“Budget travel” has long been associated with “cheap travel.” Finding bargains, venturing off the beaten path, eating at “non-touristy” (i.e. less expensive) restaurants, and staying in hostels are all options. The budget traveler seeks a “local” experience at a low cost.
During the 2010s, the rise of sharing economy websites like Airbnb, increased competition in the travel industry, and an increasing number of low-cost airlines offering long-haul flights made traveling on a budget much easier.
And travelers took advantage: over the last decade, global tourism increased from 946 million annual travelers to 1.4 billion.
However, residents were outraged because many destinations were unprepared to handle so many visitors driving around, clogging streets, and raising the cost of living. Furthermore, locals disliked the feeling of living in a zoo, constantly being gawked at by tourists.
Before COVID, overtourism was a hot industry topic. “How can we make travel more environmentally friendly?” we all wondered.
And, despite the recent increase in prices following COVID, traveling is still relatively affordable, especially when compared to historical averages.
But, is cheap travel a good thing? Should it be so cheap if it also means it won’t last?
I realize that’s an odd question for me to ask, given that I work in the budget travel industry. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t believe travel should be limited to the wealthy. Travel broadens one’s horizons. It assists people in comprehending the world, those who live in it, and themselves. So, let me be clear: I am not advocating that travel is out of reach for all but the most affluent. I believe that everyone should be able to see beyond their immediate surroundings.
But should we allow a type of mass tourism that causes numerous environmental and social problems?
Looking around, I believe we have too much of a good thing. I believe that travel restrictions should be tightened so that we do not fall in love with places.
I used to backpack a lot when there was no Wi-Fi, apps, or smartphones and you had to rely on a paper guidebook to get around. (Even back then, people would tell me how difficult travel was “back in the day” and how easy it was with the advent of online booking platforms.)
There were plenty of ways to travel cheaply back then; it’s just that the information you needed was cheaper to come by. That first year taught me a lot, but it was information I discovered on the road rather than online or in print. They were tips and tricks I learned from people and my own experiences.
The growth of travel blogs like this one, as well as social media, has made it much easier to find information about how to travel cheaply. No tip hasn’t already been shared. Every location on the planet has at least a dozen articles written about it. And there’s no need to wander the streets looking for a place to stay or eat.
Even better, type “Thai” into Google Maps on your phone and you’ll get nearby restaurant results with directions, saving you time!
All of the new services and technological developments I mentioned earlier, combined with easy access to information, have made travel so affordable in such a short period that I don’t believe most destinations have had time to adjust.
Consider Airbnb. Overtourism, housing shortages, noise issues, and other social ills have resulted from its rise. The days of actually staying in someone’s home are long gone. You are now more likely to be in someone’s tenth rental property, where there are no standards or rules, particularly concerning safety.
What happens if a fire breaks out? Is everything in order? Nobody knows!
And that cute neighborhood you wanted to visit to get a feel for local life? This area is also teeming with tourists staying in Airbnb.
And, like everyone else, I dislike paying a lot for airfare, but all those cheap, short-haul flights mean a lot of people going to places that aren’t built to handle them all (see the weekend trips to Amsterdam). Furthermore, short-haul flights have the greatest environmental impact.
Is a tax on frequent flyers necessary? Or restrictions such as those seen in France.
People are getting up and moving in record numbers again, thanks to the rise of digital nomadism and remote work. (Don’t even get me started on those who violate visa and work rules.) This means that there are a lot of people living in places where they don’t pay taxes, don’t fit in, or cause other problems.
Take a look at Mexico City. I enjoy it, but the increased number of Americans living there has created a significant backlash among locals, who are now being priced out of their neighborhoods.
Consider waste as well. Plastic bags, electricity, and even your poop are all examples. I’m sure it’s a topic you never think about when you travel. But what happens to all of your waste? Are the power plants, sewer systems, and trash collection systems on that beautiful Greek island designed to accommodate the 20 million extra visitors it receives each year? No. They’re not.
Also, cruises! Cruises cause numerous issues (and I say that as someone who likes them). In 2017, Carnival’s alone polluted the air with ten times more sulfur oxide than all of Europe’s cars (over 260 million) combined! That $50-per-night cruise may get more people moving, but not in a sustainable way. Visiting Santorini during the cruise season is a nightmare.
The solutions to these problems are complex and will necessitate collaboration among industry, consumers, and governments to ensure tourism’s long-term viability.
People in popular tourist destinations will always want to make money to feed their families. And I don’t blame many locals, particularly those on the lower end of the economic spectrum, for preferring to live over protecting a nearby marsh.
I believe that as travelers, we should be more willing to vote with our dollars and decide whether we are going to be good and leave no trace, or are we going to treat destinations like zoos, parachuting in for a “local experience,” taking a few photos, and then leaving a trail of social and environmental headaches for the residents?
Yes, it is not the low-budget traveler who is causing many of these problems (they tend to avoid big hotels, eat local food, take public transportation, and stay longer). However, they continue to cause some problems. A body is just a body.
This brings me back to my original question: should travel be so cheap that it attracts so many people that certain destinations buckle under pressure?
While we all want to spend less, I believe it is time to consider what we are taking and what we are leaving behind. What effect does cheap-cost travel have on destinations and the people who live there?
Yes, hotels and traditional guesthouses are more expensive, but they are licensed and do not deplete the local housing stock, unlike Airbnb.
Yes, taking the train is more expensive and slower, but short-haul flights are worse for the environment.
Yes, we all want to visit Venice in the summer, but the city cannot accommodate that many visitors at once.
I believe that the solution is not less travel, but rather better travel.
When I see cities levying taxes, fees, and restrictions on Airbnb and cruises, I can’t help but think, “Good!” More restrictions should be imposed on Airbnb, cruises, and other forms of mass tourism to ensure that destinations can handle the crowds and that locals are not displaced or otherwise negatively impacted.
We’ve put a lot of emphasis on sustainable travel, alternative tours, getting away from Airbnb, traveling in the off-season, and reducing waste over the last few years because I’ve become much more aware of the negative impact travel can have when growth is unchecked.
I believe that everyone should travel, but the unintended consequences of the rise of cheap-cost travel must be addressed.
We can accomplish a lot as travelers. We can avoid environmentally damaging travel by reducing our flight use, avoiding Airbnb, and visiting “second-tier” destinations — or, at the very least, avoiding tourist hotspots in overcrowded cities.
People will have to travel to other cities as “top-tier” destinations crack down on overtourism, spreading tourist numbers and dollars around while also showcasing new destinations and unclogging more popular cities.
Furthermore, when you avoid crowds, you are more likely to have unique and enjoyable experiences.
Will more rules and regulations result in higher prices? Probably. Does this mean that fewer people will be able to visit Machu Picchu, Petra, or Japan? Possibly.
And, as someone who wants more people to travel, I have to admit, that stinks. Even though there are plenty of other destinations to visit, it’s still unfortunate that some of these changes will prevent some people from visiting them.
But, when we consider sustainable travel and its impact on the world, we can’t deny that so many people moving around has negative consequences. We must accept that many places cannot accommodate so many people and that some restrictions are required if we are to keep them around, even if this means we will not be able to see them all.
Travel is a two-way street between the destination and the visitor. We must be willing to give more while accepting less.
It is our responsibility as travelers to ensure that we do not harm the locals or the environment. This entails traveling as environmentally friendly as possible while causing no harm to the local community.