Overtourism Has Reached a Dangerous Tipping Point—Am I Part of the Problem?
The stunning destination of Sedona, Arizona is feeling the squeeze, along with many other iconic destinations worldwide. A new film called ‘The Last Tourist’ offers up ways we can fix the travel glut.
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My parents “discovered” Sedona, Arizona, in 1999, roughly 1,349 years after the Sinagua people were the first to settle in the Verde Valley beneath the fantastical red-rock formations that are now world famous. In the ensuing years, Mom and Dad hiked almost 5,000 miles on the 200 miles of trails that surround this magical oasis, all of which were logged by Dad in his tattered Revised 5th Edition of Sedona Hikes by Richard and Sherry Mangun.
When Dad died in 2017, I took his place on their annual pilgrimage to Sedona, driving 1,700 miles from our home in northern Minnesota with Mom so she could continue hiking despite increasingly unstable feet. COVID lockdowns kept us away last year. When we returned this year on February 1, we quickly realized that the sleepy winter “off-season” was no longer sleepy. The grocery stores were packed. Our car was rear-ended by an out-of-state visitor who was confused by the roundabouts that backed up traffic on Arizona’s highway 89A at 10 a.m. on a Saturday. Trailheads were overflowing with people and vehicles parked along both sides of the roads, even on weekdays, forcing us to strategically choose where and when we could hike or, in my case, mountain bike.
On average, before COVID, this northern Arizona town of 10,000 received 3 million annual visitors, its surrounding formations jutting skyward, most of them in the adventure-packed Coconino National Forest second only to the Grand Canyon in popularity among statewide attractions. But when COVID hit and international travel became off-limits, thanks to Sedona’s proximity to California and the fast-growing sprawl of Phoenix, the area exploded in popularity. In 2020, visitation rose 5 percent to 3.4 million, and according to the Sedona Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau’s Annual Report for Fiscal Year 2021, the amount spent on taxable goods and services between July 2020 and June 2021 increased by almost $220 million over the previous year.
“COVID definitely increased visitation and recreation on the Coconino National Forest across the board—especially the Red Rock Ranger District, which surrounds the Sedona area,” says Brady Smith, the forest’s public affairs officer, who told me that the Forest Service doesn’t track annual visitation, but that Coconino averages 4.5 million visitors per year, a number that rose dramatically during the pandemic.
“Since people couldn’t travel and felt trapped inside their house and couldn’t really go on a traditional vacation, they went to their national forests and places like Sedona and the trails around the city,” Smith says. “We have seen an increase of dispersed camping, trail use, off-highway vehicle recreation, camping, mountain biking, and pretty much anything you can think of recreation-wise on national forests.”
The reality of Sedona’s exploding popularity hit me hard one weekend morning when Mom and I were hiking her favorite trail at the base of a stunning canyon into the Red Rock-Secret Mountain Wilderness. As we passed the site’s entry point, fresh tire tracks continued up the sandy trail, despite cycling being off-limits starting at the boundary. A half-hour later, a solo mountain biker with no pack and no water met us, asking, “Do you know how to get to Chuckwagon?”
One of the most well-traveled trails in town, Chuckwagon is a few miles in the opposite direction of where the woman had come from, across a major road. Without cellphone coverage, she explained, she had become completely disoriented.
A few minutes later, we encountered a young couple restraining a German shepherd, the man squinting into his cellphone as the woman asked, “Are we near the turnoff for the Birthing Cave?”
The cave in question, the turnoff for which they had overshot by a few miles, has become a wildly popular selfie spot, namely because it’s less than two miles from the trailhead and is shaped like a vagina. From inside, the cave frames the distant rock formations, creating a womb-like Instagrammable moment for visitors. It’s an incredible place if you come prepared to share the womb with others: earlier that morning, we passed three other groups inquiring about the turnoff to the unofficial route.
As Mom and I hiked farther into the wilderness, the people disappeared. But instead of enjoying the silence and the sun glinting off the canyon walls, I stewed over how Sedona had turned into a giant Disney attraction, my indignant mindset refusing to acknowledge that perhaps this magazine, for which I have worked for decades and regularly features dream destinations like Sedona, and my own family’s months of hiking and mountain biking here over the years, which has attracted dozens of our own friends and family, might be contributing to the beautiful city’s rampant overtourism.
Any traveler with a conscience has questioned the ethical, environmental, and moral consequences of their individual choices, and no doubt the pandemic has put even more pressure on popular domestic destinations like Sedona, Moab, Big Sur, and most of our national parks. As a writer for this magazine and others since the 1990s, I’ve reported stories that highlight culturally and environmentally sustainable destinations that are “doing it right,” where tourism has benefited rather than depleted the culture, the residents, and their natural resources. In the past few years, however, I’ve found it increasingly hard to define what constitutes “sustainable” travel—and whether I’m practicing it.
The new film The Last Tourist, directed by Tyson Sadler and executive-produced by G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip, exposes these consequences en masse, illustrating with painful visuals and testimonials that tourism, as practiced by much of the world today, has lost its soul. The conveyors of this cautionary tale are an impressive roster of travel visionaries and experts, from icon Jane Goodall to National Geographic Society’s CEO Gary Knell to journalist Elizabeth Becker, the author of Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism.
Since the 1950s, international trips have grown from 25 million to 1.3 billion per year (pre-COVID), and those overseas travelers are at least partly to blame for garbage-strewn beaches, throngs of crowds in destinations like Venice, and environmental and cultural destruction that visitors often don’t correlate with their seemingly innocuous, well-meaning trips.
The Last Tourist illuminates the most egregious ways the tourism industry is fundamentally flawed, exploring issues like animals suffering for entertainment, orphaned children being exploited for profit, developing countries straining under foreign-owned corporate hotel entities, and the general lack of responsibility individual travelers take toward learning about and investing (emotionally or financially) in the countries they visit. In Kenya, for example, only 14 percent of the dollars spent remain in the country. As Jane Goodall says near the beginning of the film, “Tourism can lead to the destruction of the very things they’ve [tourists] come to see.”
The destruction is often insidious. In the film, sustainable tourism expert Costas Christ describes his own path toward more conscientious travel. In 1979, he was one of the first tourists to arrive at a secluded beach on the Thai island of Koh Phangan, where he stayed for three months with a local family. The place was so astoundingly beautiful that he drew a map for his then-girlfriend. She shared it with a few friends, who shared it with others. In 1993, Christ, who has never returned to the beach, saw a photograph of it thronged by thousands of revelers celebrating the now-infamous Full Moon Party, which today attracts 10,000 to 30,000 people to the beach every month.
“We have got to get tourism right,” Costas says, “because if we don’t, we are going to see Koh Phangan reproduced around the world.”
The film offers example after heartbreaking example of how overtourism has crushed the environment, wildlife, and vulnerable communities in 16 different countries. It would be a merciless gut punch if it weren’t interspersed with inspiring glimmers of hope. Jane Goodall is featured in the film because G Adventures offers a namesake Jane Goodall Collection, 20 wildlife-focused tours endorsed by the world-renowned ethologist. In Thailand, Lek Chailert has devoted her life to the Save Elephant Foundation on a farm where she rehabilitates Asian elephants and other animals rescued from cruel tourism operations. And in India, Sakha Consulting Wings offers a training program for formerly abused women in which they learn how to drive and maintain their own cabs, offering safe rides to the elderly, children, and other women in New Delhi. A large percentage of their customers are solo foreign female travelers.
“Tourism didn’t cause these problems,” says founder Meenu Vadera, referring to the poverty and abuse the Indian women in this program have experienced. “But every single tourist has to make a choice, whether I am going to be part of the solution or not.”
Sedona is a far cry from the vulnerable local communities like the one in the Ecuadorian Amazon that Poon Tip works with, among others, but even in a veteran Arizona tourist town, the locals were forced to start a dialogue on how to tame the beast that is tourism.
After watching the film, one of my questions for G Adventure’s Bruce Poon Tip, whose travel company sends 200,000 travelers annually around the globe, some to culturally and environmentally sensitive places like the Ecuadorian Amazon, was how does he differentiate between the travel he offers versus the travel he condemns in the film?
“Our definition of sustainability is about cultural and heritage preservation,” Poon Tip told me in a phone interview. “We believe that travel benefits the world, and if done right, it can create wealth distribution. The very first step of doing it right is to create a dialogue with the community to find out if they even actually want tourism—99.9% percent of the tour operators out there are not doing that.”
At the end of the film, experts from around the world offer some basic starting points for individual travelers—namely, be informed about the place you are traveling to and the organizations and businesses you are supporting. Ask yourself if what you are doing away from home, like attending a full-moon party at a crowded beach or visiting an orphanage to take a selfie with the kids as they are sitting in class, would be acceptable in your own backyard. Other suggestions include generously tipping waiters and other staff you interact with directly. Also, if you can ride, hug, or take a selfie with a “wild” animal, don’t do it, because, most likely, that animal is being abused.
In an effort to be more transparent, G Adventures offers a “Ripple Score” on roughly 640 of their 800 trips, an accounting tool that tabulates the percentage of money they spend locally for accommodations, food, and transportation. Their average Ripple Score is 93, meaning that 93 percent of the money spent in-country stays with local businesses and services.
Sedona is a far cry from the vulnerable local communities like the one in the Ecuadorian Amazon that Poon Tip works with, among others, but even in a veteran Arizona tourist town, the locals were forced to start a dialogue on how to tame the beast that is tourism. In 2019, Sedona’s city council overwhelmingly approved Arizona’s first Sustainable Tourism Plan, a four-pillar approach toward a balanced future that focuses on the environment, residents’ quality of life, the city’s tourism economy, and the visitor experience.
For visitors, the new plan means taking responsibility for your actions, even if you are on a carefree road trip across the West. Travelers can take the Sedona Cares pledge online, a nine-tiered promise that includes leaving no trace on trails (and picking up the increasing number of doggie poop bags), being kind and considerate in local establishments, and not risking life or limb to take a selfie.
There are also more tangible ways to take responsibility, like using Sedona’s brand-new shuttle service launching this month to the most popular trailheads. Or taking a vacation day to do volunteer trail work. Every week on Instagram, Thunder Mountain Bikes, for example, posts a calendar of upcoming trail-work opportunities. Volunteers provide the muscle, and the bike shop and three other sponsors—Verde Valley Cyclists Coalition, Sedona Red Rocks Trail Fund, and the Red Rock Ranger District—provide the expertise, lunch, and drinks.
As for where I fit into this tourism quandary, I often wonder what the solution is. Should I give up my time in Sedona so that one fewer person is exploring its magical trails? I haven’t arrived at that decision and maybe never will. But I do know that if I return, I will be way more cognizant of what I’m giving back to the community, specifically to the hiking and mountain bike trails that have provided my family and me with unadulterated joy for decades.