Thirteen places to reconsider in the year ahead.
As we depart the 2010s, a period that gave rise to influencers and forced us to grapple with our carbon footprints, and set sail for the ’20s, we at Fodor’s are asking ourselves a simple question: How can we be better travelers in the decade to come?
We’re hardly alone in asking it. We all desperately wish to see and experience this wonderful world, but how can we do so responsibly? Ultimately, we must each, individually, come to our own conclusions. And that’s how we view this year’s No List.
Every year, we use the No List to highlight issues—ethical, environmental, sometimes even political—that we’re thinking about before, during, and long after we travel. For this year’s No List, as we do every year, we highlight places and issues that give us pause. The underlying issues are ones that we’ll certainly be grappling with in the decade to come. But, ultimately, we know that our readers–all you globe-trotting world citizens–will continue to make up your own minds. As such, being featured on the No List is not a scarlet letter. Rather, it’s a promise that when we do cover the destinations mentioned here–all of which are, truly, wondrous places–we’ll be doing so responsibly, warts and all.
The Places That Don’t Want You (or Want You in Smaller and Better Doses)
We’ve covered the places in tourist turmoil in previous No Lists: Amsterdam, Venice, Machu Picchu, Thailand’s Koh Tachai, and Santorini have put tourists on notice since 2018; in 2019, residents of Isle of Skye in Scotland, Easter Island, Dubrovnik, and Mallorca were added to the list of locals and officials begging visitors to reconsider how and when they travel. And for 2020, the list expands again.
Barcelona’s overtourism issue isn’t just about inconvenience–there’s literally no room for the numbers who just keep coming. According to Forbes, “No number of pavement expansions and bus rerouting can solve the fundamental issue that tourism is the number one problem for the city.” In many major tourist sites–Sagrada Familia and Parc Güell, for example, which are in residential locations–there is physically no space to expand. Airbnb has made matters worse for locals by flooding the market with short-term rentals, which has had the negative effect of skyrocketing rents for locals. These issues contribute to and compound environmental destruction, community breakdown, and a general degrading of residential quality of life. With an activist mayor and a plan for 500 superblocks (groups of streets where traffic is reduced to close to zero and the road space is instead granted to pedestrians and play areas) to tackle these issues head-on, Barcelona needs time and space to create and preserve its access for all.
In California, in what is perhaps the most iconic natural splendor in a state known for superlative environmental majesty, Big Sur is becoming overwhelmed. Between the free publicity from the massively popular award-winning HBO series Big Little Lies and Monterey County’s hospitality association and tourism campaign, the once bucolically secluded area within Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park staked its future on the completion of Highway 1, a dual-line highway–and now the chickens have come home to roost. Locals lament the lack of public bathrooms and the disgusting roadside consequences of the scarcity of these facilities, not to mention the illegal camping occurring in a state where the deadliest and most destructive wildfires get deadlier and more-destructive each year. The county visitors bureau as well as the Community Association of Big Sur are “working to develop a destination stewardship plan with sustainable travel at the forefront”–though it’s too early to tell how it will continue to positively develop the area.
The temple complex of Angkor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Cambodia’s most visited attraction, is suffering under its own popularity. The literal wear and tear brought on to the 900-year-old temples is having damaging effects on its foundations and structural integrity: steps are slippery because of the many tourists who have walked them and bas-reliefs are worn down by the number of tourists who have touched them. Concerned about damage to the temple, the agency charged with overseeing it is limiting the number of visitors to 300 at any time who are allowed at the top of Phnom Bakheng hill, a popular spot for sunsets. A less obvious impact on the area is the water shortage brought on by this year’s drought and exacerbated by hotels in the Siem Reap area, which continue to draw heavily from the province’s water table. In 2019, Angkor Wat’s moat lost more than 10 million liters of water, the equivalent of four Olympic-sized swimming pools. A call to further restrict and enforce the limitations of tourists visitations in both numbers and access (placing bas-reliefs behind glass, building wooden staircases and footpaths), as well as government regulation of the hospitality industry’s water use, and encouraging tourism growth in other areas of the country, are key steps to reducing the damage brought on by overtourism.
Bali, Indonesia’s most-visited island, has suffered the effects of overtourism in the last few years to the point that the government is weighing a tourist tax to help combat some of the more sinister effects on the environment. In 2017 a “garbage emergency” was declared over the amount of plastic on beaches and in waters; the Bali Environment Agency recorded that the island produced 3,800 tons of waste every day, with only 60% ending up in landfills–an obvious observation to anyone visiting the island. A ban on single-use plastics (shopping bags, styrofoam, and plastic straws) went into effect in December 2018, and this year, the Bali legislature has debated imposing an extremely negligible “tourist tax” of US$10 per visitor. Water scarcity, brought on the development of luxury villas and golf courses, has impacted the profits of local farmers. And besides negative environmental impacts, authorities are now working to enact guidelines mandating respectful behavior from tourists who are visiting religious sites in bathing suits, climbing over sacred sites, and generally disrespecting customs and cultural norms.
In 1902, French colonists built a railway that runs through Hanoi and Hai Phong and through the northern provinces of Vietnam, and to this day it still carries passengers and cargo across the land. In one neighborhood in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, the rail line snakes through a densely populated neighborhood, literally passing behind houses and shops on either side. Dubbed Hanoi Train Street, the photos captured of the area are, predictably, stunning. But because the tracks are still operational, they come with a dangerous price. That hasn’t stopped the Instagrammers, who gather along the line vying for the optimal shot. Vendors now cater to the tourists with snacks and drinks, and cafes have popped up, encouraging crowds to linger. Recently, a train had to make an emergency stop in order to avoid hitting the tourists snapping selfies and loitering on the tracks, and eventually was rerouted. In response, the municipal government of Hanoi has ordered that all cafes along the tracks to close. New signs have also been installed in the area warning passersby not to take photos or videos near the tracks. While the ban is intended to protect the tourists (who have predictably already begun to complain about it), it also seems inappropriate for visitors to inconvenience the operations of the rail line and anyone riding it.
The Place That Could Kill You
Not unlike with Mount Everest, which has been on a slow but steady murder spree (and made our No List in 2018), it’s time to reconsider grandiose dreams of conquering nature–it’s a fight we ultimately can’t win. So, it’s time to stop climbing the Matterhorn.
Seven climbers of the infamous Swiss peak lost their lives in 2019 by falling to their deaths. In 2018, the Matterhorn took 11 lives.
“The mountain has become too unstable and therefore too dangerous to be a tourist attraction climbed by loads of people every day,” one guide told the Zurich newspaper Tages-Anzeiger.
And it doesn’t look like there is relief in sight. Warm conditions and thawing permafrost at high altitudes, both due to climate change, are almost certainly a cause of the uptick in rock slides and avalanches, according to geologist Hans-Rudolf Keusen with the Swiss Alpine Club.
While officials have no plans to close the Matterhorn to the public and insist that authorities are only responsible for ensuring awareness of climbing risks, the question changes from whether or not you can to whether or not you should attempt these sorts of adventures, veteran climber or not. When local guides are asking officials to close the mountain on the public’s behalf, who are visitors to question their authority and expertise?
The Sickly Coral Reefs in Need of Healing
Globally, more than a quarter of all coral reefs have depleted over the last 30 years due to mass bleaching. This has already affected 500 million people who depend on these reefs for “food, income, coastal protection, and more,” according to NOAA. And in Florida, a coalition of universities, nonprofits, and government agencies is working to protect the sickly reef tract along the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary that stretches approximately 360 miles along southeastern Florida in the Atlantic Ocean from a new threat: a mysterious disease outbreak that is plaguing multiple habitats.
Dubbed “stony coral tissue loss disease,” the cause is unknown but has a 66-100% mortality rate, and seems to be transmitted via touch and water circulation. Since it was discovered in 2014, the disease has spread over 150 square miles, and nearly half of the stony coral species found on the Florida Reef Tract have been affected.
And it continues to spread, having now reached Mexico. First seen at Puerto Morelos, south of Cancun, it made its way to the reefs of Cozumel in October 2018. As a result, Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas was compelled to suspend all aquatic activities in the Parque Nacional Arrecifes de Cozumel, a popular vacation spot and cruise ship terminal, from October 7, 2019, until the end of this year while researchers across the state replenish the reefs with laboratory-grown coral.
If you insist on recreating in the vicinity of the Florida Reef Tract or Cozumel’s Reefs National Marine Park, take measures to protect the coral: reduce pollution generated from gasoline-fueled boats, use mooring buoys to avoid anchoring on coral, and always wear coral reef-safe sunscreen. Practice proper reef etiquette while diving and properly clean and maintain your gear to prevent spreading the disease. And consider enjoying the beach and ocean from the shoreline this year.
The Places (Rightfully) Considering Charging Large Tourist Taxes
Of course, no city or region wants to wholly ban tourism, so some destinations struggling with balance are working on a compromise in the form of a monetary tax. The Galapágos Islands of Ecuador, famously inhabited by the largest living species of tortoise, and Komodo Island off Indonesia, home to its namesake wild dragons, are two such unique ecosystems under threat from mass tourism and considering pragmatic ways to combat human encroachment.
Currently, international tourists visiting the Galapágos National Park pay a $100 fee per visit and mainland Ecuadoreans pay $6. But that fee hasn’t increased in 20 years, says Daniela Tamayo Córdova, of the Galápagos Government Council, the municipal body that manages the islands. And everything from cheap flights to the proliferation of cruise ships and Airbnb have made the islands more accessible than ever. Since the uptick in visits, officials have concerns about the fragility of the environment and have proposed an increase in visitations fees–a one-time $200 fee for those visiting the islands who also spend at least three nights visiting mainland Ecuador, and a $400 fee to visit the Galápagos with only one or two nights on the mainland. Though considerably higher than current fees, they’re marginal in relation to the good they would contribute to: protection, preservation, and management of the islands’ ecology. The exact tax will be decided by December 31, 2019.
On the other side of the world, authorities in Indonesia had originally planned to close Komodo Island for one year from January 2020 but canceled the initiative after determining the dragons living there were not under threat from tourist interference on their behavior and habitat. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is under close observation by Indonesia’s government, particularly the environment and forestry ministry.
The country’s environment ministry is still testing out a long-term vision for Komodo National Park, which also faces threats from poachers targeting dragons and deer, as well as tourists who feed the wildlife and affect their feral nature. Even without a ban, the government is weighing new options and promising to revamp other tourism spots in the area, including a dragon research center. Additional proposals are still being discussed, which include capping the number of visitors and adding a tourist tax or membership fee–which could come with a price tag of upwards of $1,000.
Considering the unique specialness of these islands, capitalizing on tourism potential makes sense. But should you go at all? The lengths that governments and local communities are going to in an attempt to protect Komodo Island and the Galápagos certainly puts perspective on whether tourists checking off bucket-list adventures trump the preservation of an exquisitely one-of-a-kind destination.
The Places to Be Cautious About Drinking
While it goes without saying that drinking alcohol can be a risky behavior no matter where you consume it, certain occurrences emerging out of particular resorts in Mexico and Central America have travelers a bit on the defensive. While the tourist deaths in the Dominican Republic have been cleared of tainted alcohol theories, others in Costa Rica and Mexico are still under investigation. The Costa Rica Ministry of Health released a national warning regarding several alcohol brands tainted with methanol, while the U.S. State Department finally revealed the details of its investigation into the multiple deaths and illnesses of American tourists who drank alcohol at Mexican resorts in the last few years.
In Costa Rica in 2019, 25 people have died and 59 have been hospitalized from methanol poisoning. Methanol, a chemical found in low amounts in beer and spirits, is not harmful until it reaches higher concentrations–usually occurring when someone adds it to drinks or bottles. Adding methanol not only increases the volume of the liquid, but also increases the potency, according to SafeProof, an organization that helps identify fraudulent liquor and aims to keep consumers safe. The Costa Rican Ministry of Health has placed a warning on consuming the following brands: Guaro Montano, Guaro Gran Apache, Aguardiente Estrella Roja, Aguardiente Baron Rojo, Aguardiente Timbuka, and Aguardiente Molotov, and Costa Rican health officials have confiscated over 55,000 bottles of alcohol suspected to be poisoned, and closed 10 supermarkets and vendors selling the tainted alcohol.
“The Costa Rica Tourism Institute reaffirms that no tourists have been affected by adulterated alcohol in Costa Rica, and that visitor safety is priority,” Thalia Guest, a representative for the Costa Rica Tourism Board, said in a statement. “The local authorities continue to monitor the situation and work to understand and remain transparent about the investigation.”
In Mexico, the cases have been building since 2017. The most infamous case of “wrongful death” stemming from tainted alcohol generated a civil lawsuit that claimed Abbey Conner, 20, was found drowned in a pool at an Iberostar hotel in Playa del Carmen in 2017 after consuming allegedly “poisonous” alcohol. Her brother Austin, 22, who also had a drink from the pool bar, was rescued drowning in shallow waters. It prompted an inquiry from Senate Homeland Security Committee chairman Ron Johnson, and the State Department is finally revealing details from the investigation that put pressure on Mexican authorities to inspect a number of establishments. While the Office of the Inspector General determined that a formal report would not be appropriate, the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs provided a list of 15 complaints that it has received since 2017 related to the consumption of unregulated alcohol by Americans in the heavily-touristed Mexican state of Quintana Roo.
The investigation also saw 30 bars, restaurants and hotels inspected, two of which were shut down for not complying with health and safety rules. Mexican authorities found “a significant amount of alcohol of ‘undetermined origin'” and led to the identification of one supplier of questionably-sourced alcohol. While the investigation has since closed without conclusive results about the tainted alcohol, travelers are now faced with a dilemma when consuming alcohol south of the border: what should tourists do when falling ill abroad, especially if the illness is brought on by criminal behavior?
The Tourist Attraction That Needs to Stop
Reflection and reevaluation come to every industry. In travel, we have to constantly reevaluate our behaviors in order to better interact with the world in which we explore, including the other creatures that we share the planet with. One of our role models in accountable travel, Intrepid Travel, partnered with the non-profit World Animal Protection to commission a study into elephant conditions on-the-ground in countries like Thailand, where elephant riding is widespread.
This was an exhaustive investigation into hundreds of wildlife projects and businesses, conducted by impartial animal welfare experts. The results were beyond conclusive. In the 118 elephant venues assessed, we found over 1300 animals suffering in terrible conditions: taken young from the wild, separated from their familial groups, broken again and again using sharp hooks and other tools, chained up at night and denied good nutrition. All for the sake of 10-minute tourist ride, or a circus-like show where animals were made to stand on their hind legs, or juggle, or paint pictures using their trunks.
The demand for elephant rides, especially in Thailand, has surged in recent years due to an influx of tourism, and with the opportunity for profit comes the opportunity for corruption and cruelty, giving rise to exploitative camps that use chains, whips, and minimal downtime. These conditions create stress and exhaustion for the highly intelligent animals. Conscientious travelers who want to interact with animals because they love them should remember the hidden cruelty that can come with the set up and reconsider participating in these activities. Abstaining altogether would reduce the demand for attractions where elephants are exploited for human amusement.
The City Safe for Tourists, Deadly for Residents
South Africa’s crown jewel and legislative capital city, Cape Town, is without question one of the most beautiful metropolises in the world. Blessed with a sparkling harbor, geographical landmarks such as Table Mountain and Cape Point, and rife with history and culture, it’s a premier jumping off point for exploring beaches, vineyards, and heading inland to Big 5 safaris. It consistently wins accolades proclaiming it the best or top city in the world. And for tourists, this all rings ostensibly true year after year. But for the residents of Cape Town in 2018 and 2019, a wave of crime has launched the destination to the top of the list of the world’s most dangerous cities: more than 2,800 murders in 2018 with a homicide rate of about 66 killings per 100,000 people. In August, the military were sent in to stanch the gang violence, who are engaging in a turf war over drugs, weapons, and illicit goods like shellfish abalone. Driving the rise of gang warfare are overarching issues of corruption and unemployment, especially in the townships and suburbs of the city, particularly in the area of Cape Flats.
While tourists might never see the neighborhood just southeast of the Central Business District (CBD), “apartheid‘s dumping ground” is home to much of the population of Greater Cape Town. For comparison’s sake, Nyanga in Cape Flats had 308 murders in 2018 and the Mitchells Plain suburb had 140 murders, while central Cape Town, where tourists stroll, eat, and shop had just eight. Taken as a whole, there have been almost 1,000 murders in the first six months of this year alone. Not only is there ready availability of firearms supplied to the gangsters, but with territorial control, the profits of running illegal goods (especially drugs) are higher than ever. Hence the rise of a rivalry between gangs with names like The Hustlers, Rude Boys, Ghetto Kids, Spoilt Brats, Hard Livings, and Americans (who use dollar signs and American flags as tag symbols).
Operation Prosper, the military deployment into these neighborhoods, has been well received by the residents, a surprising response from a city where decades earlier military intervention was seen as a violent display of the suppression of civil liberties. But this violence is that random and that horrific, and many worry that problems will return with the army’s eventual withdrawal.
“It is really a tale of two cities,” says Albert Fritz, provincial minister for community safety. “You can be a tourist in the center of Cape Town [and] you will be totally safe. You will not know that … 10km [6.2 miles] away there are people shooting at police.”
In response to this article, Minister Fritz provided Fodor’s with the following statement:
Through the deployment of the SANDF (army) and through increased police and law enforcement initiatives we have since seen a dramatic decline in violent crime. This has increased general perceptions of safety throughout the province particularly within the Cape Flats, which has been significantly affected by violent crime. This is an incredible achievement, which should be celebrated.
The City of Cape Town and Western Cape Province remain open for tourism and travels. Cape Town is a major, modern, metropolitan city and as such, travelers are advised to take the same level of precaution they would when visiting any other major city in the world. We welcome travelers with open arms. In turn, the Western Cape is frequently cited as among the world’s best holiday destinations and has a high return visitor rate as many leave having had a truly unforgettable experience.
The Businesses You Might Not Realize You Don’t Want to Support
Lastly, a highlight of something that largely goes unnoticed, but has been rearing its head for the last couple of years. This doesn’t serve to single out any particular business, but acts as a notice to our readers.
A common refrain we hear in today’s discourse is “Keep politics out of travel.” And while it would be ideal to never have to think about politics in regard to anything, ever, travel and politics are inextricably linked–from passport stamps and currency exchange to geographical borders and transport accessibility, politics touch every aspect of travel from inception to return. As globalization bleeds deeper into countries and cultures, so too do ethical, political, and economic concerns that influence our choices around travel.
It can feel impossible to investigate where your hard-earned dollars go when it comes to vacation, but one place that has become more transparent is in the hotel and hospitality industry. This can be obvious: if you aren’t interested in supporting Donald Trump, you probably wouldn’t choose to stay in his branded hotels. But you might be less aware of the calls to boycott Equinox-branded hotels (and subsidiaries like SoulCycle and Pure Yoga) due to corporate owner Stephen Ross fundraising in support of Trump while the brand sells contradicting support of the LGBTQ community.
Or how Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the supreme leader of Brunei and owner of the Dorchester Collection (which owns and manages nine luxury five star hotels including The Beverly Hills Hotel and The Dorchester London) faced a celebrity-led boycott after implementing laws making gay sex punishable by death (while homosexuality in Brunei has always been punishable by jail time, new laws which apply to children, foreigners, and non-Muslims, now punish said crimes via stoning to death or whipping). The hotel boycott and subsequent PR crisis worked, as “several multinational companies…banned staff from using the sultan’s hotels, while some travel companies have stopped promoting Brunei as a tourist destination.” Shortly thereafter, the sultan declared that the death penalty would not be enforced in the implementation of the sharia penal code order.
Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the EU, is all over the news right now due to his role in the Ukraine affair and has become a central figure in the House impeachment hearings. He’s been vilified by both the left and right, all of which may make some reconsider booking a room at one of his many hotels under the Provenance Hotels banner, which include the Villa Royale in Palm Springs and the Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery in New Orleans.
The takeaway here is that consumers now have access to a wealth of information about the political and ethical background of hotel owners, and thus more choice in deciding where they’d like to spend their hard-earned vacation dollars. While it’s true that individual hotels often operate under brand umbrellas–like Hilton or Marriott–the actual owner of the property may have positions that a particular consumer doesn’t want to support. Conversely, customers also have the option to give business to companies with politics they back.
*Update: This article has been updated to include a comment from a spokesperson for Cape Town’s Minister of Community Safety.