The impact of mass tourism on our world

Lizet Wesselman - 01/09/2023

The impact of mass tourism on our world

Lizet Wesselman - 01/09/2023

Tourism has grown exponentially over the past decades and has drastically changed the way we travel and experience our world. Thanks in part to the rise of social media, influencers and content creators, you have found all the Instagrammable spots in the world in no time. But as a result, certain places are completely overrun by tourists, something we call “mass tourism”. Although travelling is, of course, a wonderful way to relax and escape everyday life, mass tourism also has significant impacts on the environment, local communities and cultures around the world. In this blog, I explain to you exactly what mass tourism is and how it affects our planet.

What is mass tourism?

Mass tourism is literally a mass influx of tourists to a specific location. These are often well-known hotspots, marked as highlights and “must visits” in every blog and travel account. For good reason, as they are usually the most beautiful and unique locations. But often trips are very much centred around these locations, making them extremely crowded, while whole parts of the city or country are deserted. It sometimes feels like a river of people being dragged by the rest of the “water” to the same spots.

I think every traveller has been to a place where you first have to go through hordes of people to actually see that beautiful spot. Think Trevi Fountain in Rome or Charles Bridge in Prague. And meanwhile, you can find at least 10 beautiful spots in Bali, where locals are ready to take your picture and you queue until it’s your turn for your Insta photo somewhere an hour later.

Trip plan stress - Me struggling with multiple Lonely Planets to plan my next trip

The environmental impact of mass tourism

So although these spots are almost always worth their hype, those hordes of tourists naturally leave their mark. It is often thought that mass tourism is actually very good for the economy, because tourists bring in money, right? But with mass tourism, this no longer always turns out to be true. Mass tourism can have the following negative effects:

Ecological damage

Mass tourism causes significant damage to ecosystems. For example, think of a viewpoint where people walk through the plants to get that perfect photo. Moreover, unfortunately, many people have no respect for the environment, throwing all kinds of junk into nature and polluting the water. But it doesn’t stop there. At popular hotspots, restaurants, shops, and even restaurants are soon placed to provide tourists with everything they could possibly need. As a result, forests are cut down and roads are built, depriving animals of their habitat.

Climate change

A bit of an open door probably, but we all still need to get to these places too. Often they are remote spots that were once “hidden gems” precisely because they were so far away from everything. So to get there, hordes of tour buses and taxis drive back and forth. That on top of the plane tickets people book to get to the country itself.

Excessive water consumption

Tourist accommodations, such as hotels and resorts, often consume large amounts of water, which is problematic in areas with water shortages. In many countries, we see the effect of an enlarged turnout of accommodations as the surrounding area slowly deteriorates. Putting a hotel next to a lake seems like a nice, profitable idea, but if after a few years there is no more water in the lake, you have gone too far. That’s how I found out that the thermal baths in Pamukkale, Turkey, have mostly dried up. Now, I don’t want to blame hotels directly for that, but all the above-mentioned effects of mass tourism, can thus contribute to it.

The local impact on the community

Besides the environment, people living in the area also suffer from mass tourism. Of course, those who run a restaurant or hotel also benefit from increasing tourism. After all, that also means increasing income and perhaps expanding the business. But for any location, there is a limit to when it brings benefits, and when mass tourism becomes so outgrown that it brings more disadvantages.

Noise pollution

Imagine living in a small picturesque village like Hallstatt in Austria. Nice and quiet with around 700-900 inhabitants, where you can enjoy the silence and nature. Until suddenly 10,000 tourists come to visit your village every day. 10,000 Visitors out of 900 inhabitants, is thus more than 10 times as many visitors as inhabitants. There went your peace and quiet! Not very surprisingly, they’re pretty fed up with it and started protesting against mass tourism.

Price rises

Mass tourism can lead to price increases for basic necessities such as food and housing, which can put local residents in financial difficulties. This is especially the case in countries where income is quite low, and many tourists come from richer countries. So, for example, in Eastern European countries but also in Asia, you see this a lot. For tourists, doubling the price is often still very cheap, but for locals, it means they find it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.

Cultural erosion

The arrival of large numbers of tourists can dilute the original cultures of destinations. Local crafts and traditions can be supplanted by commercial tourist activities. There is always a tipping point where businessmen from abroad flock to such popular locations to start a business targeting tourists. With the bag of money they bring with them, they easily crowd out the small local corner shop that does not have the money to bring in customers in the same way.

How can we reduce the impact of mass tourism?

Hotspots are hotspots for a reason, and it is understandable that you want to visit these places. However, there are some ways to reduce your contribution to mass tourism.

Travel during off-season

What already makes an incredible difference is not travelling in high season. Many people depend on the high season, for instance, due to school holidays. But if you are flexible, don’t go in high season. Weather conditions can sometimes be a bit more disappointing in the other seasons, but you will have the advantage of having those beautiful spots to yourself or only sharing them with a few people instead of hordes. (For instance, we had Shipwreck beach in Zakynthos all to ourselves in February.)

Besides, impact spreading is really a thing, the same number of tourists spread over a longer period of time has less impact, gives the natural more time to recover and especially gives the locals a lot more peace of mind.

Find alternatives

Some places are so unique that you won’t find them anywhere else. But in many places, this isn’t the case. The Colosseum in Rome is of course super impressive and has a rich history, but far from being the only Colosseum in the world. Are you all about the architecture? Then check out other Colosseums, such as the one in Verona. And so there are plenty of alternatives. Those beautiful sandy beaches in Thailand can also be found a little further away, you really don’t have to go to Maya beach. Unless you like the idea that you have been on the same beach as Leonardo DiCaprio was “stranded”. Go searching for your own hidden gems.

Sustainable choices

Make conscious choices during your travels. Like choosing sustainable accommodations instead of the polluting, water-depleting alternatives. But tour operators can also adopt more sustainable practices or follow along with destructive tours. Also, by buying your souvenirs at the small, local shop on the corner, you’re supporting local people instead of a big international chain. That way, you can make a positive local impact.

And, of course, clean up your mess and leave the location exactly as you found it. So that also means not taking anything with you! Because that too can disrupt ecosystems. And no, “that one shell” doesn’t stay just 1 shell, when 100,000 people a year say so.

What can tourism organisations do?

Sustainable tourism

Promoting sustainable tourism, with respect for local culture, protection of the environment and a fair economic contribution to local communities, is crucial.

Restrictions and regulations

Destinations can take measures to regulate the number of tourists and reduce the impact on the environment, such as setting restrictions on the number of visitors or implementing ecological taxes. And this is already being done. Among others, the aforementioned Maya beach, is now closed for several months every year to give it time to recover.

In conclusion

Tourism definitely has benefits for a local economy. But unfortunately, there is a tipping point where tourism turns into mass tourism, which brings more adverse effects. Be aware of your impact on your surroundings, and try to read up on the adverse effects at your holiday destination beforehand. This will also help you better assess what you can do to avoid contributing to the effects of mass tourism, while still enjoying your beautiful holiday destination. In this way, we can all ensure that we can enjoy our beautiful planet for much longer, and leave a positive local impact, instead of making it more difficult for the local population.