Once a tourist destination becomes hugely popular, heaven help it.
It’s a common refrain across the globe: There are too many tourists in Amsterdam, there are too many tourists in Barcelona. Yet it’s not just about inconvenient crowds at museums, because the potential for environmental damage rises when destinations become too popular. Leave No Trace wants travelers to help protect wilderness and wildlife sites that are getting trampled because of all those selfies and social media posts.
“Social media, like any tool or technology, can be a force for good or it can have the opposite effect,” says the organization based in the United States. One drawback is that when tourists post those once-in-a-lifetime images, it inspires others to want to visit. There’s nothing wrong with that until too many people converge on fragile ecosystems or protected conservation sites, a possibility made more likely when social media influencers do it.
Remember that beach in Thailand made famous by the Leonardo DiCaprio movie? It was closed to tourists earlier this year because 80 percent of the nearby coral reefs were destroyed and other marine life threatened. Some 200 boats carrying 5,000 tourists to Maya Bay every day made for a bit more than Instagram adventures.
That’s what happened at Boracay Island in the Philippines too, after Condé Nast and others named it a must-see destination. It became what President Rodrigo Duterte called a cesspool, and reopened in October with strict rules about how many visitors the island will welcome and what’s expected of them and the tourist industry.
It’s also the problem in Dubrovnik, Croatia, with too many “Game of Thrones” tours.
While those are high-profile cases, there are countless others. Recent images from Venice, Italy, showed what’s at stake as tourists posted selfies while wading through floodwaters while locals worried about the damage to historic sites in the climate-challenged city. The October 2018 floods come two years after “If Venice Dies” by Salvatore Settis, a book emphasizing the impacts of cruise ships, pollution and resident flight because of “tourism monoculture.”
The biggest fears, though, come from conservation officials who are seeing relatively unspoiled natural sites struggling to stay healthy under the weight of tourists. Antarctica is seeing a tourism boom, with 43,000 visitors in the 2017-2018 season and a projected 40 percent rise as new ice-breaking cruise ships are put into service. “We are witnessing a race toward large-scale tourism that is dangerous for ecosystems,” says Ségolène Royal, French ambassador for the Arctic and Antarctic poles. That race is made worse by all of the social media posts.
In the U.S. wilderness state of Wyoming, tourism authorities announced in November a new strategy to keep people on Instagram from tagging their locations. “Chasing likes comes with a price when it puts a spotlight on a secluded nature area, because every time someone captures stunning scenery and tags the exact location, crowds follow,” says the Jackson Hole tourism board. Instead of using the specific location, visitors are asked to be a part of conservation efforts by using a generic “Keep Jackson Hole Wild” tag for their Instagram posts. Similar strategies have been used in Namibia and South Africa to shield wildlife images from illegal traffickers.
So that’s why Leave No Trace and its Center for Outdoor Ethics developed the new guidelines, asking people to be mindful about what they’re sharing and who may follow them – all with an eye toward protecting nature. It’s a helpful reminder to consider sustainability and our behaviors whenever we travel.