Overtourism never used to be a big thing, because mass international tourism never used to be big thing. Travelling abroad once signalled great fortune and privilege. With cheaper flights, online tools and the growth of personal wealth, well over a billion people travel abroad each year. The masses are inspired by advertising, by television shows, by books, by online Top 10’s, by travel writers promoting bucket lists. Oh yes, they’re inspired by people just like me, enthusiastically promoting destinations and activities that make life worth living. A destination’s prosperity brings more exposure, which brings more in-bound tourism, and the developers to build resorts and hotels to accommodate them. We may as well stick in a zipline, or a waterpark, or an open-top bus tour, and let the good times roll. And indeed, they have. Mass tourism has been a boon for everyone. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, tourism generates over 10% of the world’s total GDP, supporting over one tenth of all the jobs in the world economy. Beyond the economic benefits, travel brings people together, inspires, enlightens, informs. I don’t need to write about why travel is good. Yet, when tourism is allowed to grow unchecked and without care, when greed and profit drive growth, there is an end game. I saw it on full display in Bali, and I’m not the only one. Two decades ago the place was paradise. But all that garbage has to go somewhere. All those buses have to use the same narrow road. All those tourists want to see the same show at sunset at the same temple. And all those taxi drivers know they can feast on post-show “I just want to get back to the hotel” desperation like overfed hyenas on the Serengeti. The End Game of Overtourism is not a pretty place. It keeps us behind the safe walls of the resorts that protect us from the mayhem, and ensures we’ll never go back. It inhibits meaningful cultural interactions. It rewards the unscrupulous, the unethical, and the corrupt. And it sends tourists packing for somewhere new, which, in turn, might gradually grow to become its own overtouristed nightmare.
Overtourism has been on my mind because of the jarring contrasts between Bali and Hoi An, Vietnam. After 5 weeks renting a villa, my family couldn’t wait to leave Bali, and after five weeks renting a villa, we didn’t want to say goodbye to Hoi An. Oh, tourism is exploding here too. The word is out: Hoi An represents a country and its people at its most loveliest: welcoming, beautiful, friendly, affordable. And yet I’m hesitant to spread that news. Because not far away from our villa, they’re building dozens of mega resorts all along the coast to Danang, 45 minutes away. One resort has over 8000 rooms, built to serve one exploding market in particular, China. And all these tourists will want to experience Hoi An like we did, and how could this small ancient town not become a Dubrovnik? How could the main in-bound road of Cua Dai not become the choked nightmare of Bali’s Uluwatu Street? And still, how could I not rave about this wonderful destination without contributing in no short part to the overtourism problem? Lots of questions to slurp back with my rice noodles.
I don’t mean to and yet probably sound jaded, the dreaded word that haunts any self-respecting travel writer. Because as much as overtourism is a thing, so is Responsible Travel. We can choose to travel with companies operating with sound ethics and impressive policies, and visit places that genuinely appreciate our interest, not just our credit card. When authorities do use quotas and restrictions - as with gorilla encounters in Central Africa or in Peru’s Macchu Picchu - we can respect them as opposed to putting our own interests above all else. Give Iceland or Barcelona a break, consider Finland and Lisbon. And, yes do the research as to what a place will be like when you visit, as opposed to how incredible it was when the travel writer visited it back in, say, 2005. As for myself, I believe that, however small the impact, my work has inspired the world, and has made a tiny yet positive difference. I’ve always believed that travel is so personal. Just because I didn’t enjoy it, who I am to write negatively about any place or activity, and what gives me that right? I’ve always believed there’s enough negative reporting in the world. Well, my recent encounter with Overtourism in Bali has taught this old dog a new trick. If I don’t starting telling everyone it how it is – warts and all - I’ll continue to be part of the problem, as opposed to part of the solution.