By Michael Mortimer

We often consider the idea of sustainable tourism through an environmental or cultural lens. The idea is to avoid negatively impacting the touristic location’s environment or culture, thus preserving the integrity of the experience for future generations. Or perhaps it is giving thought and action to the environmental impacts we generate as tourists, such as carbon emissions, water use, or waste generation. Here, I would like us to consider a different lens on sustainability, one focused on how various types of tourists affect or even compete with each other’s consumption of the touristic site.

Let me explain with an example of three touristic locations in Greece.

Meteora, a spiritual retreat, when you can get in

Meteora, Greece
Photo by Michael Mortimer

The first, Meteora, is north of Athens in the Thessaly valley. This small region is composed of rock spires that are home to almost unbelievably precariously perched monasteries. For more than 800 years, monks and nuns have sought solitude in these retreats. Now, the grinding churn of motor carriages plying the mountain roads, pregnant with tourists eager to visit their monastic homes, fills the air. If you happen upon one of these monasteries at the wrong time, you nearly cannot breathe among the throng of humanity surging into every nook and cranny. You cannot reflect, you cannot observe, you cannot relax, you cannot capture the beauty in a photograph. All you can do is compete for space with the mass tourists, groups of 10, 20, 30, on a day trip from Athens, rushing from location to location as if it were a race to win. But if you time it right, late in the day, the hordes have retreated and the experience you imagined is yours for the taking. A different sort of tourist emerges as the shadows lengthen.

The Acropolis and the Parthenon, iconically Instagrammable

The Parthenon Temple, the Acropolis of Athens, Greece; Photo by Michael Mortimer
The Parthenon Temple, the Acropolis of Athens, Greece; Photo by Michael Mortimer

The second location is in Athens, perhaps the most iconic building (and tourist location) in the world—the Acropolis and the Parthenon. Again, this place is swarmed by cruise ships and other mass tourists on a daily basis. Throngs of humans surge up the mountain, jostle for selfie positions, and then surge back down the trails in an uninterrupted cycle. I have even witnessed what was clearly an Instagram influencer dressed as a sort of Helen of Troy cosplayer strutting seductively while her partner filmed for her next posting. In this context it is hard to react to the place. You can only react to the people. To the roar of guide after guide, bellowing in every language imaginable, the history of the Parthenon. It is almost impossible to find a quiet place to soak in the millennia of history, the awesomeness of the construction, or, as I often like to do, sit and imagine what this place might have been like long before Christianity was an idea. But all of that is sacrificed to the mass tourist’s demands. As my wife dryly noted, “there is no magic here.”

Kerameikos, off the beaten path, thank gods

Kerameikos, Athens, Greece
Photo by Michael Mortimer

Finally, the third location is also in Athens. It is the architectural site of Kerameikos and the surrounding neighborhood that used to be home to countless pottery shops from which its name originates (like the English “ceramics''). This is an open space consisting of some “unimpressive” ruins. An old road, cemetery, remains of a wall, and the wreckage of a few columns litter what appears to be a sort of field. It draws relatively few visitors. Only a few individuals or couples slowly wander the strange place. But the place is distilled awesome. It is the location of the primary gate to the ancient city of Athens, to the city wall that protected Athens from the ravages of their rivals the Spartans, to a road stretching to the Port of Piraeus, lined with tombs to the high and mighty of Athens. It is a place where your imagination—if you encourage it—can begin to hear the sounds of cart wheels, the march of soldiers high on the walls, the chatter of women preparing for festivals, the pleas of merchants eager to enter the city with their goods. Granted, the interpretation of this place could be better. Much better. But it is one of the few places in Athens the mass tourists seem to eschew. It’s too boring, too subtle, and it demands too much of the tourist. It is a place of magic.

Can we sustain the business of tourism?

The Panathenaic Stadium, Athens, Greece; Photo by Michael Mortimer
The Panathenaic Stadium, Athens, Greece; Photo by Michael Mortimer

What does all this mean? Well, in each of these cases, there are at least two types of tourists experiencing places very differently and competing with one another. And though we often don’t think of tourism as consuming the touristic sites, the consumption of the place by mass tourists leaves nothing left for others. It is not a question of whether this place can be enjoyed by future generations; it’s a more immediate question of whether this place can be enjoyed by all who seek it right now. 

Global tourism accounted for more than $8 trillion in 2020, almost double from only 14 years earlier. Pre-pandemic, travel and tourism accounted for more than 10% of global GDP. Athens’ Piraeus port received more than 600 cruise ships and more than 1.1 million passengers, each and every one of which wanted to see the Parthenon. In total, the Parthenon saw almost 3 million visitors per year pre-pandemic. Globally, tourism is a beast. And locally, its impacts can be profound, with the lure of visitor fees overwhelming many—or all—other considerations.

The Covid pandemic provided a pause, a respite from the relentless mass tourist, to reflect on what these places are, how they are consumed, and what we might want them to be, now and in the future. In other words, what could sustainable tourism look like? But I fear that moment has passed. The beat of the drum summons the cruise ships to port. What I describe may sound like just a cruise ship problem. And yes, cruise ship tourism is a nasty, parasitic form of mass tourism, where the visits of the ships send pulses of tourists and pollution into the system, and offer very little in return to local businesses and communities. But it’s a larger problem, extending across the vast reach of global touristic experiences.

International cruise ships lined up in the Port of Barcelona, Spain; Photo by Michael Mortimer
International cruise ships lined up in the Port of Barcelona, Spain; Photo by Michael Mortimer

The changing nature of how we travel
This may sound like a critique of mass tourism, and it’s meant to be. But I acknowledge that mass tourism serves a distinct need. It provides a relatively affordable mechanism for people that are not confident enough, or experienced enough, or that simply don’t want the responsibility of the day-by-day preparation that is demanded (hotels, air arrangements, local transport, dining, itineraries, and more) of an international holiday. It is a care-free and egalitarian means of opening up the wonders of the world to more than just elite jet setters. I am not convinced that mass tourism experiences are anything less than wonderful for those travelers. I don’t mean to suggest that a world without mass tourism should be a goal. But perhaps a world with a different mass tourism ethic would be a better world for every stripe of tourist.

And it may be that we are on the cusp of a generational shift away from mass tourism. My mother (Silent Generation) has never traveled outside the U.S. But if she had, it most certainly would have been as a mass tourist. My wife and I (Generation X) have been to dozens of countries and are never mass tourists. Our daughter (Generation Z) and her partner are already traveling far more than we did at their age, and always as just an autonomous couple. This isn’t limited to the U.S. I have witnessed, in country after country, these generational changes in how Chinese tourists travel. Receding are the exclusively large groups of often elderly Chinese tourists led hastily by a flag-waving tour guide from site to site. Instead, I’ve seen the rise of younger Chinese couples or small groups of friends traveling without guides. Perhaps they too are seeking the magic, realizing that even their own countrymen can spoil that for them.

Treading lightly, on paved streets too
By all means, we must consider the environmental and cultural impacts tourism generates. They have the potential to alter or even ruin what we seek to enjoy. But we need to also acknowledge that the very act of stepping foot in a touristic location changes that location. It’s a sort of Schroedinger’s tourism where the very act of observation causes a new reality to manifest. That reality ripples across every other visitor, and often not for the better. We can be ruining the place in real time without even knowing it.

Perhaps the concept of tourism needs a rethink. Perhaps drive-by visits for quick selfies needs to be reckoned with. Instead of being tolerated, it might be shamed, or—shudder—even prohibited. Perhaps a more thoughtful approach to natural and historic sites can be instilled. If UNESCO World Heritage designations are to mean anything at all, then perhaps the way they are consumed by tourists should be commensurate with the meaning of the designation. We could begin to unlearn fast mass tourism. We could learn to embrace slower tourism, complete with thoughtfulness, valuable and inviting interpretation, and a respect and understanding of the place. This approach could go a long way towards sustainability today, and by default, tomorrow.

Michael Mortimer photo by Heath Rasmussen

Dr. Michael Mortimer is the Associate Dean, Washington, D.C. Area, and Founding Director of the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS). He is an avid photographer and traveler, having journeyed to more than fifty countries, camera in hand.