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The paradox of modern travel: Accessibility and over-tourism

Overtourism
Macao 2024 - Photo: Theodore Koumelis

Post-pandemic travel has surged, but with it comes the widespread complaint of overcrowded destinations, detracting from the joy of discovery and aesthetic satisfaction of travel.

After the pandemic was over, people got back to what they missed so much during the lockdowns — traveling. But did they come back from their trips happy and excited? Some, yes. But most would come back with complaints which became commonplace. Wherever you go, the place is going to be stuffed with other tourists, to the point of making the experience borderline unpleasant. There’s a widespread feeling that every desirable location is overrun with people, detracting from the aesthetic and emotional satisfaction of travel. I keep hearing this complaint over and over again. Traveling used to be a revered endeavour filled with discovery and excitement — and now it has become an exercise in navigating crowds in popularised destinations. The paradox is that today’s travellers often find themselves frustrated by the very systems that enable their adventures.

For much of the history of air travel, the number of places most people could visit was limited. This was partly due to the fact that tickets were relatively more expensive, besides, there were fewer flight options and accommodations. But perhaps the most important factor is that travelling was not such a mass thing, it was still relatively exclusive, particularly foreign travel. Traveling existed in its own information chamber with few extremely popular “must-go” places, and that was largely due to the fact that travellers did not know about many alternative destinations. Paths less traveled were underdeveloped and required a certain adventurous spirit — most people preferred to play it safe, and were not penalised for doing so.

Those who traveled to lesser known places relied on specialised information sources — Lonely Planet books and similar publications which made their mark by unveiling “secret” destinations. People who bought such books or read such articles were relatively few, and the average person had limited knowledge about places like Bratislava, Osaka, or Bali compared to the well-trodden paths of Paris, Rome, or Miami. The idea of visiting lesser-known locales such as Tallinn, the Norwegian glaciers, or Akita was even more obscure.

However, the advent of the internet transformed this landscape entirely. This shift has had a significant impact on the way people plan and experience travel, and it has also changed the way destinations are marketed and promoted. Now, information on the “best hidden gem travel” spots is instantly accessible through a simple Google search. Numerous online platforms offer travel tips, erasing the concept of a “secret” destination. In my last column I wrote about short videos in formats like “10 Things to Do” and “3-Day Itinerary” which offer practical and actionable recommendations that viewers can incorporate into their travel plans. This democratisation of travel knowledge means that previously hidden gems have become mainstream, from cities like Ljubljana to quaint cafés known only to a few.

The combination of this readily available information and the drastic drop in airfare costs during the internet age has led to a boom in travel. Consequently, some places face constant influxes of tourists, prompting locals to protest the detrimental impacts of mass tourism. The town of Fujikawaguchiko in Japan is building a large black screen or barrier to block the view of Mount Fuji from a popular photo spot near a local Lawson convenience store. This controversial move is in response to the increasing number of tourists, especially foreign visitors, who have been misbehaving and causing problems in the area. Kyoto’s famous Gion district, known for its traditional teahouses and geisha culture, is taking measures to limit tourist access to certain areas due to an influx of unruly visitor behaviour too. These are not isolated examples, but more of a pattern.

The anonymity and exclusivity that once shielded such destinations is gone, and affordable air travel ensures they are frequently overwhelmed. This influx damages the quality of life for residents and diminishes the experience for tourists. The once-tranquil shores of Santorini, Greece, have fallen victim to the curse of over-tourism. What was once a serene island paradise, known for its picturesque white-washed buildings and stunning sunsets, has now become a victim of its own popularity. The narrow streets once the domain of locals and a select few adventurous travellers, now teem with hordes of Instagram influencers and tour groups, their selfie sticks and camera lenses outnumbering the iconic blue-domed churches.

The economic dependency on tourism exacerbates the issue. Countries that once saw tourism as a supplementary income now find it integral to their economies, making it challenging to curb the flow of visitors even when it becomes overwhelming. The adverse effects spread beyond the primary destination, driving travellers to newer, less explored places, which soon face the same issues.

Furthermore, airline frequent flyer programs illustrate another facet of the problem. Initially designed to reward loyal customers, these programs became widely exploited through easily accessible hacks and tips. The system became saturated, leading airlines to tighten the benefits and make the programs less advantageous for everyone.

This is the paradox of modern travel. The same communication and information technology advancements that made travel more accessible and affordable have led to overcrowded destinations, environmental degradation, and less satisfying personal experiences. Travel’s increased accessibility has paradoxically eroded some of its traditional pleasures. The abundance of information on where to go has stripped travel of its mystery and sense of discovery. While it’s not about choosing between accessibility and preserving the travel experience, many travellers now feel their journeys are less fulfilling due to the very systems that made these trips possible.

All this highlights the importance of effective communication and public relations strategies in managing the impact of tourism on local communities. By promoting responsible tourism practices and engaging with local stakeholders, travel destinations can ensure that tourism is a positive force for both the local economy and the environment. There is an obvious need for PR strategies that would help to balance the benefits of accessibility with the need to preserve the quality and sustainability of travel experiences.

Dr. Karine Lohitnavy-Frick, Midas PR
Master Connector - Midas PR

Karine is the Managing Director of Midas PR and serves the company as its “Master Connector”.

She has over 20 years of experience driving PR strategy for leading organisations in various sectors, launching Midas PR in 2007 after gathering ideas, honing her skills in Luxembourg, and refining her PR approach by working in Thailand. Over the last 16 years, Midas PR has achieved strong and consistent growth and today is recognised as one of Thailand’s leading multi-award-winning PR and communications firms. Alongside heading up the Midas team, Karine is Chair for the PRCA Thailand and a member of PROI Worldwide.

Karine is also a renowned thought leader and in-demand speaker on industry topics such as reputation management, corporate communications, and diversity and inclusion. She has shared her insights at several leadership, business and PR conferences, such as the Women in Business Series and the Thailand Startup Summit.

A passionate advocate for female leadership, Karin aims to serve as a role model for other women and inspire them to pursue their aspirations. She co-founded The Lionesses of Siam, a distinctive social and business networking group exclusively for women in Thailand. She has been honoured with several awards, including the Prime Award for International Business Woman Of The Year 2023.

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