Perils of overtourism

Published June 22, 2024
The writer is assistant professor and fellow at the Centre for Business and Economic Research at IBA, Karachi
The writer is assistant professor and fellow at the Centre for Business and Economic Research at IBA, Karachi

THE number of tourists has been surging globally. Although there was a pause during the Covid-19 period, the UN Tourism Data Dashboard has shown an exponential rise in global tourism in recent years.

The tourism industry helps both the government and the local population earn decent revenues. However, something out of the ordinary happened this year. The residents of popular destinations in Spain, Italy and Mexico started protesting the increasing numbers of tourists in their areas. The unsustainable influx of tourists had started causing problems.

The residents of Canary Islands, Spain, for instance, protested the construction of two new hotels — said to have violated environmental regulations. Protesters felt that such construction to accommodate a growing number of visitors was increasing their own housing costs. Slogans and graffiti reflected their emotions: ‘Tourists go home’ and ‘my misery, your paradise’.

Similarly, hordes of tourists in the narrow streets of Venice are affecting the lives of the residents during peak season.

The residents of Oaxaca, Mexico, protested against what they call ‘Disneylandisation’ and criticised the gentrification of their land due to overtourism. Hundreds of protesters in Oaxaca took to the streets against the crisis engendered by the soaring cost of living and displacement, and lack of public resources that overtourism has brought with it.

Various states are trying to implement different methods to curb crowds of tourists. The Greek authorities introduced a daily cap of 20,000 tourists in Athens. Italy, as a trial, introduced a five-euro fee for day trips to Venice. Japan had to deter selfie takers at a particular spot by erecting a fence to block a view of Mount Fuji. Austria, also concerned about overtourism, did the same in the town Hallstatt to block lake views. Amsterdam’s city council voted to ban cruise ships from docking in the city centre to reduce crowds and environmental damage.

Summer has arrived, and with it this year’s tourist season. Do we have any management plans?

In Pakistan, overtourism has also become a problem. However, we still seem oblivious to the disastrous impact of overtourism in ecologically fragile areas. Exotifying mountainous areas, particularly Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), has intensified in recent years. While there is no harm in promoting the scenic valleys and tourists’ spots of the area, the problem lies in the lack of a proper policy and ignorance about the perils of overtourism. Furthermore, the infrastructure required for tourism is substandard. Many of these scenic areas are without electricity for most hours in the day. Even potable water is getting scarce. Has any government sincerely worked for the betterment of these areas before promoting tourism?

Instead of making environment-friendly and sustainable infrastructure, our tourism ‘policy’ consists of the construction of asphalted roads and hotels, without following regulations, which has a disastrous impact on the environment. As a result, thousands of people flock to the mountains every year. In fact, in areas such as GB, the number of annual tourists is in the millions now. Though it provides income to a local population struggling to make ends meet, overtourism has been catastrophic for the ecosystem. These resource-starved areas cannot sustain millions of visitors every year.

Overtourism comes at a hefty price. Unfortunately, the already poor local communities are paying that price. The fragile mountainous areas are facing rising temperatures, reduced snowfall, melting glaciers, flash floods, a change in crop patterns, water, etc. The carbon footprint of millions of visitors and thousands of vehicles is massive. Luxury hotels built without any environmental consideration are mushrooming. Sewage and garbage disposal systems are putting enormous pressure on, or depleting, natural resources and destroying scenic views. These hotels are being constructed in areas where there are already power and water shortages. In Hunza, resentment in the local population against the massive concrete infrastructures is brewing.

While this mass tourism in Pakistan can provide monetary benefits in the short term, in the long run, it is proving to be devastating for natural resources and the ecosystem.

Overtourism also endangers human lives. With the increasing traffic and lack of road safety and traffic regulations, accidents are happening more frequently particularly on the Karakoram Highway. And the Murree tragedy of 2022 cannot be forgotten. It raised serious questions about Pakistan’s state of disaster preparedness in tourist areas. Thousands of vehicles were stuck due to the snowfall and precious lives were lost as vehicles were trapped for many hours.

Summer has arrived, and with it this year’s tourist season. Do we have any management plans? Are there awareness centres for tourists? Have efficient emergency response teams been equipped with the necessary tools to ensure all goes well?

With many people associated with the tourism industry, which is their bread and butter, curtailing the number of tourists is not the point. The alternative is to promote sustainable tourism, discourage cars and jeeps, ensure that the hotel industry follows regulations, raise awareness about ecotourism, and implement viable environment-friendly policies. In fact, the best solution is to shift to ecotourism from overtourism. Ecotourism means responsible travel, environmental conservation, and the enhancement of biocultural diversity.

This can also provide economic benefits to local communities through capacity building, and sustain their well-being. Some initiatives have already been taken by these communities, but they are limited. It should be the responsibility of the state to empower local governments and communities and introduce ecotourism practices. The greed to maximise profits must end. It is time to include local stakeholders in policymaking, build their capacity and invest in energy-efficient and environment-friendly infrastructure. It is true that such a change will not come overnight but the authorities concerned need to work towards ecotourism sincerely and efficiently before we lose whatever we are left with.

The writer is assistant professor and fellow at the Centre for Business and Economic Research at IBA, Karachi.

X: @saj_ahmd

Published in Dawn, June 22nd, 2024

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