When Does It Become Too Much?

By Gary Gray

When was the last time you visited one of the major national parks in the U.S.?  Was that visit an enjoyable experience?

I’ve done a great deal of reading and contemplating on the subject of tourism and the resulting negative effects it has on our environment and local economies. When I connect the dots to my own experiences and compare the results, it’s occurring to me that there may be something to the idea that we are loving ourselves to death.

Tourism, as it exists in the world today, has become a mainstay of the world’s middle class pursuits. Cruises, vacation packages to far away destinations, hordes of humanity flocking to popular scenic locations, and with those hordes comes pollution, over-crowding, higher crime and increased stress on the local socioeconomic systems of the host destinations. Here are a few statistics and thoughts I’ve compiled, gleaned from other publications for illustration and some from personal experience, but I think these thoughts illustrate a few important points about the side effects of being able to travel anywhere in the world.

There are many issues involved here, so lets take a brief look at the major concerns.

Photography at Tourist Destinations.

As a nature photographer, I’m as guilty as everyone in regards to my travels to the National Parks. My quest for stunning photographs of the landscape or of the wildlife doesn’t make me any more noble. I’m just another tourist contributing to the lines of cars and overall degradation of the experience. Photographers are contributors to the problems created by over-visitation, there is no doubt about it. A couple of elk in a field can create a madhouse of cars parked along side the road with the accompanying occupants all in possession of cameras and tripods, in an attempt to get photographs of wild animals in their environment. One thing about that though, the animals we see in the parks are no longer part of the environment, as their environment has been managed to keep the animals confined to certain areas and to restrict public access to other areas. The parks have become more like large open space zoos.

With the stratospheric increase in the availability of digital cameras over the past 15 years, along with it comes the concept of photo-tourism. Most people now have a camera with them everywhere they go. So what’s to do? Well, how about going more places with a camera and take photos. It’s a brave new world.

For years, photo-tourism was a very small niche that professional photographers gravitated towards as a means of making a living. Sell our knowledge, take people to exotic locations, get great photos, make some money. The market grew for a while, but today it is suffering from over-saturation. When folks bought their first digital cameras, it was like a door had opened and everyone could now go to the world’s locations and get great photos of beautiful and exciting things. Originally referred to as “workshops”, many of these tours have morphed into what is now referred to as “photo tours”, or “photo safaris” or some other catchy phrase. Don’t be fooled though. What is now referred to as a photo tour is simply another incarnation of tourism in general, with the emphasis placed on people with a common interest in photography. The idea is that the host photographer is going to provide you with some secret or special photographic skill, using the enticement of an exotic subject as the hook. It’s okay though, because it’s just a result of an over abundance of photographers and having someone get you to the subject and show you the main highlights allows you to get those great photos you’ve only dreamed about but can now afford to obtain without the hassle of having to do the leg-work and planning for yourself. Having been a professional photographer for many years, I too have done this very thing. I’ve gravitated away from the weddings and events and portraits towards what provided a better regular source of income. Photography tours.

The photo tour is dying though. It’s dying because once people know where to go, they do it themselves. They don’t need no stink’n tour guide. A natural tendency towards individual independence coupled with easy access to the exotic photography location along with a camera in every hand makes it inevitable that the middle-man will be the one that ultimately gets cut out of the equation. Add to the equation the increased regulation and permit requirements, it’s not an easy life trying to be a photographer who does workshops or photo tours. It’s a dog eat dog working environment, and only those able to provide something truly unique that the average amateur photographer will be willing to pay for, will benefit down the road.

More and more, the folks managing popular photo-tour destinations are realizing the negative impact of the massive influx of tourists and photographers and are beginning to restrict that access to control the growth of ensuing environmental and infrastructure damage. Recent examples of these restrictions include Arches National Park in Utah, Denali National Park in Alaska, Antelope Canyon in Utah, Hanging Lake in Colorado. I only see these types of restrictions on access increasing down the road, as there are simply too many people wanting to travel for the infrastructure and environment to contend with.

Over-crowding.

Living along the front range of Colorado, our 800 lb gorilla in the room is Rocky Mountain National Park.

At the main entrance to RMNP lies the town of Estes Park, with a population of 6,339 full time residents. The National Parks Service reports that in 2018, there were 4,590,493 visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park, the third most busy National Park in the United States. Taking a simplistic approach of what that averages out to per day, we have on average an additional 12,576 people each day flocking in to Estes Park. The numbers in the summer months would be much higher. Essentially, this increases the population of the small mountain town with transients who have little or no involvement in local issues by 3 or 4 times on any given summer day. The same general concept holds for any city or town that hosts a major tourist attraction. Infrastructure such as roads, utilities, medical services, fire and police support, are all massively stressed to their limits, just for the sole purpose of tending to tourists.

I experienced so much road congestion in RMNP during my last two visits as to make it impossible to commute across the park on Trail Ridge Road and enjoy any of the scenic beauty. Stopping to look at any point was virtually impossible in many places and exceptionally congested in most spots. The roads were clogged with vehicles, from one end of the park to the other. Wall to wall, bumper to bumper, thousands of tourists wandering about the roadsides in herds and lines. All waving cameras.

Annie Lowrey of the publication The Atlantic, writes in her June 4th, 2019 article about the issue of “Too Many People Want to Travel.” It’s a well written piece that illustrates a significant point about the negative impacts caused by the masses flocking to tourist destinations. Her article echos my personal experiences and observations of travel to many of the nation’s National Parks. Most notably, Rocky Mountain National Park, Yellowstone National Park,  Moab, and other major photography destinations.

The effects of over-crowding are not limited to National Parks however. Tourist destinations as varied from museums, popular beaches, historic ruins, Mt. Everest, ports and other locations around the world are all feeling the same effects of too many people.

In a nutshell, the infrastructures of the local destinations are being overwhelmed with negative side-effects as a result of too many tourists. While the local economies of these tourist destinations do see some financial gain, a great deal of the “profits” made don’t go to the locals, they go to corporations and travel providers that establish themselves as the providers of the amenities and transportation to these local destinations. All in all, it’s quite parasitic. In return for a few jobs, the local entities have to deal with all the negative side effects while the corporations fueling this heavy burden escape the financial responsibility of having to deal with the deterioration of the actual attraction, increased pollution, crime, loss of natural habitat and other negative side-effects.

Here’s a listing from the National Parks Service showing the 10 most visited National Parks in 2018.

1 Great Smoky Mountains National Park 11,421,200

2 Grand Canyon National Park 6,380,495

3 Rocky Mountain National Park 4,590,493

4 Zion National Park 4,320,033

5 Yellowstone National Park 4,115,000

6 Yosemite National Park 4,009,436

7 Acadia National Park 3,537,575

8 Grand Teton National Park 3,491,151

9 Olympic National Park 3,104,455

10 Glacier National Park 2,965,309

Greenhouse gas emissions.

Statistical data and scientific analysis has been fairly extensive on this subject for the past two decades. There are 7.8 billion people on this planet. There are about 36.8 million commercial airline flights in the world each year. According to a recent article in the British publication, The Guardian, there is evidence to suggest that a typical airline flight can produce as much CO2 in the atmosphere as many people in the world do on average in a year.

Another major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions is of course the private automobile. Obviously, the less efficient the vehicle, the more fuel it consumes and thus the more it contributes CO2 to the atmosphere.

I’m going to boil this all down to the effect that travel has had on our carbon footprint. Here’s a graph compiled from scientific studies from reputable sources. My source is Ensia, a non profit dedicated to solutions research and reporting on climate change. You can read their article at this link.

The adverse affects on our natural resources and wildlife.

Is wildlife tourism good or bad for the wildlife? I think the answer is both. It’s going to depend on where that tourism occurs and the type of management the wildlife tourism is subjected to.  What I do believe, and this is just my opinion is; relative to tourism, the less control exerted on managing public access to wildlife, the more the wildlife suffer as a result.  What I’ve seen here in Colorado is the more crowded things become and the more interaction humans have with animals in what would be considered the animal habitat, the more control over human behavior gets exercised. This control is normally done behind the scenes by wildlife authorities than actual limitations on what the individual can do. I mean, we live in a free country and the wildlife technically belongs to all of us (or none of us). A good example of what I’m speaking to would be the wild mountain goats on Mt. Evans, Colorado.  Mt. Evans is a very well known location for tourism, with mountain goats being a primary tourist and photographic subject. During the summer months, human traffic to the summit of Mt. Evans can become stifling, with lines of cars proceeding along a narrow, winding and dangerous road. The mountain goats live near the summit of the mountain and on any given day the crowds of people trying to get photographs can be mind numbing.

Humans in general aren’t very educated about the lives of the mountain goat and their ignorance often contributes to the destruction of the natural environment the goats must live in, but humans also contribute to the harm of the animals by feeding them non natural food such as sandwiches and other human snacks. Mountain goats don’t normally rely on ham sandwiches for sustenance, as ham sandwiches are not part of their natural environment.  Human food is not part of a wild animals normal diet. I’ve also witnessed many ignorant tourists try to interact on a personal level with the wild animals, some times causing great stress to infant and immature animals, sometimes creating a panic in the animals that result in aggressive or defensive actions by the animals. In short, animals and people get hurt and it isn’t uncommon. When the stress on the animals gets too heavy in the summer months, wildlife officers will actually haze the animals to make staying on the mountain less desirable. In other words, the animals are chased off the mountain by various non-lethal means to protect them from human activity.

I haven’t mentioned the affect humans have perpetrated on the actual environment. The fauna at the top of mountains is very sensitive and the hordes of humans stomping around on the tundra does destroy parts of the natural habitat the wild animals need for survival.

With humans come automobiles. Many animals are killed by being struck by vehicles. A wounded animal has no health care plan. They simply limp off into the environment and die a slow agonizing death if they survive the impact.

Animals are capable of adapting though, and it’s not uncommon to find that animals relocate to other areas on a long term basis as a result of over-interaction with humans.

It’s still very distressing to me to witness mobs of tourists gathering around a small group of animals and subjecting the animals to human stupidity. It’s becoming commonplace.

Here’s a very interesting interview from National Geographic magazine, With Dr. Michael Hutchins on Conserving Wildlife Through Responsible Tourism. A worthy read for any photographer or tourist.

Conclusion.

I’ve retired from most commercial photography activity, mainly because I’ve lost most of my interest in being a tour guide. I still love to photograph nature and wildlife, but dragging a group of finicky strangers around with me has lost it’s luster. I want to enjoy photography without having to deal with the masses of humanity in the process.

When it comes to working professionally in a national park, the situation has deteriorated to the point that it’s no longer tenable from my viewpoint. Any professional working in a national park has a number of peripheral issues that must be addressed. Insurance, permits, safety training, travel logistics, government shutdowns, all these things cut in to the profit margin and hosting a workshop can easily result in a loss of income and most certainly add to the cost for the client. In short, it’s far less profitable and a lot less enjoyable than it used to be. Some workshop hosts have found they can improve their profit margins by cutting corners, but I can’t and won’t go there. It’s easier for me to just find obscure and lesser known destinations and practice my craft in private.

National parks were once a mainstay of professional photography tours. Since the early 60’s though, tourism has boomed. There are now over four times the number of tourists visiting our national parks than there were in 1960. The increase in visitations has been cyclical; however, the overall trend in the numbers has been upwards. There were over 318 million visitors to the US national parks in 2018. The size of the parks has remained the same, only now we have masses of humanity flocking to them.

I’ve reached a point that I won’t even consider working in a national park. Not even as a private tourist/amateur photographer. It’s simply too crowded to get unobstructed views and simple, easy access to the scenes and locations I used to love to visit.

I still have a professional mindset about photography. I look at photography as a profit making endeavor, even though I’m retired, as I am always looking for good stock photos and national parks used to offer that opportunity. What has happened though, is the increase in tourism and the increase in tourists with cameras has also generated an increase in available photographs from these locations. Think economies of scale along with supply and demand. A nice photograph of a particular scene may be desirable to purchase, but when that photo or one similar to it is on the market, it only stands to reason that a photographer has much better market to sell to if there are only a certain number of those photos available. In today’s environment, most parks are over photographed, with an availability of the same photo now reaching astronomical numbers. The end result is, the more something is readily available, the less valuable it becomes. I now focus (pun intended) most of my photographic intention on scenes that are less available as a result. Colorado is a big place and so is the world. I don’t feel a need to take the same photo that millions of tourists are getting every day. It’s pointless.

To generate an income with photography I have to move away from tourists locations and find new and unique things for my portfolio. It’s a challenge. I refuse to result to tourist photography for the purpose of generating income from my work.

For the average tourist, I have no qualms about them taking photographs in famous locations, adding to the already overflowing sameness of imagery for mass consumption. For many people, traveling to our national parks it is a one time event and there’s a certain “get me some of that” that people simply can’t resist when it comes to travel photography. We want our own version of that famous scene and who ever else may have photos of it doesn’t matter. But, from an artistic and professional and economic standpoint, it’s a waste of time and resources. I don’t know about other photographers, but I don’t want to take the same photograph that every monkey and their uncle takes. I don’t want to be a cow in a herd of cows.  Afterall, I’m an “artist.” I have some innate need to rise above the sameness.

I also have a sense of responsibility. I don’t want to contribute to the very thing that destroys what I love.

Your mileage may vary.