Can you imagine a world without giraffes on the African savannah? How about the beaches at Maya Bay completely closed off to visitors because there are just too many of them? You might be surprised to learn that both of these things have occurred–giraffes have recently been put on the endangered species list, while Thailand’s Maya Bay has been closed to tourists indefinitely. Too many people are traveling to areas that cannot support them, which has been causing problems that will take time and money to fix.

I grew up right near Glacier National Park in Montana. As a child, I remember that new people from different areas would come in during the beautiful summer months, and our town always seemed to grow while they were there. The tourism industry was a boost to our local economy, and in many ways there were plenty of positives of having so many more people around when the warmer weather rolled around.

This last year, however, there were close to three million people visiting a state where the population is just over one. With three tourists to every local just in Glacier Park (not including areas like Yellowstone and Big Sky Country), it’s no wonder that we’re starting to see some of the more negative effects of tourism in our town–busy traffic, more pollution, and nature destroyed because too many visitors are taking to the trails. While the melting of the glaciers themselves has been a result of an overall increase in the world’s temperature, I can’t help but think about how being a traveler has contributed to this problem.

overtourism teddy 2 h
Photo by Teddy 2 H.

Overtourism is defined as “overcrowding from an excess of tourists, resulting in conflicts with locals.” A simple definition doesn’t dig nearly deep enough in order to describe the chain reaction that congestion from travelers can cause. It not only ruins relationships with communities and cultures, but it also can create lasting damage to wildlife populations and natural wonders. Ironically, travelers are ruining the very reasons why they choose to visit a destination to begin with.

As a traveler, this is something I have been struggling with for several years. I can’t imagine a world I can’t explore, and yet, I’m aware that my exploration makes it a less rewarding and potentially impossible reality for future generations. I am just another tourist snapping my photo of the Taj Mahal or climbing up to Machu Picchu. I leave the same footprints as anyone else does–and just because I paid for a plane ticket to get there doesn’t mean I deserve to be there any more than the other millions of tourists who have come before or after me.

Which is not saying that you shouldn’t visit these spots. On the other hand, finding ways to make your trip as sustainable as possible can help to mitigate some of the harmful effects of visiting a certain locale. You might not want to skip seeing the Eiffel Tower, but you might consider walking there instead of taking a taxi. Choosing restaurants and shops that have sustainability as a goal is another way to help reduce the impact you leave on a place, and finding tours that approach interactions with animals ethically can be a good way to start.

I encourage you to think about the places you really want to go. Whether it is far away or in your own backyard, take a moment to think about what your presence might cause. If at the end of the day you can’t comprehend not seeing Glacier National Park or the Northern Lights in the Arctic, then you need to go. For any other reason, such as relieving boredom, crossing a country off your list, or bragging to your friends about your adventures, you might want to think twice before becoming just another tourist.

How have you chosen to travel sustainably in 2019?

Header image by Rumman Amin.