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‘Overtourism’ just made it into the Urban Dictionary. Sweet…

While I don’t have the mental capacity right now to disappear up the magic banyan tree and skip along the many cause and effect branches of ‘overtourism’, I do just want to take a moment to reflect on one aspect which spoke to me directly recently.

Many, many needy people are helped by and are reliant on tourism, and it brings instant gratification to those who need it which can be an amazing thing, but I really believe it must be handled with responsibility and care. And when we are dealing with vulnerable people, that responsibility comes from the giver, not the receiver.
Interestingly, tourism is one of the only industries which can mostly bypass a countries government and directly make an impact from one hand to another. This is where the responsibility comes in from the giver. This is a painfully poignant responsibility when the country or people in question has a loose, or non existent government support structure, unlike our home countries.

Tourism instigates a dangerous dance of seemingly fixing a problem using a tool, but that tool if put off-balance, could well make matters much worse than when the dance began. Put super-fast-track tourism into the mix and the effects are even more extreme.
Can there be too much of a good thing? Are we as tourists, travel writers and travel companies doing enough to support the unprepared local people it is pumping tourists, and so money into? And what about a countries infrastructure? Cue overtourism.

A sweet analogy:

Overtourism to me is sort of like when you’re really hungry and you’re given a huge chocolate cake, which of course you’re pleased to see and satisfies some major cravings, but then because you’re hungry you eat too much, and it verges on making you feel sick- all too close to becoming an overindulgence. Naturally we get greedy. But we all know too much chocolate cake isn’t good for us. Or do we?
What if we lived in a sheltered community that hadn’t met chocolate cake before, and then all of a sudden it was everywhere, we got our first taste and were hooked? We built our lives around chocolate cake, what could go wrong with having so much chocolate cake we thought? We built our houses with it, fed our children with it, and once it was here we didn’t even consider that one day it may not be. We hadn’t met chocolate cake before so we weren’t aware of its temperament, how to handle it, how to store it, or that when and if circumstances changed, it could quickly pack its bags and leave us.

At the end of last year, while in a sticky situation myself, I moved into a homestay guest house with a local family on the south coast of Sri Lanka. Most of the time I was the only person staying there, which I found odd as there were at least 25 rooms-
An old house which contained some very tired, budget guest rooms, the family quarters (where I stayed), and a glaringly modern looking high-rise apartment block the other side of the garden. All empty.
Staying with the family on and off for 6 weeks, I got to know them quite well despite our strained language barriers.
They told me what I had guessed already – business was bad, in fact it was really bad.
A few weeks after staying with them, over dinner one night, Jay, the owner of the house handed me a scruffy looking Lonely Planet book, and pointed to the name of his homestay among the curry stained pages.
Once a much smaller, manageable business with just the one old house, as if by inexplainable magic one day, more and more people began coming to stay at his humble home stay. The old rooms creaked with surfers, the garden filled up with their surfboards (and so a successful board rental service), and the improvised restaurant filled with the buzz of guests enjoying a post-surf curry and Lion beer. One surfer approached Jay and showed him his current Lonely Planet book – Jay couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw his humble little homestay is in its crisp white pages. This was the mysterious magic of getting a mention in a Lonely Planet book in the early-mid 2000’s.

Ecstatic with the unfaltering steady flow of guests (and so cash), Jay and his family decide to take out an immediate loan to expand and build another block, so that they could take on more guests.

But then something that Jay and his family never expected to happen, happened. Something that Jay and his family, with their experience and knowledge, naturally could not foresee. The guests stopped coming.

A few years later Jay came across a traveller with a recent Lonely Planet book under his arm, asked to look in it and sure enough, his homestay was no longer in its pages. On speaking to him myself all these years later, he still didn’t understand. I explained to him that this is a publication which gets updated. It isn’t like a book, the words between the pages change.

Now if we wanted to point a finger of blame in this case (let’s go for it), who would we direct it at? Jay for not having the sense to grow his business slowly, for not being more sensible with money? Perhaps we could even go a step further and call him too greedy or presumptuous?

But really, let’s think about this a bit more without our own Western conditioning and knowledge- giving someone a lot of money who has never had money before is a bit like letting a 10 year old cruise around in a Subaru and not telling him which one is the brake.
And what frustrates me immeasurably about this, is the lack of responsibility from travel companies and big bloggers, who don’t take into consideration the effects they may have on vulnerable families. And, I can’t help but think that because these people ARE vulnerable, there’s less of a consideration on impact. Don’t get me wrong, boosting someones business and so lives through tourism is an incredible, important thing, but surely there needs to be an element of responsibility on the people it is being sprung on, and eventually often taken away from. Especially if you KNOW, because you are a corporation and you have access to measuring statistics, you are going to be directing however many thousand/million people to an area. Don’t give someone a loaded gun and expect them to know how to use it safely. This is a moral responsibility, and to be a true traveller, you need to do it with a conscious.

I felt a little sick when while staying at Jay’s homestay in December last year, Lonely Planet announced that Sri Lanka was it’s ‘Tourist destination of 2019″. Where’s the responsibility for sending millions more tourists into an area that is already massively struggling with infrastructure including waste management, sewerage, recycling, over crowding of ‘animal tourism’ activities (don’t even get me started). It speaks to me of big damage and denial from the source, and of taking advantage. I’ve stayed angry about this, and so I’ve written about it. Sri Lanka is not ready.

Unfortunately I couldn’t do too much to help Jay and his family. I couldn’t afford to give them the monthly loan repayment they begged me to give them, I couldn’t get them re-listed in a famous travel guide, and I wasn’t an influencer on Instagram. All I could do was pay a bit extra for my tired little single room with ripped mosquito net, eat and enjoy his wife’s cooking, play with his grandson, write them out a new blackboard to put at the front of the property to try and bring custom in, thank them for their kindness,……and empathise.

This is an opinion piece, I don’t claim to know the ins and outs of responsible tourism practices within the media.
I would love to be enlightened of them, if anyone can shed light.






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