Can we protect the planet when it’s back to travel as usual?

Apr 22, 2020

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Earth Day 2020 finds the planet under unique circumstances. For 50 years, we’ve celebrated April 22 by putting a spotlight on the environment, our treatment of the planet and what each of us can do to leave the world — and its marquee destinations — better off than how we found them. That’s a goal that’s especially important to everyone here at The Points Guy.

We probably don’t have to tell you that it’s been an uphill struggle — especially in the past dozen years when climate change deniers refuse to review scientific data and make changes that could improve everything from the quality of the air we breathe to the cleanliness of our waterways to the energy sources we use to fuel our travel pursuits.

Then along came the novel coronavirus, and life as we had previously known it was put on hold. We now find ourselves precariously balancing on the sharp edge of a knife. Shelter-in-place orders and travel bans that are keeping nearly everyone home are mitigating overtourism issues, but this same lack of mobility — and an almost hard stop on travel — is creating real economic hardships for the locals who depend on tourist dollars to live.

So, today, in honor of Earth Day, let’s look at how this temporary pause in travel is affecting some of the most popular destinations on Earth — and how, when it’s safe to travel again, we can find a way to re-enter the world with a slightly lighter touch than before. The goal is to continue to explore this amazing planet while simultaneously building close relationships with locals, and lifting local economies without causing unintended negative impacts.

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In This Post

The places we all still want to visit

Ask your friends about the places they dream of visiting and you’ll likely hear the same candidates mentioned again and again: the incredible canals of Venice, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the temple complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and, of course, iconic cities like Paris, Rome and Barcelona.

The problem with visiting somewhere everyone else wants to go is that the destination can feel overrun. The experience can suffer from crowds, litter, pollution and other overtourism issues.

We’ve also seen tourists damage important historical and natural sites. Sometimes this damage is due to a lack of knowledge, like wearing oxybenzone-based sunscreen in a body of water where it’s banned due to its link to coral bleaching. (Always try to wear eco-friendly sunscreen.) Other times, tourists just display bad behavior, like trying to chip away a piece of a pyramid in Egypt so they can bring home a tactile souvenir.

But these days, some of these must-visit spots look shockingly different just a month or two into stay-at-home orders. The question is, once travel resumes, how can we keep this positive ecological momentum going without depressing local economies?

TPG spoke with travel expert Pauline Frommer, co-president of FrommerMedia and editorial director of Frommer’s Guidebooks, about the future of the world’s favorite places and how the face of “overtourism” will change post-coronavirus.

“We have to be even more careful about using small local businesses rather than multinational chains, particularly all-inclusives,” she said. “They can be so destructive to local communities because it’s usually a multinational owner and it means that all of the local restaurants die. It means that all the local tour operators don’t get business.”

“If we really want to travel in a better way, we’re going to have to support the organizations that support the local communities,” she said. “Some estimates say that 1 out of every 11 humans on planet earth works in travel in some way. So in terms of supporting the global economy, traveling is not a silly, selfish thing to do. It actually keeps people working. But, of course, the flip side of that is climate change and we’ve all been wrestling with the difficulties of that.”

Over the past few weeks of social distancing and starkly reduced travel, the planet and its historical sites have started to heal. Here are some examples:

Venice’s canals are cleaner than they have been in years

Shots from the European Space Agency of Venice, Italy 1 year apart. (Photo courtesy of esa.int)
Shots of Venice — just one year apart — taken by the European Space Agency. (Photo courtesy of esa.int)

You may have read recent accounts from Venice that said dolphins had returned to the city’s canals. That story was a hoax, but the Grand Canal and other nearby waterways are indeed visibly more clear because the number of small ships and water taxi vaporettos plying the canals has decreased drastically. It would be nice to think the improvement in the water quality around Venice will be long term, but we know that pollutants will return as soon as boat traffic — from both commuters and tourists — resumes.

Venetians have been asking for tighter regulations for cruise ships that visit the city’s port. Will now be the moment when stricter rules — perhaps banning very large ships — are passed? Or will the need for an economic lifeline take precedence? Is there a way to thread the needle and achieve a bit of both? That remains to be seen. (And, of course, the cruise industry has its own problems right now with a CDC “no sail” order from U.S. homeports well into July.)

Italy’s Cinque Terre sans the crushing crowds

Cinque Terre, Italy
You may be able to explore Cinque Terre without the crushing crowds in the future. (Photo by Merrill Images/Getty Images)

Even before the coronavirus outbreak, it was becoming quite challenging to visit Cinque Terre, a group of historic seaside villages built along the Italian Riviera in Liguria because the crowds were becoming too dense to make a visit enjoyable. Issues included excessive garbage and the need for local authorities to keep rescuing unprepared tourists from advanced cliffside hiking trails. Post-coronavirus, there will be a window of opportunity to see these villages more like they were years ago, before the masses discovered them.

According to Kathy McCabe, host of “Dream of Italy” on PBS, the next few years should be the ideal time to visit places like Venice and Cinque Terre.

“With fewer tourists,” McCabe explains, “they are going to return to their more natural state, more equilibrium. There will be more breathing room to stand a while to look at a painting, to have a hiking path to yourself, to notice a detail on a building that isn’t blocked by crowds. While overtourism was certainly an issue, it also was fundamental to the livelihoods of local Italians. It was always a difficult balance and seems like it will be swinging the other way.”

While no one knows when we’ll be able to return to Italy, McCabe is seeing a lot of interest in travelers who want to return to Italy, the Bel Paese.

“Every day I get emails from viewers, readers and listeners expressing their profound connection to Italy and telling me they can’t wait until the moment they can go back,” said McCabe. “I’ve been amazed that our membership website — with access to 170 back issues of ‘Dream of Italy’ — has had so many new members. Italophiles are using this time to plan for the future; doing some armchair travel to pick out the real-life experiences they want to have in the future.”

“They also know that in the face of the helplessness,” McCabe said, “planning for travel is a way to stem the drastic impact the pandemic has had on individual Italians — from waiters to guides to shopkeepers. It is all about connecting with the locals, so this is very personal for those who have been to Italy or travel there regularly. They can put faces to the statistics.”

Czech Republic citizens will enjoy their country tourism-free for a year

Prague, Czech Republic
Prague without the people. (Photo by emperorcosar/Shutterstock)

In the Czech Republic, President Milos Zeman plans to keep new COVID-19 border restrictions in place for a year in an effort to stop a second wave of infections that could result if citizens travel elsewhere, get exposed to the coronavirus and bring it back home. The administration is trying to spin the restrictions as a good thing for the Czech people and is encouraging them to enjoy their country without the usual throngs of summertime crowds.

Boracay’s healing continues

Boracay beach in the Philippines. (Photo by Geric Cruz/Bloomberg/Getty Images)
Boracay beach in the Philippines. (Photo by Geric Cruz/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

It didn’t take a pandemic to jumpstart the ecological renewal of Boracay. In 2018, the government of the Philippines temporarily closed the island. It suffered from too many visitors and an insufficient infrastructure that contributed to the pollution of its beaches, water and other natural resources. The closure allowed the government to rehabilitate the island and work on improving its sewage system. When the island was ready, there was a “soft opening” for Filipinos before foreigners could return. Now, Boracay is getting another temporary break and may be better than ever when visitors are finally able to return.

Thailand’s coral reefs may have time to regenerate

Maya Bay and Loh Samah Thailand Phi Phi Islands
Maya Bay and Loh Samah. (Photo by Pete Reynolds/Getty Images)

In Thailand, the government similarly indefinitely closed Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh island in 2018 to give the beach and coral reefs offshore time to regenerate after enduring extensive damage by tourists. The area had become a hot spot after being featured in Leonardo DiCaprio’s movie “The Beach.”

Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Conservation (DNP) said more than 2.5 million people visited the beach the year it closed to the public. The DNP plans to reopen the beach in mid-2021, but other problems persist on the Phi Phi Islands, including a water shortage caused by the influx of tourists. With reduced tourism because of COVID-19, the islands will have more time to brainstorm solutions for the water shortage issue, although that may push back its reopening even further.

Cities like London are making touch-ups while crowds are sparse

I’s not just islands and other ecosystems that are taking advantage of the lack of crowds to make some improvements. Several weeks ago, Insider reported that crews in London had an opportunity to repaint the famous Abbey Road crossing since throngs of tourists weren’t lining up to have their photos taken in this iconic spot.

Abby Road - London, England, UK
Re-painting the iconic Abbey Road crossing on March 24, 2020, in London, England. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Eerie quiet at Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat Cambodiaa
Angkor Wat without the crowds. (Photo by TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/Getty Images)

There are certain places that just about everyone wants to visit. From Cambodia’s 12th-century Angkor Wat temple complex to Peru’s Incan citadel of Machu Picchu to Croatia’s Old Town in Dubrovnik, some destinations simply capture our imaginations.

Although the economic impact of the disappearance of tourists is a grave concern in many places, the downtick in visitors at places that have suffered from overcrowding also means fewer maintenance and cleanup costs in the short term.

When the threat of COVID-19 abates, the spigot of visitors likely will turn back on slowly — starting with a trickle of intrepid travelers and continuing to grow from there.

Destinations like Siem Reap will need to think strategically about when and how to welcome back visitors, and perhaps manage tourism levels. That may mean higher entrance fees at marquee sights — but the added cost could be worth it, both for visitors who will have more room to breathe and for the locals who can enjoy the extraordinary places they call home.

Cleaner air in Milan — and everywhere

It’s good to hear anecdotal accounts of improved air pollution in cities such as Paris, Los Angeles and Beijing — and we can actually see the improvements with the help of science. The European Space Agency reported recently that the coronavirus lockdown is leading to a noticeable drop in pollution across Europe. Agencies like the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute are using data collected by the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite to record changes in pollution across the continent.

Click the play button in the video above to see the reduction of nitrogen dioxide concentrations over Italy before and during the COVID-19 shutdown.

In India, the Himalayans — usually masked by smog — are now visible from more places, including Punjab, which is hundreds of miles away.

The reduction in automobile, bus, train and airplane traffic will likely keep pollution levels lower than normal for the foreseeable future. That’s a plus in an otherwise tragic situation — even if it’s just temporary.

Bottom line

We could say that the coronavirus outbreak is marking the planet in ways we never expected — and in some cases, erasing previous damage humans have inflicted. Could this be the moment we lasso the situation and figure out better ways to manage overtourism? Will we develop improved modes of transportation to continue to see the globe while leaving a lighter trace? Will more places adopt responsible travel pledges, and will more tourists sign and abide by them, promising to be good stewards of the region?

It’s possible.

Right now, as we are all sequestered at home, let’s think about the ways we can advocate for the most special and fragile places and how — when we can rejoin the world — we can visit them in a way that protects and lifts them up.

“I’m always telling people, ‘Don’t be afraid to do the touristy things — that’s OK, but also think about how to see the usual places in new ways,'” Dream of Italy’s Kathy McCabe said.

“The hope after the pandemic,” said McCabe, “is that we will live and travel with more awareness and presence. You can leave … destinations better than you found them by really connecting with the locals, taking interest in their history and what they’ve recently been through, patronizing smaller shops and restaurants, and being kind and inquisitive. And smiling.”

Featured image courtesy of Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty Images

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