How coronavirus shutdowns are helping destinations heal from overtourism

Apr 5, 2020

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I’m the kind of person who’s always searching for silver linings. The scourge of the novel coronavirus is devastating many parts of this planet, but we know it will pass in time. All we can hope is that the scientists and doctors working on vaccines and treatments make quick progress while the rest of us do our part to stay home in a bid to “flatten the curve” and shorten the length of time we aren’t travelling.

When it’s safe, and we can reenter the world at large, some destinations may actually be a little better off because they got a break from crowds and pollutants.

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In This Post

Infrastructure improvements

We’ve become a very mobile society, and while that has incredible benefits, there are also drawbacks. In recent years, overtourism has been a huge problem around the globe — not just in cities but also in fragile ecosystems.

In 2018, the government of the Philippines temporarily closed the island of Boracay. It suffered from too many visitors and an insubstantial infrastructure that contributed to the pollution of its beaches, water and other natural resources. The closure allowed the government to rehabilitate the island and work on improving its sewage system. When the island was ready, there was a “soft opening” for Filipinos before foreigners could return.

In Thailand, the government took similar steps when it indefinitely closed Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh island in 2018 to give the beach and coral reefs offshore time to regenerate after enduring extensive damage by tourists. The area had become a hot spot after being featured in Leonardo DiCaprio’s movie “The Beach”.

Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Conservation (DNP) said more than 2.5 million people visited the beach the year it closed to the public. The DNP plans to reopen the beach in mid-2021, but other problems persist on the Phi Phi Islands, including a water shortage caused by the influx of tourists. With reduced tourism because of COVID-19, the islands will have more time to brainstorm solutions for the water shortage issue.

No one is happy that most of the world has closed because of coronavirus, but now may be a good time for governments to bolster infrastructure in the most fragile ecosystems. This downtime from crowds could allow both natural and manmade rehabilitation projects to flourish.

And it’s not just islands and other ecosystems that are taking advantage of the lack of crowds to make some improvements. Last week, Insider reported that crews in London repainted the famous Abbey Road crossing since throngs of tourists weren’t lining up to have their photos taken in this iconic spot.

Recovering waterways

In recent weeks, you may have read accounts from Venice that said dolphins had returned to the city’s canals. They were sadly a hoax, but it’s true that the Grand Canal and other waterways are visibly more clear because the number of small ships and water taxi vaporettos plying the canals has decreased drastically. It would be nice to think the improvement in the water quality around Venice will be long term, but we know that pollutants will return as soon as boat traffic resumes.

Across the globe there are waterways benefiting from the slowdown of travel, and the recovery could be lasting. Coral reefs and other marine habitats are better for this moment without cruise traffic and sightseeing boats. Spots like Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary already had initiatives in place to help the fragile underwater world cope with human encroachment. Having a bit of time with few visitors allows nature to jump-start its own “home improvements” and repair reefs and other underwater habitats.

What simple steps can you take to help keep coral reefs and marine habitats healthy the next time you visit? Start by treading lightly. Avoid touching coral with your hands or feet, because that can damage and even kill the delicate coral polyps. If you’re boating, drop anchor in a sandy spot and not right on top of the reef.

The second easy thing you can do is wear eco-friendly sunscreen. Check the ingredients to make sure the product you use doesn’t contain oxtinoxate and oxybenzone, which may cause coral bleaching.

And, finally, sign a responsible travel pledge if your destination has one. It’s an informal agreement that you will be a steward of the environment.

Thinner crowds

There are certain places that just about everyone wants to visit. From Cambodia’s 12th-century Angkor Wat temple complex to Peru’s Incan citadel of Machu Picchu to Croatia’s Old Town in Dubrovnik, some destinations simply capture our imaginations. It’s natural to want to see them in person, but that desire leads to overcrowding.

Overtourism doesn’t just affect your ability to enjoy the destination — it changes the quality of life for residents, puts a burden on the region’s natural resources and can cause pollution and excess trash.

Without the crush of crowds, these destinations can take a breather. Although the economic impact of the disappearance of tourists is a grave concern in many places, the downtick in visitors also means fewer maintenance and cleanup costs over the short term.

When the threat of COVID-19 abates, we won’t see an immediate return to previous crowd levels. Instead, the spigot will turn back on slowly — starting with a trickle of intrepid travellers and continuing to grow from there.

Destinations around the globe will need to think strategically about when and how to welcome back visitors, and perhaps manage tourism levels. That may mean higher entrance fees at marquee sights but the added cost could be worth it, both for visitors who will encounter fewer crowds and for the locals who can enjoy the extraordinary places they call home.

Cleaner air

It’s good to hear anecdotal accounts of improved air pollution in cities such as Paris, Los Angeles and Beijing. But, we can actually see the improvements with the help of science. The European Space Agency reported last week that the coronavirus lockdown is leading to a noticeable drop in pollution across Europe. Agencies like the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute are using data collected by the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite to record changes in pollution across the continent.

Click the play button in the video above to see the reduction of nitrogen dioxide concentrations over Italy before and during the COVID-19 shutdown.

The reduction in automobile, bus, train and aeroplane traffic will likely keep pollution levels lower than normal for the foreseeable future. That’s a plus in an otherwise tragic situation — even if it’s just temporary.

Clearly, the physical world is being affected by COVID-19, but, happily, the effects on the earth seem to be largely positive. During this incredibly sad and difficult time, it’s helpful to watch for the tiny glimmers of good.

Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock

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