crowds heading up a staircase in a park in Barcelona

Is there such a thing as sustainable tourism?

A while ago I spent a long weekend in Barcelona. It had been more than a decade since I last visited the Catalan capital (I studied here for six months in a distant past). What struck me was how incredibly busy the city had become. With tourists. Like me. I had previously read about the rapid gentrification that mass tourism is causing in places like Barcelona. But experiencing it first hand made me contemplate about the question: is there such a thing as sustainable tourism? 

“What struck me was how incredibly busy the city had become. With tourists. Like me.”

It may come as no surprise, but I’m passionate about travel. I love exploring new places, immersing myself in local cultures, learning from and about different people… Travel is incredibly enriching and I would love for anyone to experience it. However, as the world is becoming smaller and more people can afford to travel, we’re starting to see a different side of tourism. Tourism has the power to transform communities. For the better, but also for the worse. 

As I walked through central Barcelona, I somehow understood the frustrations of some locals with tourists. Polluting touring busses were congesting streets, queues of visitors were blocking pavements near tourist attractions, souvenir shops seemed to be everywhere, drunken and noisy partygoers were causing nuisance at night…

a group of Asian tourists crossing a street in Barcelona

On two occasions in particular I felt conflicted about the changes that mass tourism has brought about in the city. The first was when I visited Parc Güell. This magnificent 19th century city park designed by Antoni Gaudí was once a quaint and relatively quiet corner of Barcelona. I remember spending Sundays here when I studied in Barcelona 14 years ago. I would find a bench and read a book or sunbathe whilst admiring the views. These days, that would be the last thing you’d come to Parc Gūell for. 

In order to manage the influx of visitors, authorities have had to take far-reaching measures. You can now only access the park when you purchase a ticket well in advance and only within your allotted time slot. Still then, there’s no escaping the crowds. Fortunately, local residents can enter for free and certain areas are sealed off for tourists. It’s been hailed by some as a sustainable solution, but I wonder if it’s too little too late. After all, where’s the fun in coming here as a local when the place has been taken over by tourists? And even as a tourist, Parc Güell – stunning as it is – feels a bit too much like an open-air museum today.

Asian tourists posing for a picture in a park

Likewise, a trip to Barcelona’s Boquería market had me wondering if this place will still exist as it is in 10 or 20 years. La Boquería is one of Spain’s most famous (street) food markets and understandably is on the itinerary of many a visitor. Including mine. After beating the crowds, I found a spot at a stall for a drink and a tapa. For a slightly inflated price, of course. But hey, I was a tourist looking for a ‘local’ experience after all. So, for this one time, it should be OK. But should it though…? What about the local residents? Were they even still coming here to do their weekly grocery shopping? How ‘local’ was this place still really? Looking around me, I wasn’t too sure…

“How ‘local’ was this place still really? Looking around me, I wasn’t too sure…”

I had to think of places like Venice or Amsterdam, where I had experienced similar situations. And so the question arose: How can we as travellers make sure that travel not only enriches us, but also those communities we visit? It’s a big question for which there’s no complete and definitive answer. Indeed, given the gigantic proportions tourism has taken on in some places, one might wonder how tourism can ever be sustainable at all.

However, I believe there are small things we can do to help alleviate the negative impact of tourism. Some of my own ideas include:

  • Look beyond the tourist highlights. Don’t simply stick with the masses. Explore areas that are a bit off-the-beaten track and under-discovered.
  • Make an effort to understand local communities. Read up about their history and learn a few sentences in the local language.
  • Limit rubbish as much as possible. Don’t litter places. Consume consciously, for instance by rejecting single-use plastic and bringing your own reusable cup or bottle.
  • Don’t rush. Take your time to immerse yourself in the local culture. Slow travel is the way to go!
  • Buy locally. Avoid cheap souvenir shops that sell stuff produced on the other side of the country or indeed the world.
  • Use public transportation instead of polluting private touring busses.
  • Avoid mass tours that are damaging the environment, such as large-scale cruises. Venice has been trying to ban them for a reason.
  • Stay in small-scale accommodation, such as independent B&Bs, hotels or hostels. Although I love the idea behind apartment-sharing platforms, in certain major tourist destinations it has resulted in driving out local residents.
  • Behave. Do as the locals do, but above all, don’t do what the locals wouldn’t do (for instance, walking on a bicycle lane in Amsterdam or emptying your alcohol-filled bladder in an alley in Barcelona).

“Do as the locals do, but above all, don’t do what the locals wouldn’t do”

Many of these ideas, though, bring about dilemmas and questions of their own. For instance, would luring visitors to under-discovered areas so as to spread out the crowds simply result in diffusing problems associated with mass tourism? 

crowds walking through an indoor market

So, is there such a thing as sustainable tourism after all? Or is it merely about damage control? I’m not sure. But I do know that each and every one of us has a responsibility to the places and people we visit. The least we can do is to make an effort to reduce our impact. That won’t just benefit us, but also the communities that host us. At the end of the day, we are their guests.

What do you think? Do you believe in sustainable tourism? If yes, what would it look like? How can we make a difference? Please do share your thoughts and ideas in the comment section below!

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