Are Travelers Ruining Travel?

This summer saw what felt like unprecedented bad tourist behavior. Is the end of it near?

Crowds of tourists in front of the Trevi Fountain, Rome, Italy

The Trevi Fountain draws around 3,000 visitors a day.

Photo by Chelms Varthoumlien/Unsplash

The woman who climbed the Trevi Fountain to refill her plastic water bottle. The substance-impaired Michigan man who walked off the trail into a restricted area and a boiling geyser in Yellowstone National Park. The Swiss teen who carved her initials into the Colosseum, only months after a British tourist defaced the same ancient landmark with his and his girlfriend’s initials.

This summer, it seemed each viral story was more horrifying than the next. While travelers’ faux pas are nothing new, it seems there was a meteoric rise in misbehavior this past summer. And it looks like even as crowds and temperatures have waned, the behavior hasn’t. In early September, an Irish tourist climbed a newly renovated statue in Brussels, causing $19,000 in damages, begging the question: Why are tourists acting so unruly?

As heat waves moved across the globe this summer, so too did travelers with pent-up desire to take vacations after years of postponements and cancellations: Europe, in the first quarter of the year alone, reached 90 percent of prepandemic levels, driven by strong intraregional demand, according to the World Tourism Organization. Globally, air traffic in July was at 95.6 percent compared to 2019, the International Air Transport Association reported earlier this month. If it felt like everyone you followed on Instagram was in Greece or Italy this summer, the truth might not be too far off. The Acropolis was so overrun by tourists in July that new controls, such as a time-slot system, had to be placed at Greece’s most visited site, which draws in more than 17,000 people daily.

Behavioral scientist Milena Nikolova, the CEO and founder of BehaviorSMART, works with destinations and travel companies to apply insights about human behavior to support more sustainable and responsible travel. In large part, Nikolova says, this rise in bad behavior can be attributed to the sheer volume of travel now.

“Travel has become easier to attain and is more accessible. The moment that something is easy, you appreciate it less, and you value it less,” Nikolova says. She also points to what she calls the rise of “fast-food culture”: “Travelers are sliding on the surface of the experience; they are not immersing themselves, not mindfully connecting to the place.” The 24/7 media churn has only amplified the bad behavior, she notes, turning stories that would have been of local nature into international headlines.

Travelers have always exhibited some poor behavior, says JoAnna Haugen, founder of Rooted, a platform dedicated to solutions-based storytelling for sustainable travel and social impact. (We could look back as far as the “first male explorers’ poor behavior colonizing the world,” she says.) But now, it’s easier than ever to document our journey, however fraught and egocentric it is—which might explain why travelers keep finding themselves tempted to trample super blooms or chase bison for a selfie.

“Social media has influenced a lot of people to go to certain places or do certain things, and it can inappropriately set up inaccurate expectations, or encourage inappropriate behavior,” says Haugen about the rise of social media–driven tourism. Haugen suggests travelers should ask themselves if posting about it is the main motivation: “If I couldn’t share this experience on social media, would I still do it?”

Haugen proposes travelers ask bigger questions in general. “When it comes to travel, the first question has always been ‘where,’ and I suggest travelers need to ask not just ‘where’ but ‘why.’ Why are we going somewhere? Why are we interested in participating in something?”

Instead of the question of “what” we’ll do, Haugen suggests “how,” with a twist—How are we going to engage in that experience in a way that helps us fulfill our “why”? One suggestion is for travelers to commit to a tour that helps them get a better sense of place. AltruVistas, a philanthropic travel company, offers customized group trips centered on more complicated sides of destinations, such as a journey into the heart of Israel and Palestine or tracing the African diaspora in Cuba.

For far too long, travelers have been the center of the travel story. The people who live there, make the place what it is, are the center of the story.
JoAnna Haugen

“For far too long, travelers have been the center of the travel story. The people who live there, make the place what it is, are the center of the story,” she says. The travel industry needs to stop with their sanitized narrative, too, says Haugen—that of, “it’s all beautiful, it’s all great.”

So how can destinations encourage travelers to behave better? Nikolova suggests that awareness campaigns, guidelines, and pledges all help, but tackling overtourism is key with permits and taxes, and promoting alternative destinations that help trickle traffic away from “hot spots” where this bad behavior is most often seen. It’s a balance, Nikolova says, because increasing prices by adding tourist taxes does make travel less accessible and that brings up an important equity issue, too. But letting travelers take the reins and do whatever they want, when they want, isn’t the solution either.

“Giving guests guidance on how they are supposed to behave doesn’t make you a bad host,” she says.

One city that has done just that is Amsterdam, which has led several different campaigns to create awareness for travelers who visit. “This is a city where people live and work,” says Maya Janssen, managing director of insights and marketing strategy for the city. “We are not like Venice where a lot of residents unfortunately have moved out of the city center.”

Amsterdam’s newest campaign, “Stay Away,” is targeted to 18–25-year-old British men, who arrive in large groups to party. “These are not the visitors who add value to our city, who love the freedom but come with respect for the residents and city itself,” Janssen says. Amsterdam has also banned cruise ships from the city center, to reduce overtourism and pollution. Still, Janssen notes that changing behavior of these groups is a long-term approach and that it will take time to see the final results. This fall the city will start a new campaign to promote other sides of Amsterdam—beyond its red-light district and coffee shops— to show initiatives and things people of this city are most proud of, Janssen says.

When do movements become part of the social consciousness? Dan Moore, a tourism development consultant and adventure travel guide educator for more than 15 years, helped amplify the campaign “Recreate Responsibly” in Washington State during the early days of COVID. “We had tons of people with little to no experience and no training in ‘leave no trace’ heading out to the outdoors—because everything else was closed,” says Moore, now the COO of the Adventure Hub, a family of travel companies in the Pacific Northwest. “Our public lands and outdoor spaces got trashed.”

Rather than blame the inexperienced traveler for their ignorance and bad behavior, Moore says, “We took responsibility for not providing the resources and infrastructure for them ahead of time.” Representatives from REI Co-op, the Outdoor Alliance, the Washington Trails Association, National Park Service, and more public lands experts joined forces to address these concerns and came up with the Recreate Responsibly Coalition and Campaign which includes best practices and guidance around responsible outdoor recreation.

Some of the key “Recreate Responsibly” tenets include checking the status of the place you’re visiting for weather and fire restrictions, making all identities and abilities feel welcome and safe in the outdoors, and the key mantra already deep in the consciousness of the outdoor community, Leave No Trace, which is now more than a half-century old. “Recreate Responsibly” went from a hashtag in 2020 (which has garnered more than 5 billion impressions to date) to a movement that more than 3,000 organizations have joined. (To Moore’s surprise, the word has gotten out so much that the phrase “Recreate Responsibly” was even mentioned in the 2023 Netflix movie Happiness for Beginners by a character who played a backpacking guide.)

Curbing “frenzies around animals” is also important with travelers on safari. Emboo River Camp, the first safari lodge in Kenya to have its entire fleet of safari vehicles powered by solar energy, is helping lead the setup of a Safari Etiquette guide for the Maasai Mara. These guidelines, created by Sacred Nature Initiative, a non-profit advocacy program that promotes ethical wildlife tourism, include a code of conduct for safari guests as well as guides for game drives. Sacred Nature Initiative also advises travelers to research their safari company and lodge ahead of booking to see how much they care about their impact on the natural environment and if they support local communities.

As seen during the peak of the pandemic, when tourism-driven destinations suffered, tourism plays an important role in boosting local economies, and when done right, it can even be an agent of social change and support conservation efforts. At its very least, travel can make us better global citizens, especially if we take the time to see a place beyond the lens of our camera or as a backdrop for our selfies.

“Traveling abroad to places with different backgrounds and societal makeup is proven to influence your openness, your readiness to tolerate different cultures,” says behavioral scientist Nikolova. “If you move your eyes away from the screen, look around and feel the places and try to understand something about them—you will have a different experience with the place. Then you are less likely to disregard it and damage it.”

Kathleen Rellihan is a travel journalist and editor covering adventure, culture, climate, and sustainability. Formerly Newsweek‘s travel editor, she contributes to outlets such as Afar, Outside, Time, CNN Travel, and more.
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