Sustainable Travel: How Overtourism Affects Our Environment

The Grand Canyon, the Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone National Park. Just a quick mention of these beautiful national parks might prompt some daydreams of stunning sceneries, breathtaking views and surreal landscapes. After all, there is no color palette that compares to what can already be found in nature.

You could be one of the millions that has had the privilege to visit and experience these national parks firsthand. The Great Smoky Mountains, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park respectively received over 11 million, 6 million and 4 million visitors in 2018 alone.

When we think of building out a travel itinerary, weaving in an off-road trip to a national park seems like a sustainable, eco-friendly option, right? They say spending more time in nature is key to adopting positive environmental values. It isn’t until we are face-to-face with gorgeous views that extend far beyond what meets the eye that we truly learn to respect nature or begin to feel a real need to protect it. 

However, a huge paradox lies behind the reality of travel and tourism in regards to our national parks. In the interest of preserving these beautiful landscapes for years to come, we may want to reconsider our nature-oriented vacation plans and adopt a more mindful approach. Sustainability is a long-term game, and considering the impact of overtourism is vital if we wish to maintain these national parks for future generations.

Overtourism essentially examines how excessive tourism to a given location impacts the surrounding environment and socio-economic landscape. As you may assume, it has been linked to some detrimental effects that are entirely worth contemplating.

The World Travel & Tourism Council partnered with McKinsey & Company to publish a study in 2017 that found five main challenges associated with overtourism to popular travel destinations:               

1. Alienated local residents

2. Degraded tourist experience

3. Overloaded infrastructure

4. Damage to nature

5. Threats to culture and heritage

Given the volume of visitors these destinations receive on a daily basis, it isn’t hard to imagine how their natural ecosystems and the surrounding communities end up exposed to disturbance and damage. Aside from a mass surge of litter and waste products,  there is also the increase in air pollution and consumption of water and other natural resources to consider. Furthermore, the local communities are often subject to a rise in dues for rent, displacement of local retail and changes to their neighborhood’s character, as cited in the 2017 study. Overtourism often benefits visitors at the expense of those who call these popular destinations home. 

That trip to the Grand Canyon might not feel so sustainable after all has been said and done.

National parks are ironically given the coveted title primarily out of the desire to preserve and protect their landscapes, wildlife and precious natural resources. Aside from their beauty, they are also a mark of our nation’s history, education, recreation and inspiration. Given the criteria, it’s not so shocking to hear only 61 sites are recognized as United States National Parks, as mandated by the National Park System. While there’s good intention behind establishing our national parks, not much is being done to significantly control the impact of overtourism and the risk we’re posing on these beautiful landscapes. 

To combat overtourism and adopt a more eco-friendly travel approach, Reservations.com is raising awareness to 20 of the Least Visited National Parks in the U.S. The roundup includes hidden gems all over the country and some fun facts on each, in addition to the visitor count they individually saw in 2018. Scroll through and you’ll also enjoy a vintage style poster depicting the unique characteristics of each park. With 20 to choose from, there’s a national park to match any destination and special interests you have. You might just discover your next trip to add to the bucket list!

Leading a 100% sustainable lifestyle is quite nearly impossible, but what matters the most is the sum of our combined efforts. Our best tip to combat overtourism and the detrimental effects it poses on our environment is to lead by example. When you mindfully choose to visit one of these national parks that could use some more tourism, you not only give back to the local economy but you also make an impact on the planet. Being eco-friendly doesn’t always have to entail huge efforts on our part – it can be as simple as embracing a more mindful approach to travel and tourism.

20. Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, Colorado – Visits in 2018: 442,905
19. Big Bend National Park, Texas – Visits in 2018: 440,091
18. Channel Islands National Park, California – Visits in 2018: 366,250
17. Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska – Visits in 2018: 321,596
16. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado – Visits in 2018: 308,962
15. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota – Visits in 2018: 239,656
14. Pinnacles National Park, California – Visits in 2018: 222,152
13. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas – Visits in 2018: 172,347
12. Great Basin National Park, Nevada – Visits in 2018: 153,094
11. Congaree National Park, South Carolina – Visits in 2018: 145,929
10. Virgin Islands National Park, Virgin Islands – Visits in 2018: 112,287
9. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska – Visits in 2018: 79,450
8. Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida – Visits in 2018: 56,810
7. Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska – Visits in 2018: 37,818
6. North Cascades National Park, Washington – Visits in 2018: 30,085
5. National Park of American Samoa, American Samoa – Visits in 2018: 28,626
4. Isle Royal National Park, Michigan – Visits in 2018: 25,798
3. Kobuk Valley National Park, Alaska – Visits in 2018: 14,937
2. Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, Alaska – Visits in 2018: 14,479
1. Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, Alaska – Visits in 2018: 9,591
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Author: Nicole Villegas