If over-tourism, one of the major questions of sustainable tourism, is at least partially an issue of perspective for local communities – I wrote about my thoughts in over-tourism in Amsterdam earlier – then how come tourists themselves can complain of over-tourism? I recently read an opinion piece by Florian of Abandoned Kansai, one of my favorite urban explorers in Japan. The prevailing thought in his post is that over-tourism is problematic. It is hard to argue with that viewpoint. But at first glance the arguments did not seem entirely sound in my opinion.
Florian’s piece however made me realize that as a tourism professional I usually approach the discussion of over-tourism from the point of view of the local communities we work with. It had not occurred to me that the tourists themselves might have a feeling on the subject. With this post I would like to explore the question of over-tourism from a tourist’s perspective.
When I read the piece on Abandoned Kansai the first thing that came to mind was a sense of hypocrisy. When somebody decides they want to travel to a destination to see the sights, is it fair to complain that others – in the case of over-tourism many, many others – made the same decision?
I ask myself a similar questions when walking around a busy shopping street hearing people behind me complain about how crowded it is. People that woke up that morning and made the decision to come to that shopping street, perhaps from out of town. If they had not made that decision the shopping street would be a tiny little bit less crowded.
Are the people complaining in this case themselves not part of the problem? Is it fair to complain of a busy shopping street when you are yourself contributing to the fact the shopping street is busy? Is it fair to complain about over-tourism because it is difficult to take a picture of the sight you have come to see without strangers in your frame?
Here too, the answer lies in perception I believe. Researchers and scholars look at issues such as over-tourism from above and try to observe all the moving parts. At ground level the view is entirely different. Whether you are a local resident or a visitor, you have no interest in observing all moving parts. You are only interested in your experience, your perception, your view from ground level and how it is affected by the presence of others.
Does that take my feeling of hypocrisy away when I look at this way? Yes and no. I still have the feeling the arguments made by Florian of Abandoned Kansai are colored, but I realize that what colors them is perception.
Simply put: we can only see the world through our own eyes and process what we see with our own brains. Only after we have done that can we start comparing our views with those of others. Everything we see and experience is subject to being processed by our brains and compared to previously existing knowledge. The more knowledge we have about a subject, the easier it becomes to place what we observe in a structured context. Our perspective evolves as we gain knowledge.
Florian had a positive experience (no crowds) but writes about it in what he describes as a rant, a negative way. Logically speaking a positive experience should come with a positive write up. The fact that Florian’s piece was a negative description of a positive experience made me realize that over-tourism is not a strictly logical problem. It might seem appealing to look at the numbers – like I did for Amsterdam – and draw the conclusion that it is not as bad as some say. What I learned by approaching the topic from Florian’s point of view is that the problem of over-tourism has an enormous sentimental side where feelings and perspectives lead the way over logic and numbers.
And sentiment is present on both sides of the aisle. On the side of the local community who feel the number of tourists is too much, despite the economic benefits they bring. But there is also the side of the tourist who does not want to share the same experience with too many others at once.
While numbers are easy to measure, sentiment is not. And since sentiment is personal it will vary greatly from one tourist or local to the next. But perhaps it is fair to say that the more conscious traveler will be bothered easier by their own contribution to a destination than someone who does not care about the impact their visit has.
The only thing I can follow that up with at this point of my travels through the complex matter of over-tourism is a question. If a conscious traveler is more aware of their impact, and over-tourism in a destination would turn that traveler off, would a destination be left with hordes of visitors who do not give 2 cents about their impact? My gut says yes. And if my gut is right that means the problem of over-tourism turns into a true monster when the conscious traveler is no longer interested in visiting a destination.