As the world becomes more aware of the potential perils of tourism, overtourism has become a buzzword. We see images of environmental degradation or the disruption of locals’ daily lives due to tourism. Many of us are left wondering how we can travel more responsibly–now is a good time to reflect. Busy destinations have experienced a variety of positive changes and issues during the pandemic. How may the lack of tourists have contributed to restoring their communities and changing the narrative around tourism?
Hawaii–An Instagramable Haven
The Kingdom of Hawaii, currently illegally occupied by the colonial power of the United States, has experienced mass tourism ever since air travel offered easy access to the Islands. The influx of tourists resulted in the desecration of native land and the commodification of their culture. It has caused homelessness and poverty rates among native Hawaiians to soar as foreigners buy up the land and build hotels.
Even for non-native residents, tourism has caused a decline in quality of life and made it difficult to access places like beaches and parks. Tourism in Hawaii has become an industrial complex, feeding money into the continental U.S. while leaving Hawaiians to fight for their rights. The Islands experienced high unemployment rates during the tourism ban and consequent slow return to tourism resulting from the pandemic. Despite this, a recent survey from the Hawaii Tourism Authority shows that nearly 65% of residents still do not want outsiders to visit.
Can this feedback from residents, as well as the instatement of the first native Hawaiian CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, John De Fries, result in healthier levels of tourism? Hawaiian residents have expressed that tourist crowds need to be managed, the land needs to regenerate, and native culture needs to be nurtured. As the travel ban gave a glimpse of the Islands without tourists, we can hope that the travel industry will listen to local voices and do their part to further the idea of regenerative tourism.
Venice–A City That is Sinking
Venice is another famous example of overtourism and another place where tourists have gentrified the city and commodified culture. Cheap souvenirs made abroad, fake Murano glass, and streets squeezed beyond capacity were the norm pre-COVID. During the pandemic, Venice was emptier due to the absence of tourists but also because of a decrease in residents, many of whom had left to escape the crowds. The pause in tourism gave residents a foothold to show policymakers the benefits of fewer tourists, which include cultural revitalization and safer canals.
Organizations like Save Venice and We Are Here Venice has been working throughout the travel bans to repair parts of the city and implement strategies to prevent destructive flooding. Alongside this good work, Venetian residents may see the closure of some businesses and some level of job loss if they choose to restrict tourists. Even so, most have indicated the desire to reset, restore, and reinvent their home.
Bali–Sun, Satay & Tourists
In contrast to those places in the Global North, many residents of Bali have been waiting for tourists to return. Until the pandemic, Bali was almost synonymous with overtourism. Crawling with foreigners, the island was an economic engine for Indonesia and locals had steady hospitality jobs. Cut to today, and Bali has been nearly empty of tourists since early 2020. While the natural environment may have had some time to regenerate, local people are struggling from the lack of tourism income and, in turn, issues like weak workers’ rights laws and strict banks.
Many Balinese residents express a desire for tourists to return because this will allow their income to pick up again. Bali, as an example of a tourist destination in the Global South, demonstrates that not all destinations are experiencing this window of opportunity equally. Regeneration to some can mean devastation for others.
It is important that, as travellers, we think critically about our choice of travel destination and do research into how our presence can help or hinder the local community. It is possible to visit certain places more sustainably or visit destinations where tourism is regulated and benefits local people.
Post written by Eilish Sibalis