”

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