What can we do to travel sustainably? I’ll adopt my uncle’s cendol mantra – don’t follow the crowds.
Tourism is such a wonderful industry. As a reporter working in and writing about this industry, I have had many first-hand opportunities to see how this industry has shaped the lives of many around the world, whether it’s improving livelihoods, preserving traditions or opening borders and minds alike.
But if there’s one nagging thought, it’s that I’m one of the 1.8 billion travelling masses who are complicit in enjoying the spoils of tourism and stretching infrastructure to breaking point.
McKinsey & Company’s senior partner Alex Dichter, at the recent WTTC Global Summit in Bangkok, drove home the point when he pointed out that the fault doesn’t lie in the number of tourists around the world. Rather, it’s that “tourists come from everywhere but they don’t go everywhere”.
When tourism to a destination booms, crowds soar and often the crush of visitors disrupts local residents’ lives – including wildlife. Famous cases in point: Venice and Machu Picchu. Nearer home, there’s Koh Phi Phi, Beijing’s Forbidden Palace, Angkor Wat and the list goes on.
The downside of tourism boom became more apparent to me during a recent trip to Penang to visit my maternal uncle and his family. In the two decades that I’ve been visiting him, the latest trip was the first time I heard him grousing about tourists in his hometown.
When we were stuck in traffic behind tourist buses at Gurney Drive, he lamented that the famed seaside promenade had become a tourist trap offering street food at inflated prices. When we craved for cendol on a sweltering afternoon in Georgetown, we were dismayed by the snaking queue outside a particular stall. My uncle assured me the stall next door was just as good but saw fewer tourists because it wasn’t propelled to social media fame by bloggers and foreign websites. (True enough, he was back in the car with eight packs of cendol minutes later.)
While overcrowding is not yet a dire issue for Penang’s tourism, the fear that visitors who once kept the local traditions and livelihoods alive are also now slowly destroying them is becoming a valid one. And when that happens, the soul of a destination will be lost.
The challenge – and hard work – thus lies in finding the balance. City officials or tourism authorities must not blindly chase the economic benefits of tourism without proper management plans or guidelines drawn up to manage visitor numbers. Sustainability and responsible stewardship must be at the forefront of any tourism management policy to deliver smart and strategic growth.
What can we do to travel sustainably? I’ll adopt my uncle’s cendol mantra – don’t follow the crowds. Also, why not give popular destinations a break during their high-season months and visit during their off-peak periods to disperse visitation more evenly over the year? Share the love, spread the money and spare the footfalls.