by South America expert and Chris Moss, The Telegraph, April 6, 2018
On a metal balcony overlooking Argentina’s Iguazu Falls, everyone is leaning over the balustrade to get a picture. Most are bent on getting an image of their gurning faces in front of a particularly voluminous fall known as the Devil’s Throat.
Stills and film clips will be shared with friends and family across the world. Everybody wants to show how special their holiday is. Overtourism – the concentration of large numbers of people at notable sights of interest – has always been with us. But there’s something about the digital age that highlights it: an irrepressible urge to spam the entire world with imagery, voice messages, social media updates and tweets.
Such herd behaviour is manipulated by the travel industry, which has the most to gain by concentrating a lot of people in limited places.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Over two decades of travelling around Latin America, I have seen many examples of responsible, thoughtful tourism, usually as a result of intelligent collaboration and community cooperation.
One instance was right there at Iguazu. I was staying at the new Awasi lodge, a five-star, 14-villa wood-framed hotel in dense jungle, with space for just 30 guests. The ethos of Awasi, in Iguazu and at its properties in Chile and the Atacama Desert, is worth noting. “We want to open up the region,” Matías de Cristóbal, Awasi’s director, told me. “Ninety per cent of visitors want to see the Falls. It’s our challenge to take them to unknown parks.”
I stumbled upon no crowds while birding with a guide in the Urugua-í Provincial Park. I saw maybe three cars on the red dirt road through the virgin rainforest. I saw only two other people – locals – at the rehab centre for rescued, injured and ex-zoo animals, such as a gorgeous ocelot I visited.
Machu Picchu, another crowd magnet, has found ways to take pressure off the famous Inca Trail and the citadel itself. Limiting the number of hikers on the trail to 500 per day is the key control. By not building a road into Machu Picchu, and encouraging a range of rail options, the Peruvian tourist board exercises more control over its best-loved national park than do authorities in countries that are far less reliant on the tourist dollar. The authorities have also promoted alternative trails and campaigned to get people to think about visiting the archaeological sites at Choquequirao and Kuelap.
My last trip to the region, in 2016, involved a stay at the all-inclusive Explore Sacred Valley lodge. I climbed a mountain, visited three lesser-known ruins, and cycled into the valley. I “forgot” to go to Machu Picchu. Seriously. I just didn’t want the crowds.
But tour operators and boards can’t take all the blame. We travel journalists have also generated demand for a specific kind of experience.
It’s urgent we now work together to focus attention on off-radar places and ideas. Travel need not be a box-ticking, bucket-listing exercise. Why chase jaguars round a boat-jammed channel in the Pantanal when you can look for them quietly on terra firma? Why join the rat-run up to the summit of Sugar Loaf when you can go up one of the lesser-known granite morros in Rio and enjoy the same view?
If I can claim special insight, it’s down to Patagonia, a region with no easy “sells”. I’m talking about the steppe, not the turquoise lakes and the glaciers. Inland Patagonia has few wild animals, few spectacular attractions. It’s lonely and harsh yet mesmerising. Why? Because it compels visitors to make an effort. Or as Paul Theroux puts it in The Old Patagonian Express: “The landscape taught patience, caution, tenacity… You had to choose between the tiny or the vast.”
One day, virtual holidays may well replace this gas-guzzling, laborious, environmentally crazy pastime we call tourism. Until then, we’ll have to find ways to adapt to being so numerous and free to roam. It’s time to visit empty, difficult, unphotogenic landscapes, cliché-free, forgotten, remote towns and cities and forests and shores lacking in infrastructure and home comforts.
It’s time to indulge in the luxury of the less obvious – that is, it’s time to travel.
This article was written by South America expert and Chris Moss from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].