Let’s talk about overcrowding: Is it time to implement tourist capping?

Lately, there have been discussions on the problem of overcrowding in tourism sites, particularly on mountains. This is an interesting topic to me because while I promote local tourism, I am also an advocate of responsible and sustainable travel or what others refer to as ecotourism.

Perhaps if I were to summarize the issue, it would be this:

How many tourists is enough?

Is putting a daily cap on tourists the primary solution to overcrowding or are there alternative practices that tourists/local tourism units can do?

Accounts of overcrowding in tourist locations

Last month I wrote about our December trip to Sagada and how there was a snaking line of people even in the mountain trail. Last long weekend, Sagada was again visited by multitudes of local tourists. There was an on-going joke about how Sumaguing Cave is as cramped as MRT during rush hour. I had seen a photo of a road in Sagada where even motorcycles could not squeeze in between vehicles.

Waiting with hundreds of tourists for the sunrise in Kiltepan, Sagada. (Photo by Hali)

Overcrowding is not exclusive to Sagada.

Once a place gets popular through social media and travel blogs, travelers rush to the scene like ants to a candy.

The same is happening to other local destinations such as Badian in Cebu (popular for its canyoneering activity), Kalinga in Mountain Province (home of Apo Whang-od, considered the last traditional tattoo artist), Hulugan Falls and other nearby streams in Laguna (where a record-breaking 900 visitors were listed on one weekend) and mountains such as Pico de Loro. I’m sure there are lots of other places I’ve forgotten to list here.

Why is overcrowding such an issue?

Sure, people normally go to out-of-town trips to take a break from the cliched hustle and bustle of the city, and the number of tourists in these locations kind of defeats this purpose. But we have to get past our biases and look at the bigger picture: it is simply not ideal for sustainable tourism.

Why large tourist crowds is a no-no when it comes to ecotourism

First of all, every area has a carrying capacity. If you want to be more technical, we can use World Tourism Organisation’s definition of tourism carrying capacity:

The maximum number of people that may visit a tourist destination at the same time, without causing destruction of the physical, economic, socio-cultural environment and an unacceptable decrease in the quality of visitors’ satisfaction.

Carrying capacity is a technical term and there has to be a comprehensive research on how to determine an area’s carrying capacity. But we don’t have to go this far to know when enough is enough.

If you’re trekking a mountain and couldn’t move forward in a reasonable pace because there’s a long queue of fellow climbers in the trail, you know you have too many people cramped in one place.

What happens in this situation is:

  • The established trail gets worn off in a short span.
  • New trails are made by newbie trekkers to escape the queue in the main route.
  • There are noticeably more leftover trash in camping sites.
  • In worse cases, tourists disrespect nature by putting up vandalism on tree trunks, walls and boulders.

Lastly, there’s too many tents pitched in summit that there’s little room (no pun intended) for enjoying the place.

It is easy to understand why there is a growing concern about overcrowding. It’s unfortunate that a number of tour organizers do not see this. There are climb organizers defending mass climbs as simply an act of sharing the beauty of the Philippines, and some view this public concern as selfishness of a few or an effect of natural disdain for travel and tour operators (as in the case of backpackers who frown upon tubong-lugar tour rates). Others call this an elitist mentality. After all, if you want exclusivity, you should be willing to pay more.

And this brings me to the next point: Quantity versus Quality.

Behavior also counts

Although sheer quantity is often the main indicator of a carrying capacity, it’s fair to say that tourist behavior is also as important.

I’m sure that most of you will agree when I say that there are just so many irresponsible tourists.

Again, let’s go back to the mountain example. There are hikers who always expect locals to clean up after them. So they leave their trash anywhere but in backpacks or garbage cans and etch their names on boulders as a way of “conquering” the mountain. I notice that these aren’t your regular mountaineers but part of the mountaineering fad.

Others, even those who call themselves travelers, simply do not follow guidelines.

A prime example would be those who touch the whale sharks in Oslob and post their Instagram-worthy pictures online, knowing full well that there is an imposed regulation about keeping a safe distance from the whale sharks for the animals’ well-being.

You see a few pieces of trash with a few people, what more when there are hundreds? If you’re a tour organizer who create mass climbs and tours, will you be able to look after each and every one of your guests and ensure that they are following the LNT (leave no trace) principle?

Will putting a daily tourist cap solve this problem?

Putting a tourist cap is one of the most suggested solutions but is also a sensitive and controversial topic. After all, we tend to separate ourselves from the tourist crowd as if we are not tourists ourselves.

Still, it is a sensible idea. If a mountain has a carrying capacity of 500 hikers per day, then the local registration should allow only 500 hikers per day. The alternative would be much worse; we may be inflicting long-lasting damage to our natural resources.

Once upon a time in Mount Pulag. Latest data indicates that the number of hikers going to the summit reaches 900 on weekends. (Photo by Hali)

If there is a way to expand this carrying capacity, then by all means our local tourism units should explore this. Off the top of my mind, I can think of adding facilities to accommodate more people, such as restrooms with consistent running water and trash cans, and hiring more locals for cleaning and preservation activities. Where do the local units get the money? They can raise registration rates are necessary.

Before you raise your hand in protest, hear me out. If you are going to public attractions, you should be willing to share responsibility for that public space as well. This means contributing to the maintenance of a place that you are visiting to enjoy.

The problem I see with capping is that there’s a danger of tour organizers monopolizing these slots.

In Mount Pulag, most slots are reserved by organizers in advance, so it has become difficult to go there without joining a packaged tour. Similarly, just this week, I have seen a tour organizer reserving slots in Masungi Georeserve and selling each slot for a much higher fee. If you’re one of those people who have inquired and know that it’s difficult to reserve slots in the georeserve, this is certainly infuriating.

One may argue that a tourist cap will affect the locals whose livelihoods are based in tourism. Well, of course, this will somehow lessen their net income. But it also means that tourism attractions will be kept preserved and that locals will have sustainable jobs on the years to come.

Again, this is just an open idea. After all, being true to ourselves, restrictions are a hard pill to swallow. I had discussed the benefits of capping with a friend, and she agreed but added, “If there’s capping and slots need to be reserved in advance to ensure you’re welcome, that means it’ll be difficult to do walk-ins.”

Suggestions for promoting sustainable tourism

What follows is simply based on my opinion. I have summarized what I think should be done to preserve our local attraction sites.

Most of these are not new. If anything, what’s lacking is solid implementation of these. Look, for example, at proper garbage disposal. It’s a basic waste management principle taught from elementary school, yet people display blatant disregard for this simply because nobody is slapping them with a penalty card.

  • Defining carrying capacity of a tourism location and implementing a daily cap as necessary. Reservation of slots should be monitored and monopoly of tour organizers should be prevented.
  • If possible, increase this carrying capacity by proper training of local tourism guides and officers, hiring more locals for maintaining cleanliness as seen fit, adding more facilities such as restrooms and and so on.
  • Penalize violations against local community guidelines.
  • Promote alternative tourism attractions. This may distribute the traffic and tourists will not be squeezed in the same tourist spots, at the same time highlight other local communities. (Tip: want to skip the crowd in Pulag? There are other mountains in Mountain Province with a similar grand view at the summit and others that offer a view of sea of clouds.)

I think this will be an on-going issue for a while. I’ll be happy to hear other opinions and different points of view in general.

Update:
I have written this draft in early February and has since then discussed the idea with friends and read about alternative solutions, so as to present an objective article about the issue.

Just this week (February 2016), Mount Pulag National Park has set up a restriction on camping in the summit during weekends to control traffic and to limit the number of hikers per team to 20. Previously, there had already been calls to temporarily ban hikers in Mount Pulag, whose number reaches up to 900 on weekends.

The park management is also encouraging hikers to visit neighboring mountains in Mountain Province as well.

So what do you think about this issue and what do you think is the best approach?

7 Comments

  1. What an interesting discussion. It is hard to balance tourists with the ecosystem they sometimes crowd and destroy but then also it does so much for the local population also. It is a hard thing to remedy.

  2. Most of the big touristic sites in Europe and in South America are admitting only a limited number of tourists every day. I went to Barcelona recently and if you do not book your tickets online for the Gaudi park for example, at the gate you can wait up to 5-6 hours in season. The same when I was in South America, in Peru – in order to do the Inca trail, you have to book in advance. 6 months in advance, as there are a limited number or permits a day only to hike it. And it’s the same for Machu Picchu, there is a limited number of tickets sold for each day. I think this is fair because it protects the monuments. I have been to India also, where there is no cap on tourism at the Taj Mahal. It was horrible, there were so many people that you couldn’t even throw a needle. And studies have shown that because of the tourism, Taj Mahal is deteriorating. They have already stopped all cars of going near the site because the pollution was changing the color of the Taj…

    1. This is the first time I’d heard about that issue in Taj Mahal. That’s horrible. IMO there should always be some sort of regulation in tourism sites. Allowing tourists to just come and go is never a good idea.

  3. I agree with putting a cap on tourists. The more people, the more an ecosystem is affected. Think of the wastes and trash. More than putting a cap, depending on the destination, there really are places where tourists must be required to have an orientation. As a matter of fact, I would go as far as requiring tourists to show they have proper trash bags with them <— for example when hiking.

    The one time I hiked at Mt. Manabu, I could see trashes all over. Some include cans placed on trees deliberately.

    According to the locals, they usually hike up to pick up the trashes and they bring them down, even if hikers were already told to bring down their trashes and leave at designated stations.

    Capping is one, education is more important.

    1. Good point there, Kuya Robert. We’d been to Kalanggaman Island recently, and tourists are given a short orientation and provided trash bags before setting off to the island, to be handed over at the duration of their stay. The tourism office is firm on implementing its environmental policies. I hope this gets extended to mountains as well.

  4. I think the best approach for preventing the destruction of our hiking spots here in the PH, you have already discussed. The tourist capping is a great idea, although personally I feel that a tourist’s behaviour is a more important aspect with this. As tourists, we have to help and give our hand on preserving these sites, lest we want them to be like another “Baguio” or Boracay where they tried to accommodate the tourists and it got to the point that there’s overcrowding and to be honest, baguio looks different from before in not a good way (also the climate feels like it’s changed from the yearly travels that my family did when I was a child as compared to now.) 🙂

    1. I very much agree Nicole. 🙂 Practically speaking though it’s a big challenge to control tourist behavior. IMO discipline is something taught from childhood. Unless strict policies are implemented, such as enforcing penalties.

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