Arizona’s Horseshoe Bend was once a tranquil site on the Colorado River. Despite lying only seven miles from the Grand Canyon, the natural landmark enjoyed shades of anonymity for decades. But thanks to the geotagging of camera-wielding visitors, attendance to the area skyrocketed. About five years ago, this U-shaped bend received as few as 1,000 visitors annually. In 2019, the site welcomes at least 4,000 visitors daily.

To manage the increase in visitors, the site’s parking lot needed to be expanded. Railings, signs, and other features had to be built to complement visitors’ experiences and amplify the area’s safety measures. What was once a wild place was transformed into a manufactured destination.

But this story isn’t unique. It seems to be a telling tale of the times.

Since its outset, tourism has been considered a good-natured activity. It has revitalized rural communities, restored historic cities, supported populations in the wake of disasters, and helped conserve critically endangered species. But it’s necessary to acknowledge that overtourism can have harmful side effects and destinations ought to counterbalance the effects of the increased numbers of visitors.

Understanding Overtourism

As its name suggests, overtourism occurs when too many travelers visit a destination. Because “too many” is a subjective term, this imbalance is defined differently in every location and is therefore shaped by local residents, business owners, ecosystems, and visitors. But in the end, the signs of overtourism always manifest similarly: noticeable overcrowding around landmarks and cultural sites, an increase in traffic due to tourist vehicles, spikes in housing and rent prices that push out local tenants, a decrease in local wildlife and degrading of fragile environments.

This isn’t to say that travel, or the desire to see more of the world, inherently results in all of the above; the lesson here is that tourism can have both positive and negative impacts. It has the power to build up, but also to tear down. And with global tourist numbers set to accelerate at an even faster rate in coming years, we need to consider the ways in which our choices affect the world at large and be more intentional with our travel.

This is where purposeful travel comes into play. Though purposeful travel has many different interpretations, at its core, it is rooted in meaningful connections between people and places.

Traveling with Purpose

Over the past two years, the rise of responsible travel organizations, conservation NGOs, and purpose-driven travel blogs have helped drive the conversation around travel and sustainability, helping to minimize the negative effects of tourism and turn travel into a positive force around the world. This shift has influenced travelers, themselves, as well. According to the Power of Purposeful Travel Survey by Capital One, nearly half of American travelers consider it a goal to give back to the communities they’re visiting when traveling. Increasingly, we as tourists are seeing responsible tourism as a genuine exchange and a more authentic way to travel — and, because of that, we’re finding it more enjoyable overall.

How can you help promote purposeful travel?

  • Support local businesses by buying directly from artisans and co-ops, seeking out knowledgeable guides, staying in locally owned accommodations, eating at restaurants that serve locally sourced food, and traveling in ways that benefit the local populations.
  • Center community-based exchanges at the heart of your travel, and choose quality over quantity, fulfillment over checklists, and significant experience over service.

Taking more meaningful trips not only allows us to have a positive impact on the places we visit, encourages integrating our passions into our travel and ultimately get more out of our trips, it also results in more sustainable travel patterns. When combined, these actions add up to a new era of tourism, which will help us learn from our past patterns and manage overcrowding in destinations around the world.

Understanding Overtourism

That said, the problem is far from solved. The World Travel and Tourism Council recently published a study on the effects of overtourism and narrowed the results down to five major challenges: alienated local residents, degraded tourist experience, overloaded infrastructure, damage to the natural environment, and threats to culture and heritage.

How can we be a part of the solution? We can explore our own backyards, plan our adventures for the off-season, live more sustainably, and inform others about the global effects of overtourism.

Though it will also take smarter decision-making by governments, tour operators, and responsible tourism NGOs to manage the environmental impacts of overtourism, we, as individual travelers, can push for change through our actions and speak out about the importance of purposeful travel.

The Future of Tourism

Purposeful travel is about creating better places to live in and visit. It’s centered on experiences that benefit both the traveler and the location, and it prioritizes progress for the benefit of local communities. By infusing our journeys with purpose, we can maximize the benefits of tourism and minimize the negative, all while fostering stronger bonds between cultures and a greater respect of natural environments.

When we take the time to truly curate our travels and align our passions and curiosities with the destinations on our boarding passes, we become closer with the soul of a place. When we connect with the soul of a place, we come home with more meaningful stories. And when we come home with more meaningful stories, we can’t help but share them with others. Our personal narratives contribute to a greater conversation, encouraging those around the world to view travel differently.

Traveling with intention may require more heart, thought, and time, but it gives back, twofold, what it takes. By putting in that extra effort, we can repair the damage done by overzealous travel, and give our journeys a purpose once more.

We’d love to hear how purposeful travel has shaped your perception of tourism — share your stories with us using #MeaningfulMoments.

As Capital One Purpose Project partners, we are excited to be a part of the conversation to showcase how people are rethinking the power of travel. Find more tips on how to travel with purpose on the Capital One Purpose Project Hub, in collaboration with The Points Guy.