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Too many footprints

By Heidi Fuller-Love

Greece expert for The Telegraph based between Greece and France, travel writer and podcast producer Heidi Fuller-Love has lived in a dozen countries. A big fan of slow travel, she has put 400,000 kilometres on the clock of her trusty motorcaravan. A regular contributor to BBC radio’s From Our Own Correspondent, she produces British Airways’ Meet The Locals podcast.

Concerned about the impact of over-tourism on the globe’s most popular destinations? Here’s how to find alternative, more sustainable ways to experience them.

The ‘leave nothing but footprints’ ethos might have gained traction over the last few decades but – as recent incidents in over touristed destinations such as Venice, Barcelona and beyond are teaching us – even footprints can be too much.

Lukas Belonias grew up on Santorini, the Greek island whose wax-white villages teetering above a breathtaking volcanic caldera attract around two million tourists per year. “Our roads are still narrow like 50 years ago, but the congestion in summer is unbelievable. In the old times, the island was made up of lots of little villages, but now you drive from one village to another, and you don’t know when it where it changes. There are just too many visitors and the infrastructure just can’t cope,” the 43-year-old engineer told Sustainable Journeys.

Stemming the flow

In a bid to stem the flow, some destinations have introduced stricter measures. Thrust into the spotlight when the Hollywood movie The Beach was filmed there, Maya Bay on Thailand’s uninhabited Phi Phi Leh island was closed to visitors for four years until 2022. The beleaguered atoll, which is still swamped by as many as 8,000 tourists a day, will be off bounds again for several months this year, whilst paradise-isle Boracay in The Philippines is planning to repeat the travel ban that it instigated in 2018.

Sinking beneath the waters of the Adriatic – along with the weight of its 30 million visitors each year – Venice has also announced that it will now charge tourists a five-euro access tax and Amsterdam, which has more than 20 million tourists annually has banned cruise ships in the city centre.

Tourists out of control

Recent media coverage of tourists carving their initials on the walls of Rome’s 2,000-year-old Colosseum or defacing Japan’s 1,200-year-old Toshodaiji Kondo temple has cast the spotlight on the behaviour of travellers when they’re away from home. The very phrase ‘revenge travel’ which became popular post-Covid seems to highlight the aggressive nature of many tourists who are only interested in their own experience, whilst ignoring the culture of the countries they visit. According to Dr Lauren Seigel Senior Lecturer in Tourism & Events at the University of Greenwich, this phenomenon is directly linked to social media. “Travellers also look to social media for proof of how others behave,” she says. “If their peers from home are throwing caution to the wind while on holiday, this can cause a domino effect of bad behaviour.’

In a bid to discourage younger travellers who visit the city just for alcohol, sex or drugs, Amsterdam recently launched a digital campaign warning rowdy British tourists to ‘stay away’, whilst Bali has introduced a special force tasked to ensure correct behaviour in the island’s sacred temples and religious sites.

Whether we like it or not, tourism often has a negative effect on the destinations we visit. From swapping out to shopping better, here are four ways to be a responsible tourist whilst making your footprint (a lot) lighter.

1. Break out of ‘the bubble’

“That’s the problem with all-inclusive resorts and cruises – people stay inside most of the time and when they come out they don’t buy,” one shopkeeper told me on a recent visit to Barcelona. “You see all these people everywhere and think we must be rich, but actually they don’t eat in our restaurants; they don’t buy from our shops – they might as well be holidaying on the moon,” he said, gesturing angrily to the crowds strolling along main promenade The Rambla.

Staying in local-owned hotels, lodges or homestays is the best way to break out of the bubble. You should be aware, however, that an average tourist uses around 300 litres of water per day, so help reduce your own consumption by reusing towels, reducing your time in the shower and not flushing the toilet quite so often – it really does make a difference.

2. Travel out of season

Although it’s difficult for families to avoid holidaying during the busy summer months, travelling out of season is the perfect way to enjoy a more authentic -and more sustainable – break. Even travellers who love to flop and fry will find that most of Europe’s summer sun destinations, whether Crete or The Canaries, are still blissfully warm in June and September, with the added bonus that accommodation will be less expensive so you can stay longer and put more of your money back into the local economy.

Since there are fewer travellers, service tends to be better outside of the busy months of July and August, too, whilst public transport is far less crowded making it easier to explore in a sustainable way.

3. Swap well-known jewels for hidden gems

I recently visited The Hague – only a 30-minute train ride from Amsterdam, this lovely conurbation which is rarely on tourist radars has all the charm of the country’s capital city, but without the crowds. The seat of the Dutch government, The Hague has endless sandy beaches, glorious architecture, cosy cafes and its own canal, but it also has 54 fascinating museums, which is only a few less than The Netherlands’ capital city. Best of all, the streets bustled with locals, not tourists, so I could feel the authentic charm of the destination whilst contributing to the city’s economy in a positive way.

There are plenty of other destinations that can be swapped for their touristy counterparts. With its canals, humpbacked bridges and gondoliers, charming Chioggia just a short hop from Venice is like a slice of La Serenissima as it was before the advent of tourism whilst the volcanic island of Milos, with its spectacular rock formations, breathtaking sunset views and romantic hotels, makes a peaceful alternative to sizzling Cyclades sister island Santorini.

4. Spend wisely

As a tourist, the way you spend your money and the resources you consume will all have an important effect on the destinations that you choose to visit. Planning to dine out? Look for farm-to-fork venues where ingredients are sourced within the immediate area, or search for smaller mom-and-pop restaurants where locals love to chow down. Looking for souvenirs? Make a beeline for the neighbourhood craft market and seek out vintage stores, or buy goodies that were made locally. Want to take a tour? Opt for a bike or walking tour run by an insider who actually lives in the destination and choose activities that have a minimal impact on the environment.

Making an effort to favour independent businesses means that more of your money contributes to the local economy. As Dr Siegel points out: “Even if you’re a seasoned traveller, you may not realise the impact your actions have on local communities, but often the most memorable travel experiences will be when you have a meaningful connection with someone, or learn something new that you’ve never experienced before because you made that effort.”

Editorial submission – 29th February 2024