Why do we travel?

That’s the question I’ve been wrestling with for the last month since I returned from a trip to the Grand Canyon. Surely answers to this question are legion, but I suspect that for most of us the simplest responses may be the truest: Travel is fun. It’s nice to break out of our routines. Hitting the road lets us try on new identities, like when I was too scared to start wearing skinny jeans until I went to Europe. Travel really is great. 

But all that fun has costs too. To the environment, to the economy, to the local cultures that receive visitors. And as more and more of us travel to more of the world, the costs get bigger and bigger. This has become enough of an issue in recent years that it earned a name: overtourism. And while it’s been a growing issue in some parts of the world for a long time, recent years have seen overtourism increasingly bedevil the American West — where we have an absolute embarrassment of natural beauty. To paraphrase a decades old concern, we’re at risk of loving our most important places to death. 

This is a complex issue that demands plenty of different policy solutions. But I’d like to propose that the antidote to overtourism lies at least in part in a mindset shift among us travelers. Put simply, our most popular destinations would surely benefit if we reframed travel as something that changes us more than we change the places we visit. At the risk of sounding cheesy, doin’ it less for the ‘gram and more as a pilgrimage.  

My first exposure to the concept of overtourism actually took place thousands of miles from home, while I was backpacking through Europe years ago and stopped in Venice. Wandering through the narrow lanes and over the arching stairways, I found myself near the spot where, at the time, cruise ship passengers disembarked. There were no passengers there at the moment, though, and the narrow street was quiet except for the echo of a busker’s violin. As I paused to listen, another man approached and handed me a flier. Printed at the top, in bold capital letters the paper shouted “NO CRUISE SHIPS.” 

The flier was a response to what turned out to be an urgent problem. Venice has been a tourist destination for hundreds of years since losing its medieval status as a trading superpower. As other European states rose, Venice was left with elegant but decaying palazzos. Over the years, the city’s crumbling beauty put it on the Grand Tour circuit for young aristocrats, and it eventually attracted writers including Lord Byron, John Ruskin, Henry James, Marcel Proust, Frederick Nietzche and many others.

This history illustrates that there’s nothing wrong with tourism. Some economies depend on it. Venice reinvented itself as a tourist destination and did it very well for a very long time.

“There’s nothing wrong with tourism. Some economies depend on it.”

But something has changed in recent years. Estimates from 2020 put the total number of annual visitors to the city at around 20 million or more, with that number potentially rising to 38 million by 2025. A 2015 report from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute shows that figure is up from about 15 million in 2007. And the city’s own numbers show that in the mid-20th century it was receiving fewer than a million arrivals each year. 

Today, the vast majority of Venice’s visitors are daytrippers, who spend comparatively little money on things such as food and lodging. Tourists do contribute about $3.3 billion to the city’s economy. But even so, the tradeoff is that residents have to contend with, among other things, soaring housing costs as homes are converted to short-term rentals, and with the conversion of essential commerce such as grocery stores to souvenir shops.  

Venice in particular is a poster city for these issues, but they also plague many other European destinations such as Barcelona, Amsterdam and Dubrovnik. I visited the latter city in 2017 and saw far more ephemera from “Game of Thrones” — which was famously shot in Dubrovnik’s historic core — than local residents. It’s tough to live when every store near your house replaces their bread and milk with bobbleheads of Jon Snow. 

The American West is not an ancient European city, but I dwell on these Old World destinations because they offer a case study in what’s happening now closer to (my) home. For example, data from the National Parks Service shows that in 1979, about 1 million people visited Zion National Park. By 2021, the park welcomed more than 5 million people. This staggering spike in demand was happening while “supply” was fixed; you can’t make more Zion National Parks. 

Bryce Canyon National Park has experienced similar growth. In 1979 the park saw about half a million visitors. More than 2 million people showed up in 2021. At Arches National Park, just under 270,000 people visited in 1979. By 2021, that number had grown to 1.8 million. 

As a resident of Utah, I’m proud of these numbers and of the fact that the West’s natural beauty is renowned the world over. It’s no wonder that just last month National Geographic listed Utah as among the world’s best adventure destinations. Travelers also spent $10.06 billion in Utah in 2019, according to a report from the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Institute. That spending generated $1.34 billion in local and state tax revenue and supported about 141,500 jobs.

The market capitalist in me is tempted to stop this column right there and call those numbers a triumph. But in the same way that Venice and other European cities are struggling with larger crowds than they can handle, so too are the West’s popular wilderness destinations. Case in point: Officials in parks such as Zion and Arches routinely post announcements that parks are full or experiencing hourslong lines. “Consider visiting nearby attractions,” these announcements often advise.

Overcrowding in America’s national parks has become such an issue that in 2021 the U.S. Senate held a hearing on the topic. Kristen Brengal, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association, was among those who submitted testimony to the hearing, and she wrote about “exploding visitation” numbers across multiple parks. She went on to argue that if crowds aren’t managed, they could “unintentionally hinder the ability of the (National Parks Service) to uphold its conservation mission to protect and preserve park resources.” Brengal specifically pointed to damage to ecosystems, threats to wildlife, graffiti, litter and traffic as among the downsides to surging visitation numbers. 

“It has become increasingly clear that some parks have reached, and other parks have surpassed, their limits for balancing increased visitation and protecting resources,” she wrote at another point in her testimony.

Threats to the natural landscape also aren’t the only issue. In the same way that housing costs have skyrocketed in places like Venice, Utah’s park-adjacent communities have also seen soaring costs. For instance in Springdale, outside Zion, the median value of a home climbed from just over $250,000 in 2015 to nearly $600,000 today, according to Zillow. There were only eight homes for sale in Springdale as of the beginning of November, and four were listed near or above $1 million. Meanwhile the 2020 median household income in Washington County, where Springdale is located, was just over $61,000

And despite there being only a few homes for sale, Airbnb has more than 100 short-term rentals available in and immediately around Springdale. 

There’s also the question of just what type of jobs travelers support. In the waning days of the Obama administration I covered the creation of Bears Ears National Monument. Proponents of the monument argued that it would be an economic engine supporting a multitude of jobs. But opponents countered that such jobs were likely to be low-paying and seasonal. That debate rages even today as the monument has flip-flopped in size over the course of three presidential administrations. 

“It has become increasingly clear that some parks have reached, and other parks have surpassed, their limits for balancing increased visitation and protecting resources.”

While there’s an economic benefit to welcoming millions of new visitors, there are also costs — many of which are disproportionately born by native ecosystems and destination-adjacent communities. 

To be clear, this doesn’t mean people should avoid our parks. Wallace Stegner — one of the eminent chroniclers of the American West — wrote in his 1960 “Wilderness Letter” that the idea of wild country is “something that has helped form our character and that has certainly shaped our history as a people.” The letter is an ode to the restorative power of places that today have become major tourist attractions, which Stegner wanted people to cherish. 

So what are we to make of this? Travel is good but has collateral costs. How do we benefit from places like national parks and world heritage sites without destroying them?  

One option is systemic and policy change. In Venice, for instance, officials now fine tourists for dragging noisy and destructive roller bags across the historic stairways. Cruise ships are banned from the city center. Daytrippers have to pay a fee. Such measures will surely deter some tourists, but then perhaps that’s kind of the point; Venetians have apparently decided the costs of overtourism outweigh the benefits. 

Destinations in the American West are gradually adopting similar measures. This year Arches piloted a reservation system that gave visitors specific time slots during which they could visit. The pilot ended last month and was apparently well-received; more than 7,000 people left reviews on the reservation site and the vast majority were overwhelmingly positive. 

Zion also launched a permitting system for Angel’s Landing this year. 

Brengal, in her Senate testimony, offered an array of other programs — many of which have been piloted at other parks — such as parking reservations, ranger-guided experiences, shuttle tickets and public transit as methods to corral crowds and protect wilderness areas. 

The U.S. has also flirted with simply raising the price. In 2017 the Interior Department proposed raising the entrance fee at 17 popular national parks from $25 to $70. The goal was to solve budgetary shortfalls, but a huge price hike would also have functioned as a deterrent and kept some visitors away. However, the idea generated intense pushback. Eventually more than 100,000 public comments poured in, with many people arguing that the higher fees would effectively price them out of the national parks and prevent them from participating in a quintessential American experience. Amid the backlash, the Interior Department ultimately backtracked. 

That episode illustrates the challenges of substantially reducing crowds at national pParks. If a destination like, say, Disneyland experiences more demand than it can handle, it can simply raise admission fees or start charging for perks like fast passes. But pricing people out — surely the most effective way to reduce crowd sizes — is a more questionable option when we’re talking about national parks that technically belong to everyone. 

Policies like the reservation systems in Arches and Zion, as well as the other options Brengal floated, are no doubt a major part of the answer when it comes to preserving the integrity of popular destinations. And there are certainly ways to protect local communities as well. Cities have been grappling with short-term rentals for years, of course, but some have recently become more aggressive; San Diego for instance just debuted a lottery system that limits who can rent out properties, and which regulates the types of units that can be listed as short-term rentals. All of these types of rules may make travelers’ experiences slightly less convenient — over time it may become harder to, say, take impromptu trips to Arches — but they represent a growing consensus that we need to find a better balance between the benefits and costs of tourism. 

Still, policy solutions take time and we’re still searching for the right balance. The Arches and Zion permit programs are just pilots, after all. We’re still in the experimental phase here. And for that reason, the onus is also on us travelers to be more conscientious. 

What does that mean exactly? 

Rick Steves — best known as the host of a PBS show but who is also an underrated travel philosopher — writes in his book “Travel as a Political Act” that the point of seeing the world isn’t just to have fun. “Travel,” Steves argues, “should bring us together.”

“We travel to have enlightening experiences, to meet inspirational people, to be stimulated, to learn, and to grow,” he continues. “Travel has taught me the fun in having my cultural furniture rearranged and my ethnocentric self-assuredness walloped. It has humbled me, enriched my life, and tuned me in to a rapidly changing world.” 

“I learned something from knowing intimately the creatures of the earth. I hope I learned something from looking a long way, from looking up, from being much alone.”

Stegner, in his “Wilderness Letter,” makes a similar point, writing of the hope that “I learned something from knowing intimately the creatures of the earth. I hope I learned something from looking a long way, from looking up, from being much alone.”

None of this means travel can’t be fun or relaxing. But it’s a reframed mindset that emphasizes learning and sensitivity. So, a visit to an ancient city, for instance, might involve patronizing mom and pop businesses that keep money in the local economy, rather than big corporations that export wealth. It might mean leaving the roller bag at home because apparently locals are tired of having their stairs cracked and their slumber disturbed. It probably involves skipping some of the big sites altogether and opting for the road less traveled.

The same attitude adjustment works for the American West too. Buy local. Respect the local culture. Slow down. Consider the possibility that the main point of climbing Angel’s Landing isn’t to share it online, but to commune with the divinity found there — and then to walk away leaving no trace. That at least is how I imagine Stegner, who was decidedly anti-consumerist, advising people to engage the wilderness. He didn’t want cars choking the roads. I imagine he’d be appalled by forests of selfie sticks. For him, wild places had “no more to do with recreation than churches have to do with recreation.” Which is to say, we should treat the places we visit as if they are sacred. And when we do, we may find that they give back more than we can take. 

“We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in,” Stegner concluded. “For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”