As crowds of travelers concentrate their attention on the world's most popular destinations, a byproduct of this increase in travel means that if the original character of these places is not in jeopardy now, it soon will be.
Kurt Kutay, founder and president of Wildland Adventures, offers six ways to travel responsibly in an age of overtourism.
1. Manage Your Expectations and Emotions
“Aligning expectations with reality is half of the road to happiness,” Kutay says. “If we allow preconceived notions of the Taj Mahal or Machu Picchu—without crowds—drive our desire to travel halfway around the world to experience these iconic destinations firsthand, we may indeed leave disappointed.”
2. Find a Local Connection
Hiring a local guide will help deepen the travel experience, while avoiding the “group think” impact of large tour groups, Kutay says. A good local guide can help skirt the crowds at popular sites and even introduce less-known sites.
For example, a good guide will take you to the Taj Mahal twice: Once to get in line before it opens and later in the afternoon before it closes to experience variable lighting. On Kutay’s last visit, he says that instead of passing through the main gates twice, his local guide took him to the Mehatab Bagh (Moonlight Garden) across the Yamuna River, far from the crowds.
3. Rethink Your Bucket List
Discover wonders of the world beyond UNESCO's at-risk sites or the favorite ports of call of the cruise industry. Instead of the crowded hilltop towns of Tuscany, Kutay says, try the hills of the Istrian peninsula of Slovenia and Croatia. Or, rather than being part of the problem of overcrowding in Venice, take the ferry to the small fishing town of Rovinj, where you are welcomed by locals who can take you around in a traditional Batana fishing boat.
Venice // Photo by Wildland Adventures
4. Timing Is Everything
Plan your day at famous sites carefully and be sure to get the latest information as local conditions and regulations change constantly. For instance, in Croatia, plan to tour Dubrovnik before cruise ship passengers disembark; in Cambodia, visit Siem Reap before tour buses disgorge; and in Peru, arrive at Machu Picchu before the daily trains do. Kutay adds to “linger longer, but in fewer places.”
5. Pay to Play
Many worthwhile experiences cost more, says Kutay. “Whether a part of a private and exclusive event or of a carefully managed ecotour that limits the number of visitors, the extra dollars spent help to protect fragile habitats and visitor experiences.”
In Africa, this may include tracking mountain gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda, for which there are limited permits. To protect the experience in some locales for years to come, select safaris are very exclusive and conducted in a private nature reserve, such as Timbavati in Greater Kruger National Park. In Tanzania, the remote camps of Katavi and Mahale require bush flights to access. In South America, the fragile Inca Trail in Peru and the Galapagos Islands are managed by limited permits and fees that control access and provide a source of revenue for conservation programs. “Advance planning is required to enjoy the privilege of being among the few where limited numbers of permits are allotted,” he adds.
6. Consider Where You Stay
“Your choice of accommodations is one of the most important considerations in minimizing impact on the local environs while maximizing the benefits you bring to the local community,” Kutay says. Consider the hotel/camp/ship/etc. for its level of sustainability. Each is rated on energy sources, recycling, waste management, water conservation, food sourcing and other sustainable initiatives. In addition, many are involved in nature and wildlife conservation and in educating guests about ecosystems and biodiversity
Bonus: Traveling Responsibly Isn't About Staying Home
The Center for Responsible Tourism says that traveling responsibly "is about managing travel and destinations in an environmentally and culturally responsible way and designing tourism programs and individual trips carefully to provide travelers with the experience they seek, while leaving a positive footprint on their destination." Destinations are always changing and we have many choices to make when we travel, “but the important thing is to be mindful of our impact on the people and places that give us so much and help others to do the same,” says Kutay.