Tourist Instagrammers: The Modern Locusts?

Your correspondent as just another picture-grabbing tourist.

There is only so much “there” out there. Yet many hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of people want to take their selfies in and amongst the very same natural monuments. Myself included.

A previous post looked at some of the strategic issues of tourism (employment, pricing) as well as potential opportunities (virtual reality, education).

As reported in the The New York Times

In 2016, the National Park Service tracked a record 331 million visits, and after a busy summer, the system is likely to surpass that number this year. In August alone, some 40 million people came through park service gates.

Shuttle buses at Zion National Park, in southwest Utah, filled like sweaty subway cars. Selfie-takers clogged the slender path through the Narrows slot canyon, one of the park’s best-known attractions. And at the top of Angels Landing, an iconic trail of switchbacks on the east side of the park, some portable toilets were marked off with a sign: “Due to extreme use, these toilets have reached capacity.”

Zion is among the most visited parks in the system and is particularly prone to crowding because many of its most popular sites sit in a narrow six-mile canyon. In 2016, about 4.3 million people visited, up 60 percent from a decade ago.

So this year, park managers announced they were considering a first for any national park: requiring reservations for entry. A final decision is expected in 2018. “We don’t have a choice,” said Jack Burns, who has worked in Zion since 1982. “We have to do something. If this going to remain a place of special importance for generations, we have to do something now.”

And Zion’s delicate desert ecosystem has been battered by tourists, some of whom wash diapers in the Virgin River, scratch their names into boulders and fly drone cameras through once quiet skies. The park has about 25 miles of developed trails. But over time, rangers have mapped about 600 miles of visitor-made paths, which damage vegetation and soil and take a toll on wildlife.

The story is similar at parks from Yosemite in California to Acadia in Maine. And the crowding problem comes as the system faces the dual threat of a funding shortage and climate change.

The park system has a maintenance backlog of more than $11 billion and President Trump has proposed a 13 percent cut to the service.

At the same time, park officials have identified the heat and floods of climate change as one of the system’s greatest perils. In Zion, as maximum temperatures in the summer have risen, the heat-intolerant American pika, a tiny mammal related to rabbits, has disappeared. Rangers call it a sign of what is likely to come: smaller streams, more frequent droughts and other shifts in the ecosystem.

Ironically there are many places on earth that see very few people. Sometimes it’s because it is difficult to get to, in other cases there are (as yet) no “iconic” features that people want to share on their Instagram accounts.

Tourism is a business, an industry, but tourism predicated on wilderness is one of those cases where the tragedy of the commons is highly relevant. There are no easy answers. Yes, pricing is one way to reduce over demand but do we want access to the most amazing sites limited to those with wealth? Is virtual reality an alternative or is it just another way to create classes of tourists — the rich can see the real thing, the poorer can make do with the facsimile?

Add to this mix changes in climate, which is already changing the landscapes of the Arctic and Antarctic.

Tourism as a business is going to need much deeper strategic and operational insight than just figuring out how to market a destination. It will require a level of public policy and business innovation that is rarely seen, yet, in this sector.