It was April 2002 and I had just finished an epic season working at Waterville Valley NH as a lift attendant. Epic, because this was where I discovered snowboarding, and which I have been obsessed with ever since. Bar 2 consecutive days over the entire season because of what I still think was a broken rib, I was on that mountain 7 days a week.
However, all good things must sadly come to an end and you’ll need to move on. So I moved on from that particular season, but although I didn’t know it at the time, it wasn’t going to be my last. I’m now starting to loose count of how many ski resorts I’ve worked and ridden my snowboards on.
Disclosure: I am not trying to win any awards for the poor quality scans of the 20 year old photos below.
So from Boston and armed with a 30 day Amtrak ticket, I headed down the east coast in the general direction of Miami to see what I could see. I ended up getting ‘stuck’ in Ft Lauderdale and never made it to Miami. Close, but no cigar, because 30 days is not nearly enough time to see the east coast, never mind the rest of the country. Anyway, I wanted to continue to actually experience the USA first hand, and not to base what I thought of the country on what I had seen on TV and in the movies. For the record, a return trip is long overdue. I need to go back, to try to satisfy my insatiable curiosity.
A bit out of the way I know, but Niagara Falls was on my list, so I first went west – “Go west, young man”. When I got there it was practically deserted, as I’m guessing it’s a very seasonal place, the USA side anyway. So getting my pic taken on the bridge straddling the border line and with the falls in the background and no one else in the shot was easy. After the photo shoot, this still wet behind the ears green traveller thought his USA visa would get him officially into Canada. It didn’t. What with the internet these days, there is little to no excuse to not be informed about visa requirements, thereby saving yourself the embarrassment I suffered. The USA almost didn’t let me back in and I would have been stuck in limbo. This is just one of the many ways you can be a responsible tourist and not clog up border posts.
How to contribute to sustainable responsible tourism
New York City, Times Square, any time of day, all year round, forget it. You will not be alone. However, when I went out to The Statue of Liberty I managed to strike a cheesy pose, with no one else in the frame.
On to DC, and The White House. Again, a fairly busy destination all year round, and yet for some reason I just had to have a wide angle photo taken of me posing against the fence on Pennsylvania Avenue, with no one else in it. My chunky 35mm SLR balanced on one of the stone bollards, complete with the technological marvel they called a self-timer, I proceeded to wait for the perfect moment. I couldn’t exactly ask people to move away, so I kept on waiting, and waiting.
But I was in no hurry to go anywhere else, as I think you should be when truly travelling. You need to absorb the local environment, in order to make it memorable, so you in fact have something interesting to write a blog post about nearly 20 years later. I think I absorbed The White House in its entirety.
There was no Instagram back then, no Facebook. I had exactly one online account, my Yahoo! email. (I still have it) I checked it once a week, if I felt inclined to look for an internet café. I had not yet heard of WiFi. Had it even been invented at that time? For some strange reason I seem to remember more about the trips I took before the proliferation of social media, smart phones, and digital photography.
Anyway, a few hours later I became aware that The Secret Service was watching me with their binoculars from the roof, yet no one ever approached me, or maybe they were in fact just watching all the harmless tourists. Was I being a paranoid conspiracy theorist? Probably. Well I eventually I got ‘the money shot’ and drifted off a still free man, but that particular photo has since been lost. Shit. No digital photo cloud storage back then either.
I think about 200 photos of my entire 10 month USA trip have survived, I didn’t take much more than that. Sabine and I went to Canada for 3 months not too long ago. (I had the correct visa this time) All 6000+ photos still exist.
Are you a responsible digital tourist?
Fast forward a few years, and more people are travelling than ever before. The Lincoln Memorial, The Eiffel Tower, Manneken-Pis, The Louvre. Unless you know how to use Photoshop, try getting a genuine solo shot at any of those places. It was in May of 2019 that The Louvre had to briefly close because employees walked out due to the overwhelming crowds.
As of writing this, Thailand’s Maya Bay has been closed indefinitely. Boats were dropping anchor on the coral reefs, rubbish everywhere. The Thai government decided to sacrifice the almighty tourist dollars for the sake of the long term sustainability of the area. All this, because thousands upon thousands of people a day just had to have their photo taken on the beach where Leo was filmed in the world famous movie ‘The Beach’. See also this article.
Yes, there are some simply amazing destinations on the Earth, but unless you intend to truly appreciate these places, I think it might be best you don’t go just for the sake of going. I was genuinely interested to see what I think is one of the most significant buildings in the world, and to appreciate the view from the top of The Empire State Building. How such a city was built on that smallish island continues to amaze me. I was up there several hours, but only took about 10 photos. I think I also absorbed New Your City, along with The White House. I must point out that if it was obvious that someone else wanted to take a picture without me in it, I would move away and not hog the limited space up there.
So many places around the world are now inundated with way, way more tourists than they can handle. Yet I do not at all want to discourage anyone from travelling. Quite the contrary.
How you can be a better contributor to responsible tourism
Ask yourself one simple question: Why do I want to go there?
The Berlin Wall. I have yet to visit what’s left of it, but I hear you’ll be hard pressed to find space to appreciate the symbolism of what once was and now is, taking into account the hoards of tourists spending lengthy periods of time posing for that perfect Instagram shot to immediately share, but with who exactly? Who cares that you are currently at The Berlin Wall? Instead, you should be sharing why you are there. Chernobyl can now be used as an example of how nature can recover from humans. The potential problem is the rising number of humans who want to go and see that example.
Next time you want to take a trip, maybe read up a bit about the place first, while asking yourself the question above. This is where the great Google really shines. Simply going to a place because so many of your Fakebook ‘friends’ have been there, just to take the same selfie they did doesn’t exactly strike me as the most memorable experience. All you end up doing is contributing to the driving force behind unsustainable tourism. Don’t be a ‘drive by’ tourist, or you’ll just end up annoying the locals, among other things. Yes, I have been that local who relied on mass tourism for an income, but at some point it’s just not worth it anymore. We need to find that balance, which isn’t easy, I know.
Sustainable responsible tourism
Take Cape Town. Yes, it has a very nice mountain, I lived right underneath it. And it isn’t a bad idea to want to go there to appreciate the view from the top. But did you know that if the Suez canal had been built before AD 1652, Cape Town, and South Africa as we know it today would not be there? In a seriously small nutshell, The Dutch East India company needed a place to grow fresh veggies and re-supply their ships. That original veggie garden area still exists to this day, right smack bang in the city centre.
Another question you can ask yourself is what it is you expect to see and do, what would you like to experience, other than just whizzing through a place just for the sake of it. If you don’t visit museums and galleries back home, why would you go to The Louvre to pose in front of The Mona Lisa, only to clog up the place and to consequently deny those who really appreciate art the opportunity to do so, and causing the staff to go on strike and walk out. If you don’t care about natures resilience and how safe nuclear energy may or may not be, don’t go to Chernobyl.
When in Rome…
…Paris, Bruges or Amsterdam, try venturing off the tourist track for what I have found can be a much more authentic, and economical experience. We walked through St Marks Square in Venice, took a few photos, then moved on. We wanted coffee, but were not prepared to pay the €8+ per cup on the square. About 5 minutes later we found a quaint little café down a quiet side street. We paid €1.50 each, and I’m willing to bet the coffee was/is the same Italian brand, Lavazza.
We might want to tone it down a bit, but if we are going to insist and as our numbers continue to grow at the rate they are while the emerging middle classes from around the world can afford to travel more and more, I think it prudent to be aware of why we are where we might find ourselves. By all means travel, then travel some more, while taking lots of photos like we do, but please be mindful you’re not the only person on this planet who also wants to appreciate a place. Be genuinely curious. Don’t annoy the locals. Don’t fall prey to the selfie and bucket list culture. Treat every destination as if it was your own home town.
While those of us who live in the free world are able to leave our home countries and to travel almost anywhere we want, if we could consider it a privilege instead of a self-entitled right to get that perfect Instagram shot, I really believe the world will become an even better place.