I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the importance of being a good traveler. It’s been hard to miss the news about the plague of over tourism striking Europe this year, to the point that several cities (Barcelona, Venice, Dubrovnik) staged protests against the number of visitors they received this summer.
Governments have been scrambling during the past couple of years to cope with the influx of travelers during peak seasons. It doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Budget airlines are so cheap, even more so if you’re already living in Europe. Technology makes it so easy to navigate and communicate that booking a trip is less intimidating than ever. Social media is doing its job by inspiring wanderlust galore. Of course, tourism isn’t going anywhere. It’s a necessary evil for many cities.
Of course, local governments have a role to play. So do the visitors. Just because a place needs your tourist dollars doesn’t give you license to have a “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” type attitude. If travelers want to keep visiting the most beautiful places in the world, we need to adopt a “leave it better than you found it” travel philosophy.
Here are five ways to do it.
Rethink your Airbnb
One of the biggest issues locals are protested in the most visited cities is the presence of Airbnb. I understand the appeal for travelers—it’s often cheaper than a hotel, apartments offer the amenities of home, and you get the vibe of a regular neighborhood. However, in cities that are overrun with tourists, these short term rentals drive rent prices up for locals. Owners make way more money renting homes for a few days at a time than renting to permanent tenants. The other issue for regular residents (though not as problematic) is how people on quick visits don’t respect the neighborhood the same way as people who live there full time.
Get off the beaten path
Of course, you can’t visit Paris without a pic in front of the Eiffel Tower or Amsterdam without posing near one of the charming canals. But after that, venture a bit further afield. We Hate Tourism in Lisbon, Portugal offers tours from full-time residents which feature their favorite lesser visited spots. Venice has a similar campaign, Detourism, to promote sustainable itineraries of unique places unknown and unvisited by the average visitor. If the spots on your itinerary don’t have a resource like this, reach out to your network. Travelers are the best (and worst!) when it comes to talking about places they’ve been. Use this to your advantage and ask people what incredible unknown places they discovered when they were in XYZ city.
Even better say experts is to maybe not visit the most popular places at all. Unless there’s a particular thing you have to see, why not consider a less visited spot with the same kind of vibe? This article has a list of some of Europe’s most touristy cities alongside similar, less saturated sites.
Respect the people who live there full time
When it comes to this kind of thing, common sense goes a long way. Remember that most people are simply trying to live their lives. Treat pedestrian lanes as if you were in a car. That means don’t stop in the middle of the sidewalk or walk against the flow of traffic. If you visit a market or somewhere similar, don’t gawk and take 12 photos and walk away. Be cognizant of the regular shoppers and maybe make a small purchase.
Also, before you go somewhere spend at least a few minutes scanning a list of customs and cultural dos and don’ts. This seems obvious but then you’ll see a line of scantily clad women buying scarves and sarongs in order to enter a Buddhist temple. Protesters who were interviewed say that they get much more resentful of visitors when they dressed differently (i.e. too casually or scantily) and expected shop owners to bend to their schedules. Be extra mindful of this when visiting busy spots.
Travel in the off season or return somewhere you’ve been
I’m a huge fan of off-season travel and the biggest champion of the repeat visit. Traveling to Europe in winter, Southeast Asia in the rainy season or the desert in the middle of summer isn’t as terrible as you may think. Remember, people live in these places year-round! Off-season travel means fewer tourists and less harried locals. Lines will be shorter, prices lower, and you’ll have a much better chance of making a connection with regular people.
There are lots of benefits to the sophomore visit as well. Experts are fans of this tactic because it means you’re most likely not going back to the same clogged must-see sites. Your tourist dollars will be spent in new places and you’re more likely to explore unknown neighborhoods. Also, going back means you likely have an idea of how things work and will be less intrusive in the lives of the regular folks.
Be an ambassador for your home country
If you’re from the U.S., U.K., or Austrailia, then you’re probably already aware of the negative stereotypes associated with tourists from your native countries. Side note: if you’re not aware, maybe add this to your Google search list! If this is the case, you have the ability to change people’s perception of your home When people have a bad experience with tourists, chances are they’ll remember nothing more about you than your accent. So, do all your fellow countrymen a favor and turn up your good behavior dial a notch or two.
What do you think about the tourism backlash in the world’s most popular destinations? Do you have tips on how to “leave a place nicer than you found it”? This is such an important conversation so please leave your thoughts in the comments below!