It’s a sunny afternoon in Amsterdam. Armed with a map and coffee you set off to explore the city. Your friends mentioned that a good first stop could be the Rijksmuseum in the Dutch capital. You see, the museum is famous for its art collection. As a matter of fact, paintings are the Rijksmuseum’s calling card so to say. The 17th-century Dutch works, in particular, the masterpieces by Rembrandt, Frans Hals, and Johannes Vermeer, enjoy national and international recognition. The museum houses close to 6000 paintings on panel and on canvas. In an interior which has undergone beautiful renovations in recent years, these pieces share space alongside more modern installations such as the Shylight by Studio Drift. You make your way there….only to wait an hour or 2 outside the entrance. Not because the museum is launching a new series. No, you are standing in the midst of about 6000 tourists who take selfies in front of or next to the iconic “I AMSTERDAM” letters each day. The big red and white fabricated letters that have become more famous than all the tourist’s spots on your map. SIGH…..
Halfway around the globe in Thailand, a couple on their honeymoon set about deciding where to go on this afternoon. Tom is an avid surfer, and he wants to share all the places that have inspired his love for sun, surf, and water with Sarah. They take his scooter down to Maya Bay. Expecting some tourist, as it is a stunning spot which was made more infamous by “The Beach” being shot there, they stop and for a second time we hear….SIGH! Close to a thousand people on boats, waterski’s and vendors selling everything you can imagine are crowded together on the once pristine beach. Empty plastic bottles of water and trash lie strewn all over the white sand. People are jostling for spots to snorkel and swim. paradise? …no.
The scenes I have just described happened in 2018, not so long ago. In a culture where catchphrases are created each and every day, the one that stands out at present is Overtourism. The inability to manage resources and locations in response to tourist needs could be a simplified way of looking at it. But we all know it is way more complex than this explanation. It’s that day when the balance is no more, and sustainability is the last thing on everyone’s mind.
To understand over-tourism, you need to look no further than the locals -yes those guys making a living and working in the places mentioned above. You see the Rijksmuseum did not show a massive improvement in the number of visitors to the museum as a result of the letters placed in front of it, in fact, the numbers stayed pretty much the same and the locals just got more annoyed and agitated in trying to go about their daily business. One might argue that there was some financial improvement for the vendors on the beach at Maya Bay, but if you are selling tie-dye t-shirts and 15 other guys are doing it as well, then are you really winning? Keeping in mind the beach is about 250 meters long and 15 meters wide…
It has become so much easier for tourists these days to hop on a plane and travel the globe, with new routes that are introduced to destinations we only imagined a few years ago. And to find a place to rest your weary bones have also become easier with the introduction of Airbnb and so many other accommodation options such as home swops etc. Now we are not saying that this is necessarily bad, but it has contributed to people moving across the globe in larger number with more ease, and added to that the fact that the global population has increased 3 fold since the 1950’s-all this adds to more people in a space that has not become bigger, just more easily accessible. If we take into consideration that the amount of flights undertaken has increased to about 1.3 billion in 2017, this is a staggering amount of people moving around. This also means that more people are able to afford to travel as economies shift and the saying that the world is becoming smaller with technology is certainly true. With social media access in the palm of your hand, with a blink of an eye and a click-click, destinations that were once secluded and exclusive are now the norm.
So the question is…how do we make travel sustainable for everyone, without ending up with postcards being the only reference of what these destinations looked like? How do we become smart tourists?
For starters, we set about changing our mindset about destinations and how we travel, our intentions. Come with me to Africa for a few minutes. It is that one continent that most people skip over when they get to decide on the ultimate adventure trip or holiday – but it should be on the top of the smart travelers’ list.
Africa is so much more than great beaches, mountains, the BIG 5 and safaris. Let’s be honest we do offer the best of all the aforementioned, but it is also about becoming part of a culture, the unique way of living that these destinations offer. To say that it touches your soul is an understatement, it takes you right back to why you love to travel in a few moments. There is something very interesting and cathartic that happens to you when you arrive in Kenya for instance during the Great Migration season. You step out of the Land Rover late afternoon as the sun sets and you view the migration of thousands of wildebeest and zebra…about 2 million of them… as they move across the Serengeti plains. Take a moment here…YOU WATCH THEM…not yourself as you try find your best side for the next selfie. Here a human is the odd number out. This is a sight you would not find standing close to the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, surrounded by a few hundred folks. You also do not have 24/7 cellphone reception in the most remote parts of Africa, so you must rely on your sight, your senses when traveling. Trust me by day 3 you will gladly take part in a self-inflicted technology detox.
You might get to spend a day in the company of a local tribe, taking note of their relationship with nature, how resourceful and fortunate one is to live here, and how to appreciate the fact that this space is still not tainted or shall we say disrupted by the masses. The one thing I think we get right in Africa is that we have the advantage to observe and learn from what is happening in other countries and how to work at getting the balance right-every single day. Take the migration as an example. It is a case of planning and booking in advance, sometimes a year or so. It is a lesson in managing the number of people who are able to view this amazing sight and setting up our own systems in how we manage this. It is about how many lodges we build to accommodate tourists and still making sure that the biggest asset we have, the local people who live close to and work at these lodges, are well looked after from a socio-economic point of view. To make sure we find the correct balance between conservation and growth. We have the opportunity to get it right, to learn from others and to not allow the space in Africa to become over-exposed.
We also have a very big responsibility to make sure we share the amazing destinations on offer with everyone so that we can grow the local tourist markets in each country. And as Africans, we have a massive responsibility to ensure we offer a world -class service to the adventure seeking tourists, to make sure they return as more informed, responsible tourist, aware of sustainability each and every trip. Tourism agencies such as Safari Odyssey is committed to assisting you with travel arrangements, advice on the right destination to suit your budget, to share their unparalleled knowledge of countries such as Zambia and Mauritius and to ensure you get to experience the best Africa has to offer.
To travel in Africa and around the continent is to become part of the places you visit…. where you go, who you talk to, how you spend your days, what you do…it all makes a difference. Get out of the tourist frame of mind and challenge yourself to become a local. Become a volunteer for a month at a rhino conservation project and really become a smart traveler and not just a number.
Which brings me to this last thought….. 6000 paintings on panel or canvas in the Rijksmuseum = 6000 tourists per day in front of fabricated letters…. where would you rather be? Come travel with us to Africa!
Credits:wildlife_by _essa, ewn.co.za and dezeen.com.