Has Overtourism Killed Big Sur?
The once idyllic coastal area of California has been besieged by tourists, and residents worry that lasting environmental damage is being done. But how can you tell visitors not to come when tourism supports so many? One local, Josh Marcus, looks for solutions.
Throughout the pandemic, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to start going more far-flung.
As noon fog settled over the iconic Bixby Bridge on California’s Highway 1 in Big Sur on July 4, about 100 people were celebrating Independence Day by taking subtle variations of the same photo.
They were maneuvering down the area’s gravelly cliffs or up a dirt side road to get a perfect, uncluttered shot of themselves gazing contemplatively at the elegant concrete arch by the sea. GoPros were everywhere: on sticks, tripods, and car hoods. “This is that bridge from all the pictures,” a man in Gucci sunglasses said out loud to no one in particular while snapping a shot. Husbands of Instagram abounded. All the road-tripper archetypes were there—international tourists, biker dudes, peroxide-blond #influencers—and they all wanted a picture of the California dream, just not each other. Under thousands of these tourist feet, the vegetation had receded in ugly gashes.
I grew up just north of Big Sur. Locals and sorta locals (like me) hate what has become of Bixby. It’s a traffic jam, a blemish, a spiritually bleh mass of bad human behavior. But we weren’t immune to its charms either. In high school, everyone from hippie kids to macho car guys to weekend hikers all scrambled down the coast, seeking adventure and posting pictures, bridge included. Can you blame them? The Big Sur coast is one of the last undeveloped shorelines in this ugly modern world, with land and sea so wild and gigantic they look freshly torn from Pangaea. Only it’s not ancient history. If you’re able to make a reservation, there’s some of the best hiking, camping, weed smoking, spa soaking, and yoga retreating you can find, hidden among the redwoods.
A global-media feedback loop exists to sell this dream. Monterey County’s hospitality association spends about $3 million a year on publicity, urging travelers to “grab life by the moments” in ads and visit Big Sur, where “heaven on earth has been found.” Then there’s the free PR: the Bixby Bridge posts; HBO’s glamorous Big Little Lies, set in the area; the media blob (including Outside) promoting Big Sur with words like enchanting, incomparable, and paradise, a place where you can unplug. Millions then Instagram the unplugging. The cycle repeats.
Tucked in a packed parking turnout just before the bridge is a bronze plaque commemorating when Highway 1 was designated California’s first official scenic highway, in 1937. On it there’s a benign quote about nature’s majesty from famed local poet Robinson Jeffers. Weirdly, his 1937 poem “The Coast-Road,” about Big Sur and the highway, isn’t quoted. It predicts: “at / the far end of those loops of road / Is what will come and destroy it, a rich and vulgar and bewildered / civilization dying at the core.”
Now those loops of road bring an estimated 5.8 million annual visitors to Big Sur, which has a population of 1,728. Locals are overwhelmed. The people, the selfie sticks, the traffic, the litter—it’s all too much. Somewhere, something went terribly wrong. Big Sur has joined the unhappy global family of destinations like Venice, Italy, and Mount Everest, where tourists have overrun what they came to celebrate.
Everyone from elected officials to nongovernment groups, like the Community Association of Big Sur, have pushed for more tourist education and transit-policy reforms, but these incremental efforts are up against exponential, existential changes. International tourism has grown 56-fold wordwide since 1950, and officials say visitation to the area might not peak for decades.
People come to Big Sur to escape the world. Now Big Sur must adapt to a world where it can’t escape people.
Big Sur staked its future on tourism with the completion of Highway 1, and many locals say that bet paid off until around the late 2000s, when social media ascended and unleashed Instagram travel, adventure selfies, and bucket lists on us all.
“Before all this, when somebody would come to Big Sur, they were subordinate to the landscape,” says Butch Kronlund, executive director of the Community Association of Big Sur. “Now it’s as if the people coming to us are stars of a movie they’re in, and Big Sur is just a backdrop to their antics.”
These antics are testing Big Sur’s institutions, ecosystems, and patience. There are 4.6 million one-way vehicle trips on that stretch of the single-lane highway each year. Public bathrooms are scant, so toilet paper and shit accumulate on the roadside. Illegal camping caused one of the costliest wildfires in U.S. history in 2016. The peaceful Big Sur that residents remember is disappearing.
“Sometimes I’ll go surfing in the morning, get out of the water, and the beach is packed, but there are no locals,” says Dru Jensen, a local carpenter. “I don’t have anything against tourists. It just feels kinda weird. I don’t like it. I used to see a few friends.”
Yet on Pfeiffer Beach, which many of the area’s residents now avoid, the end of one Big Sur is a new beginning for others. Rajat Kochhar, an international student from India who goes to college in L.A., said the coastlines near his home are even more packed. “Clean sand, empty beaches—that’s unique to me,” he told me. Ruozi Song, a Chinese student traveling with Kochhar, agreed, noting that the beaches she’d been to in China were “totally overcrowded.”
Public bathrooms are scant, so toilet paper and shit accumulate on the roadside. Illegal camping caused one of the costliest wildfires in U.S. history in 2016.
According to the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau, travelers spent nearly $3 billion locally in 2018. Big Sur doesn’t manufacture anything, grow much, or house any major corporations or colleges. Some locals lament tourism, but most depend on it. Last spring an anonymous Instagram called @BigSurHatesYou emerged. It was renamed @BigSurEducatesYou, then deleted altogether. Over the most recent Fourth of July weekend, a group called Take Back Big Sur hung a banner over Bixby that read “Overtourism Is Killing Big Sur”—until authorities took it down.
Locals talk about their bewilderment and anger at overtourism in Big Sur as a new phenomenon, but it’s not. Big Sur’s history is one long struggle over ecotourism’s core contradiction: how to keep the land undisturbed while selling it to the world. The better you do at the former, the harder it is to stomach, let alone stop, the latter.
In the 1930s, ranchers worried that the highway would ruin their home and livelihood, and they threatened surveyors at gunpoint. In the sixties and seventies, residents complained they felt overrun by hippie squatters. In the eighties, Big Sur’s independent-spirited people resisted the prospect of more top-down federal land management. The writer Henry Miller, perhaps Big Sur’s most famous transplant, wrote in 1957, “Whoever settles here hopes that he will be the last invader.”
In the past, this part of the coast attracted artists and seekers, like Jack Kerouac, Ansel Adams, and Joan Baez. Hunter S. Thompson, another former resident, wrote in 1961 that Big Sur is a “myth-maker’s paradise.” Now the hippies are mostly dead or gone, and the world’s most powerful myth makers, Silicon Valley execs, have taken their place.
In 2013, Facebook billionaire Sean Parker spent $4.5 million decking out a redwood grove for a Lord of the Rings–themed wedding (then $2.5 million more on an environmental settlement with the state). A recent Wall Street Journal column advertised available mansions for “Silicon Valley’s moguls, who decamp here for quiet weekend getaways, enhanced by the region’s limited cell service.” Finding affordable housing has always been tough here, but with all of the tech money driving up the cost of living, it’s now very difficult for Big Sur’s working class. The woods aren’t gentrification-proof.
“Big Sur is something you can’t buy, but you kinda can.”
The Silicon Valley impact has been most striking for some at Esalen Institute, the pioneering hippie retreat on Big Sur’s wild southern edge that helped introduce mainstream America to psychedelics and the Human Potential Movement in the sixties. In 2017, mudslides shut down the highway and caused huge losses, and Esalen laid off 45 people not long after it installed a former Google employee as executive director. (He has since left). Venture capitalists led workshops like “Connect to Your Inner-Net.”
“Its mission is still the same,” says Esalen CEO Terry Gilbey of the institute. “Technology has had an impact on us as individuals, and that does trickle down, so we do examine the issues that technology is having for people as we explore being human and human connection.”
Chris Simon is a musician who has been going to Esalen since he started at its beloved preschool program. He now lives in San Francisco and thinks that Silicon Valley people seek “woke vacations” there to shake up their plentiful suburban lives with something transcendental. “Big Sur is something you can’t buy, but you kinda can,” he says.
Some say this cheapens the Big Sur you actually can’t buy, the moments out in nature where, no matter the size of your bank account or what car you drive, you feel connected to something elemental. Jeannie Alexander, a Big Sur fire-department medical captain, says her kids grew up in the hills without electricity or cell reception. “They did things like paint and draw and climb trees and catch rabbits,” she says. “They got back to the basics.”
My first summer back home after college, I pulled off the road one night in Big Sur and lay shivering on a narrow beach. The Milky Way was the brightest I’d ever seen it. Its reflection glowed electric purple on top of the waves. My celestial insignificance was intoxicating. I wanted to flush out all my petty anxieties forever and leap into the sky. This is the Big Sur people are mourning.
It took an act of Mother Nature for Big Sur to briefly return to this state. In 2017, after autumn rains snapped a five-year drought, mudslides demolished the highway in both directions, turning Big Sur into an island. The new islanders found an unexpected upside to their disaster.
It meant no tourists or Tesla traffic jams. It was an economic calamity and a spiritual redemption. “They said we were in a crisis when our bridge closed,” says Alexander. “That was the most peace Big Sur had had in years.”
Locals played soccer on the highway. Neighbors hiked around the slide zone in the moonlight. A woman bombed down the coast on her bike completely naked. Now the road is back, and every fall, Jensen, the carpenter, says he prays for a landslide.
But landslides aren’t a sustainable tourism plan, and Big Sur is preparing to throw everything it has at the problem. The place comes alive in a fight. During the 2016 wildfire, sheriffs blockaded the burn zone and stopped hilltop farmers from going back to their plots, due to the risk. Residents hiked up a secret mountain trail and fought the blaze together anyway.
Few people think stopping tourists from coming is a good idea. Rather, it’s about managing the area to mitigate the impact, doing something similar to what countries like Norway have enacted to address overtourism. Alongside a recent conscientious tourism campaign from the county visitors bureau, which includes tips on buying local and examples of #travelfails, the Community Association of Big Sur is working to develop a destination stewardship plan with sustainable travel at the forefront. Potential reforms are being discussed for Big Sur to include shuttle buses and park reservations, for example. But the sort of fast-acting, massive, coordinated, well-funded reform needed to reinvent tourism in the area is largely still in the planning stages.
“Change and taxes and death, they’re coming whether you want it or not.”
“This is a place of dreams and optimism,” says Sofia Snavely, program director at the alternative Big Sur Park School, as we sit on stumps in a seaside grove. Nearby, children mix a tub of pink paint, cackling with delight. “There is just so much possibility on the horizon.”
Still, many are resigned to exploding tourism and cultural whiplash. Past reforms—the 1986 land-use plan, the 2004 highway plan—also called for sustainable development, and yet here we are.
“Change and taxes and death, they’re coming whether you want it or not,” says Dan Kraft, a supervising state-park ranger. “We can’t stop it. How do we make sure that, as it comes, it’s managed chaos that does the land as little harm as possible?”
Somewhere along Highway 1, there’s a gravel smudge, impossible to see while driving. It leads to a ragged switchback trail, then one of Big Sur’s last secret surf spots. You need to briefly rappel over a large rock to reach it.
It’s not on any top-ten lists, because locals comb the internet and ask people to take down any photos and geotags. Surfers made me swear not to reveal its location. They wouldn’t even tell me its name.
When I arrived, it was empty but for a vulture on some driftwood. The ocean fuzzed out the noise of the highway high above. The surf was mellow that day, and the ocean stretched out flat, knit with small wrinkles, like the back of a weathered hand. The only signs of visitors were an old pair of boots tucked under a rock and a rusted metal girder that had tumbled down from some forgotten highway project. Otherwise, this is what the land looked like millennia ago when it was settled by the Esalen tribe, Big Sur’s first dispossessed people.
I want you to come visit, to smell the musky chaparral brush, to see where California runs out of continent. I want these experiences to make you want to fight for our planet, because it needs the help. But I also sincerely hope you never find this beach.