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.
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.
Aside from quantity, tourist behavior is also important
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.
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. (Update: 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.)
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 he 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 fine.
- 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.)
Here’s a further reading on what YOU can do to help deal with mass tourism.
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.
So what do you think about this issue and what do you think is the best approach?