In my early 20s, I spent several months living and working in Venice, Italy. I was already an avid traveler, but up until that point, I hadn’t really thought about the impact of my travels. But in Venice, I started to see first-hand how tourism can cause harm.
Venice has long been a popular destination that welcomes mass numbers of tourists every year. Living there gave me an inside look at the impact of tourism. The Italians I worked for told me about how the cost of living in the city had gotten so high that many locals were forced to leave. I also experienced how local life was shaped by tourism. For example, I would avoid going out to run errands at certain times of day, based on cruise ship schedules.
The months I spent in Venice changed my outlook on tourism. Mainly, I learned that while there are tons of amazing benefits of tourism, it can be harmful too. From there, I began thinking more actively about my role as a tourist, how I could reduce the negative impacts of my travels, and how I could give back to the communities I visited.
After living in Venice, I became passionate about understanding how tourism was impacting and shaping local communities. I wanted to learn how I could travel in a way that would have a neutral or positive impact. Here are 4 key takeaways I’ve learned from interviewing guests for my responsible travel podcast, Alpaca My Bags.
Resist the destination trends that you see all over social media, and go for less popular places instead.
It’s so tempting to travel to the destinations you see trending on Instagram, or on your TikTok for you page. Social media has a way of romanticizing destinations, and when those images or videos go viral, it can lead to huge surges of tourism in specific places.
Throughout 2022 I noticed a couple destinations that consistently showed up on my social channels. Mykonos was the ultimate European summer escape, Bali was the place for digital nomads, and everyone wanted a photo on a boat with the Italian village of Positano in the background.
Destinations like these become popular for a reason. They are gorgeous places that absolutely deserve attention. The issue? When too many tourists flock to one place, it can lead to frustrating experiences not just for locals, but for tourists as well. Writer Rebecca Jennings felt this so strongly after visiting Positano, that she wrote an op-ed about how the Instagram capital of the world is a terrible place to be.
There are a few ways that us travelers can avoid adding to the crowds in trendy destinations. First, don’t travel there. Often, there are overlooked alternative destinations that deserve attention. For example, rather than Mykonos, head to another one of Greece’s gorgeous islands like Naxos. If you really can’t bear to skip a trendy destination, another solution is to go in the shoulder season or off-season, when it isn’t as busy.
Instead of zipping through several cities or destinations in one trip, take it slow.
In my early days of traveling, I was all about the fast pace. I spent three months backpacking across Europe, spending an average of 3 days in every place I visited. It makes sense that so many people travel this way, especially given that the average American has just 10-14 vacation days per year.
If you have limited time to travel, of course you’ll want to fit in as much as you can into a trip. But something I’ve learned in making my podcast is that fast travel makes it difficult for us tourists to have a positive impact on a place, and it can also detract from our experiences.
One of the biggest benefits of tourism for a destination is economic. Travelers bring in tourism dollars which in turn help to grow the economies of towns, cities, and countries. When you travel fast, you have fewer opportunities to use your tourism dollars for good. Think about it – if you spend a week in a place rather than 3 days, that’s double the amount of restaurants, tour operators, and other tourism industry businesses that you can support.
Slow travel also makes for better experiences for travelers. When I shifted to spending longer in each place I visited, I noticed I was able to learn more about those places. I had more time to observe, listen, and explore. And, I found myself making meaningful relationships with local people I met in those places.
If you have limited days for travel, you can slow travel by reducing how many stops you make on a trip. For example, rather than going to 4 cities on your European jaunt, choose 2, and spend longer in each of them.
Treat travel as an opportunity to learn about culture, traditions, history, or language.
One of the things I love most about travel is that it’s such an immersive way to learn. While it’s basically a given that you’ll learn at least a few things whenever you travel anywhere, being intentional about your learning can really enrich a trip.
The learning can start even before you arrive at a destination. Research the local customs and traditions so that you’re able to contextualize what you experience on the trip, and be respectful of the local culture. Ahead of a trip, you can also look up basic words in the local language. Knowing some words will help you communicate a bit better as you travel.
Once you’re on a trip, the opportunities to learn are endless. Wandering a museum, hiring a local guide, taking a cooking class, and even just finding opportunities to chat with local people are all easy ways to intentionally learn.
Making travel about education will make it possible for travel to evolve your perspectives. I’ve found that it has helped me to understand what life is like outside of my own country, city, and hometown. Experiencing other cultures and languages first-hand has helped me to diversify my understanding of people, politics, social structures, and more.
Skip the short-haul flights to help reduce your carbon footprint, and go for overland travel instead.
Sustainability is a big part of responsible travel because tourism is a contributor to the climate crisis. The most impactful aspect of travel is flying. Flights add a large amount of greenhouse gases to our atmosphere. In fact, taking one return flight can generate more CO2 than some people produce in an entire year.
It might not be realistic to cut out flying entirely. But what we can do is change how we fly. One of the easiest changes to make is to start skipping short-haul flights – flights that are 2 hours or less. Typically, a short-haul flight can easily be replaced with overland travel by train, bus, or car.
I have found that once you factor in time traveling to and from an airport, and getting through the airport itself, a short-haul flight ends up taking the same amount of time as traveling that distance overland.
Traveling overland doesn’t only reduce your carbon footprint when you’re traveling. It can be an enriching experience, too! It gives you a chance to see more of the region you’re visiting, and it can often facilitate interactions with more local people.
Erin is a Canadian travel writer and podcaster. When she’s not traveling internationally or exploring Canada, she writes and talks about how to travel in a way that is better for the planet and its inhabitants.