In recent years, many parts of the world have groaned under the weight of wanderlust, with popular destinations swamped by masses lured through cheap flights, package deals, and clever marketing. In areas like Barcelona and Venice, the deluge of visitors has led to outright anti-tourist activism.

Dr Freya Higgins-Desbiolles from the University of South Australia has studied this tension for more than a decade. Her most recent research, published in Journal of Sustainable Tourism, suggests, if we want to preserve the positives of travel, we must urgently rethink our approach to it as a planet.

“So, we need to ensure these sorts of experiences are available to future generations because they are so important – and that means we have to heed the current warning signs about tourism,” she said. “We need to ensure those impacted by tourism are also those benefited, not just in a short-term financial sense, but in an ongoing social and cultural dimension as well,” she says. “Then they, in turn, will have good, enduring reasons to welcome visitors into their communities.”

Dr Higgins-Desbiolles suggests the tourism industry needs to buck its addiction to endless growth, recognizing the finite limits of the planet and learning to work within them. “We’re not suggesting everything has to grind to a halt,” she says, “but, just as other areas of industry have had to recognize the importance of sustainability, both socially and environmentally, tourism must stop sacrificing a long-term future for short term gains.”

Dr Higgins-Desbiolles’s study highlights mechanisms to drive this change, the key being a shift from corporate, often international operators, to local, socially-embedded custodians of tourist destinations, with strong evidence that such a transformation improves outcomes for people and planet.

Pointing to the success of initiatives such as that in Guna Yala, an Indigenous province of Panama with a Statute on Tourism protecting the local customs and ecosystem, and the Tourism Optimization Management Model developed by the community of Kangaroo Island, which is to ensure mass tourism developments did not diminish their quality of life. “If tourism can embrace that change, it will not only ensure the future of the industry, it will improve the experience for everyone involved.”

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