This year I’ll be visiting Armenia which will be my 100th country, it’s not something that I’ve set a goal to achieve, it’s just sort of happened. A century ago I may have been worshiped as some great explorer but nowadays I’m sure there are tens of thousands of travellers around that mark.
For better or for worse, the travel industry is changing
The travel industry has seen phenomenal growth in recent decades as airfares have plummeted, new parts of the world have opened up and travel restrictions have been lifted in the former Eastern Block countries. This growth has come in two distinct waves, the first wave affected already popular tourist attractions in destinations like Paris, Italy, Spain and USA. The effect was dramatic but not overwhelming as many of these countries have built solid infrastructure to cope with the demand. The second wave came with social media and has hit previously little-known destinations like Antelope Canyon (USA), Tulum (Mexico), Rainbow Mountain (Peru), Tam Coc (Vietnam) and El Nido (Philippines).
The threat of overtourism
Many of these destinations are now suffering from overtourism, a new term which describes the effect of too many visitors reducing the quality of life in the area. This not only has a substantial environmental impact but somewhat reduces the quality of the experience visitors came for in the first place. Last year I climbed Mt Kilimanjaro and although it was an incredible experience, the achievement was somewhat diluted by the fact that there were at least 100 other climbers behind me lined up for the “summit shot”.
Although the tour operators follow strict guidelines and do their best to protect the mountain, there are signs that the large volume of climbers is starting to damage the fragile environment. Just last month a photo of climbers queued up on Mt Everest went viral and sent shockwaves around the world as we learnt that the world’s greatest frontier was in fact an icy crowded peak strewn with ladders, ropes, oxygen bottles and now bodies.
Are we becoming bucket list and Instagram crazy?
Would my friends be impressed if I told them I climbed Margherita Peak, well I didn’t but maybe that’s why? It’s a 5,109m peak in the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda, home to six of Africa’s ten highest peaks and far more spectacular than Mt Kilimanjaro. Less than 1,000 visitors enter the park each year, compared to 50,000 that climb Kilimanjaro. In 2017 when we signed the visitor’s book on the way out of Rwenzori National Park I counted 100 signatures for the year and the date was 31st December!
Undertourism is…a thing too
Enter the term undertourism. Emerging destinations are now taking advantage of the growing understanding of overtourism and starting to market themselves as unique and unspoilt destinations. Open the weekend paper and you will see full-page ads for places like The Arctic, Bhutan, Cuba, Myanmar and Mongolia, before you know it, they will be considered mainstream too.
More intrepid travellers are already talking about Iran, Pakistan, remote islands of Indonesia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, Suriname, Oman, Ethiopia and Rwanda.
However, before long the emerging destinations will be suffering from the same overtourism we are seeing in major tourist destinations.
What can we do to reverse this trend?
In the travel industry we are starting to see a strong trend for travellers to look for opportunities to make a real difference through the places they travel and the souvenirs they bring home. We need to take the time to listen and learn, rather than assume our role is to teach.
More women will travel to developing countries to support local women and experience their way of life (look at growth of women-only tours to places like Jordan, Morocco and Iran). This is an incredibly important travel trend as for far too long travellers have either left no impact or a negative impact on a destination.
Voluntourism is another trend, although in recent times it has received criticism, predominantly through its association with orphanages. Voluntourism involves incorporating volunteering into travel. On the surface, this sounds great. However, problems sometimes occur around short term volunteer commitments, volunteers lacking the relevant skills and the volunteering being on superficial level, ie volunteers who make little attempt to learn about the culture, history and root causes of suffering in the country where they’re voluntouring. Voluntourism has also been criticised for perpetuating the idea that developing countries are desperate for Western volunteers to be their savours.
Voluntourism is big business in the UK. Here tour operators offer many options relating to healthcare, teaching, conservation and community projects with places like Peru, Malawi, Borneo and Madagascar topping the list.
Voluntourism in Australia is in its infancy. Key players like Intrepid, G Adventures and Chimu Adventures typically approach voluntourism by supporting long term projects. They invest a percentage of profits from their regular tours in the communities they visit. In some instances, travellers also have a chance to contribute directly while on tour.
We have a lot to learn
I’d also encourage travellers to visit countries that are doing amazing things, so they back bring the stories and encourage others to visit these areas to discover it for themselves. Rwanda turns the first Saturday of the month over to community work, the cities of Colombia open city streets to cyclists every Sunday, Vanuatu has banned plastic bottles and Timor Leste has plans to be the world’s first plastic neutral country.
In addition, I think that moral sensitivity and trust are starting to outweigh price sensitivity, which if this continues in the travel sector is a trend worth getting onto. We are all starting to become more responsible, maybe social media has helped this trend, I mean who wants to share the bad we are doing?
About the Author
By the time Karsten Horne was 10 years old he was involved in a failed attempt to sail to England in a rubber dinghy, he trekked across Timor, traveled overland from England to Australia and could name 250 airlines. At 17 he backpacked solo throughout South America, ran out of money in Colombia and returned home to discover that it was possible to make a career out of travel and he has never looked back.
He is the CEO of Reho Travel the only travel management company in Australia that has BCorp certification. His long term goal is to disrupt the entire travel supply chain so that travel agencies, suppliers and clients start to look at travel in a new way. He wants to take the focus off price and instead help Reho’s clients make choices that are good for them, good for others and good for the planet.
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