Before you pack your bags and update that vacay story on Instagram, consider this: some of the world's most breathtaking destinations are gasping for air. In 2023, while the globe rotated it also resonated with environmental alarm bells, forcing us to confront the impact of our wanderlust.
Tourism, a booster of local economies and cultural connections, also packs a punch in the climate crisis. According to Fodor's "No List," which draws attention to areas where tourism is taking a toll, travel enthusiasm has skyrocketed since the pandemic, contributing at least 8% to global greenhouse emissions.
Still, this year's "No List" isn't about crossing places off your bucket list; it's more about pausing to think before you take off. These are spots that really need a break – from natural beauties pleading for a pause in foot traffic to cultural areas sending an SOS for sustainable tourism practices.
It's about being a traveller who leaves a positive mark. For starters, here are some places to postpone visiting:
Lots of people and boats along the Canal Grande in Venice, Italy.
Despite efforts to manage the influx of visitors, including a proposed €5 entry fee for day tourists, concerns persist about its effectiveness. The fee, applicable on select days, is seen as too nominal to deter tourists, likening Venice to a theme park. The city's appearance on tourism watchlists emphasizes the imbalance between visitors and residents, with local populations dwindling and traditional businesses replaced by tourist-oriented shops.
The broader impact of tourism extends to environmental and infrastructural strains. The increase in budget hotel guests burdens Venice’s transport systems, while motorboat traffic damages architectural foundations. UNESCO's consideration to list Venice as a World Heritage site in danger underscores the severity of these issues.
The entrance of the Athena Nike temple ruins in the Acropolis of Athens, Greece.
Athens, a city steeped in history, is grappling with the consequences of overtourism, especially at the Acropolis, its iconic UNESCO World Heritage Site. The surge in visitor numbers, reaching around 17,000 per day, is straining the ancient structures and undermining the site's integrity. Negligence has led to physical damage to monuments and the underlying historical bedrock.
Surrounding neighbourhoods like Plaka are being eroded as traditional homes give way to commercial tourism ventures like Airbnb. The situation is worsened by recent developments, such as the paving of parts of the Acropolis without a proper management plan, which has covered historical artifacts and altered the site's historic fabric.
The sacred mountain, historically a site of pilgrimage, now attracts vast numbers of hikers, resulting in environmental degradation and safety risks. Many visitors leave behind trash, including urine-filled bottles, and often avoid paying the voluntary fee meant for conservation and safety measures.
Climbing the 3,776-metre peak is not just a physical challenge; it poses dangers like hypothermia, altitude sickness, and injuries from falling rocks. The trend of "bullet climbs" – hiking through the night without proper rest – exacerbates these risks. The trails are congested, creating bottlenecks and increasing the danger of accidents.
The influx of visitors not only affects the summit but also the popular starting point, Fuji Subaru Line 5th Station, where the environment suffers under the strain of tourism and commercialization. Local communities are calling for safety measures and a cap on the number of hikers, but these plans are yet to be implemented.
Hikers on the popular Devil's Backbone trail near the summit of Mt Baldy.
The San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, covering parts of the Angeles and San Bernardino National Forests, is a critical green space for Los Angeles County. Designated in 2014, it aimed to be an urban oasis but now suffers from environmental degradation due to over-tourism and insufficient management.
The area is plagued with trash and vandalism. Habitat disruption is part of the problem, including damming rivers which affects endemic species like the Santa Ana sucker fish. The monument, rich in biodiversity and Indigenous history, needs a collective commitment to its preservation and respect for its natural and cultural heritage.
Dozens of boats in Ha Long Bay.
Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is grappling with severe environmental issues due to over-tourism and insufficient waste management. Attracting over seven million visitors yearly, the bay suffers from visible pollution, including plastic and oil slicks from boats. Despite a ban on single-use plastics, enforcement is weak, with tourists often encountering floating trash. The local fishing communities add to the problem, using Styrofoam buoys that degrade into harmful microplastics, contaminating the marine ecosystem and affecting food safety.
The bay faces further challenges from the sheer volume of tourist boats, many using polluting diesel, leading to experiences like swimmers emerging covered in diesel film. Additionally, Ha Long City’s development outpaces its waste treatment capabilities, exacerbating the pollution. Measures like visitor number control, a cleanup-focused tourist tax, and stricter environmental compliance for boats are essential to preserve the bay's natural beauty and UNESCO status.
The Mano del Desierto sculpture of a hand in Chile's Atacama Desert.
The Atacama Desert, Chile's natural wonder, faces an environmental crisis due to the fast-fashion industry. As South America's largest importer of used clothing, Chile receives around 60,000 tons of garments annually, mostly from the U.S., Europe, and Asia. In Iquique, a significant portion of these clothes that can't be resold ends up in the Atacama Desert, leading to a massive textile dump visible from space. These textiles, often non-compostable blends, harm the environment.
Local attempts to manage this waste through burning release toxic compounds, impacting wildlife and the health of nearby communities, especially in financially constrained areas like Alto Hospicio. Recycling efforts have been minimal and ineffective, and the government's environmental policies don't adequately address textile waste. This crisis not only threatens Atacama's unique biodiversity but also contradicts Chile's promotion of sustainable tourism, highlighting a stark disparity between marketing and environmental management.
Polluting jet skies on Lake Superior.
Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake by surface area, is under threat due to multiple environmental challenges. Despite its vastness, it faces serious issues that include fish consumption advisories, invasive species, and the impacts of overtourism, particularly in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The lake's ecosystem is being compromised by pollutants, leading to advisories against consuming certain fish species, which affects the health and traditions of local communities, especially Indigenous ones like the Ojibwe.
Rising water temperatures are resulting in harmful algal blooms, and the influx of tourists is putting additional strain on the environment and local infrastructures. Invasive species such as sea lamprey and zebra mussels are further endangering the native wildlife. The combination of these factors makes visiting Lake Superior a concern for those mindful of preserving its natural beauty and ecological balance.
The Ganges river at the holy city of Varanasi, India.
The Ganges River in India, a lifeline for over 500 million people and central to Hindu spirituality, is facing new challenges with the rise of luxury river cruises, like the MV Ganga Vilas. The trend exacerbates existing problems of severe pollution and reduced flow, threatening the river's health. Nearly 800 million gallons of untreated sewage enter the Ganges daily, impacting those living along its banks. Tourism, including large religious gatherings, further strains the river's ecosystem, complicating waste and water management efforts.
Conservationists are particularly concerned about the endangered Ganges river dolphin, as cruise activities disrupt their habitat and echolocation abilities. Despite claims of sustainability, the expansion of river cruising on the Ganges poses a serious risk to its already fragile ecosystem.
The golden Buddha statue surrounded by tourists at one of the most famous landmarks in Koh Samui,Thailand.
This popular Thai island is facing a critical freshwater shortage, exacerbated by an influx of tourists post-COVID. The island, famous for its palm-fringed beaches and luxury resorts, has seen a dramatic reduction in rainfall and a surge in water demand. The crisis has led to severe water rationing, raising concerns about depleting local aquifers.
While tourism is the island's economic backbone, hotels and restaurants use nearly 70% of the daily water supply. Businesses and residents are grappling with the crisis, and have to spend exorbitant amounts to buy water regularly due to inadequate supply.