I have been able to travel extensively, both on business and pleasure. Our whole family (of 25!) went to Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia in the late 1990’s shortly after Cambodia opened its borders. For me, it was inspirational. We were virtually the only guests in a brand new Sofitel hotel and were able to wander freely through the 72 temples stretched over 400 acres. We could touch the temples, walk through them, feel their spirituality, climb the trees that grew through them. Our college-educated, English speaking guide told us the story of his entire family being massacred by the Pol Pot regime. Pol Pot feared intellectuals and our guide’s well-educated family were among the first to be slaughtered. Being in the presence of these mystical temples, listening to his stories about life during Pol Pot, and absorbing everyday life in Cambodia was an incredible learning experience. I remember asking him if the anger at losing his entire family consumed him. He looked at me quizzically.
“Oh, no,” he replied. “I have forgiven them. Our country was pillaged by Pol Pot, all of our teak trees were chopped down and sold, our minerals and jewels gone, all of the valuables that this country possessed have been sold. We have to forgive and move on. It is the Buddhist way. We want to open our country to tourism; Angor Wat is all that we have left. Living in the past just leaves us stuck in the past.”
I never forgot his words.
So, when a friend told me that she was traveling to Angkor Wat, I excitedly told her about how moving the trip was. I extolled its mysticism, the wisdom of the people. I promised her a life changing experience.
It was not even close.
She couldn’t wait to leave Angkor Wat. It was overrun with tourists, all of them jostling for the best position to snap selfies. It was impossible to move without disturbing an Instagram post. Angkor Wat and the other temples were roped off to prevent the mobs of tourists from destroying them. Far from being a spiritual experience, it amounted to seeing structures from a distance and trying not to be run over by the thousands of tourists taking pictures.
And in a nutshell, that describes what has happened to tourism in 20 years.
It is estimated that over 1.4 billion vacationers toured this planet in 2022. The sheer crush of humanity, disrespectful tourists, and fake attractions have destroyed some of my favorite places.
And social media photos have become the prime reason for those under 33 to choose a destination. Over 40% of all vacationers said they would not go to a place where they couldn’t take selfies. Instead of experiencing these sites with all of their senses, they are seeing it through a tiny lens.
Crafty entrepreneurs recognize an opportunity and now there are exotic animals (all abused) to have selfies taken with. Cruel elephant and exotic animal shows and encounters, enclosures where tourists can take selfies with drugged and tortured animals, are the new “tourism.” (In one facility, the trainers tie the elephants’ trunks at night to prevent them from committing suicide.)
Arguably, the worst is unscrupulous voluntourism. “Voluntourists” are individuals, school groups, and faith-based groups who take their vacation time to go to third world countries to help those in need. These exceptionally kind and generous people spend their valuable vacation time and money to “do good,” unaware that their presence can be causing irreparable harm. They may be building structures and providing aid that will go unused or into the pockets of the director. And they become invested and provide a source for future donations as well.
Arguably the most deceitful voluntourism destinations are orphanages, where volunteers arrive to teach and cuddle children while donating large sums of money to the orphanage. Sadly, many orphanages have been built to meet this demand. Save the Children estimates that 80% of children sent to orphanages have at least one parent, who, living in poverty, believe that this is a better opportunity for their children. Indeed, children are actively recruited into orphanages to meet the demand of tourists and donors. The psychological costs are high, attachment disorders are common, and the statistics are crushing: 1 in 3 end up homeless; 1 in 7 turn to prostitution; 1 in 5 commit crimes; and 1 in 10 commit suicide.
Suppose that you are child, and your mother or father abandons you to an orphanage. People who do not speak your language come and visit and hug you and teach you and then in a week or two, donate large sums to the orphanage and leave. Imagine this cycle repeating again and again. After learning the facts, one chastised tourist likened it to treating children like zoo animals.
The numbers are staggering; in Cambodia, the number of orphanages grew 75% in five years despite there being no increase in orphans. It is so problematic that some international travel groups have removed all orphanage visits from their advertised trips. It is now recommended that travel and tourism companies, school groups, faith-based organizations and travelers refrain from visiting, volunteering in, or funding orphanages. Until this ends, children will continue to be abused and separated from their families.
Fragile beaches, landmarks, and structures are being closed or marked off to prevent further damage. Go on YouTube and you will find videos of people destroying thousand-year-old structures, torturing harmless animals, and even one man carrying a dolphin out of the water and placing it on the sand. Recently a tourist apologized for etching his and his girlfriend’s name on the Roman Colosseum, claiming he didn’t know it was so old (his stunt was videoed by another tourist allowing the Italian government to find and prosecute him).
Since I live in two tourist towns, I have experienced tourism as both a tourist and a landowner. St. Michaels is a sedate little tourist town, with lovely hotels, leafy streets, sleepy waterways, nature preserves, a world-class museum, and a minimal night life. While our taxes are high, we benefit from the delicious restaurants, charming shops, and natural surroundings. The vast majority of the tourists are quiet and respectful.
Key West, on the other hand, is a famous international destination and suffers because of it. With multiple cruise ships arriving daily and a reputation for an exciting nightlife, Key West is a target for the wrong kind of tourism. After discovering that cruise ship travelers spend $32 per visit (compared to $550 by other tourists), leave substantial waste, and that the cruise ships are causing environmental damage to the reefs; the residents overwhelmingly (85%) passed a city referendum to prohibit large cruise ships. Even the local merchants campaigned against cruise ships.
But Florida is the land of Ron DeSantis, so the owner of the cruise ship ports donated $1 million to his campaign fund and voila, the next year the legislature passed a law prohibiting local municipalities from banning large cruise ships. So, the reefs and oceans that began to revive during COVID are being destroyed again.
On vacation many tourists leave their inhibitions behind, in Key West that has resulted in killing pelicans, chickens, and other wildlife (because its “fun”) and wandering the streets in rowdy boisterous groups. The worst is spring break, where the hotel rooms are crammed beyond occupancy rates with college students, and the city is inundated with carousing, carefree young people driving drunk on mopeds, having sex on the beaches, building fires, while consuming mass quantities of alcohol and drugs. The next day, Key West dusts off the remnants of the nights while city workers clean up the broken beer bottles, used condoms, and litter on the beaches. While each hotel has room occupancy limits, many look the other way, and the beaches, bars, and restaurants are filled with people who have left their sensibilities home. I saw a tourist in his 50’s throwing empty bottles at our chickens and extolling his pals to do the same, smiling and saying “Hey, it’s Key West, anything goes here.” Well, not exactly.
Duval Street is known for its colorful history and its pub crawl, which could include up to 43 bars, although the traditional pub crawl is fewer than 10 in a single night. Needless to say, this does not produce the most respectful guest. Most permanent residents live far away from the bacchanal on Duval.
So, what’s a tourist to do? Well, definitely not stop. Tourism accounts for one in nine jobs globally. And developing countries depend on tourism revenues.
But we now need to do our own research before we travel. If you are one of those amazingly generous individuals who wants to do voluntourism, do your research. Make sure that you are working with an organization that has a stellar record. Verify that the money is going to the residents and not some unscrupulous tour operator. If you are traveling to a developing country, make sure that you are leaving your money with the locals. Today, many tourist locations have open markets where the money goes to the makers. Locals rarely benefit from the money spent by cruise ship travelers. Cruise ships direct tourists to vendors from whom they get a percentage of the sales.
And do your research about when to go. My daughter and I assumed (and you know what assume means…) that September would be the best time to visit Rome, thinking that the children would be in school. Research would have made us aware that it is the most popular time to visit. The crunch of tourists made it difficult for us to spend meaningful time in the places that we planned to see.
And please remember, you are visiting is someone’s home…please be a respectful guest.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.