Lonely Planet Writer

Wonderings: has tourism become toxic in 2018?

Illustration of a traveller looking out of a train window at a lake with mountains and forest in the background © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet Wonderings: rambles through and reflections on travel... this month, James Kay explores the links between the year’s trending words and the travel industry’s biggest challenge © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet

Toxic. That’s the Word of the Year 2018 according to the lexicographers at Oxford Dictionaries, who revealed their annual list this month. The title goes to a word or expression that, in their considered opinion, is a sign of the times. Previous winners include post-truth, selfie and, my favourite, the ever-useful omnishambles.

Call me a gloom-monger if you wish, but toxic – from the Latin for poisoned or imbued with poison – feels like a fitting adjective to describe some, if not all, of the last 12 months in travel. Oxford points to a spike in the number of searches for it, plus the scope of its use. But you don’t need to dive into the data to hear the resonance of a word that can also mean bad, unpleasant or harmful.

Chemical is the noun most often caught in its company, but other combinations on the rise include toxic environment, toxic relationship and toxic culture. With my travel editor’s crumpled sweat- and sunscreen-stained hat on, I can’t help but join the dots between this grisly trio and some of the other expressions on the WOTY shortlist.

Crowded street in Rome Do all roads lead to Rome? Sometimes, it feels like it © Maxiphoto / Getty Images

A wicked problem

The shortlist contains overtourism, for example, which I’ve touched on before; at the risk of reducing a wicked problem to a sound bite, it describes what happens when what was once a blessing becomes a curse. This curse can take many forms: it can overwhelm infrastructure, damaging the environment; it can sour relationships between visitors and locals; it can erode the culture around which it grows.

I’ll be honest with you: it’s a prickly subject for professional stokers of wanderlust like me and my colleagues; however much Lonely Planet extols responsible travel – and we do, clearly and consistently – some see evidence of cakeism in our stance (another word from the shortlist, which riffs on the proverb about having one’s cake and eating it).

According to UNWTO, the number of international tourists has risen from about 25 million in 1950 to about 1.3 billion last year. Rising prosperity drives this growth. But there’s no doubt that we and other travel publishers play a part by kindling people’s desire to expand their horizons.

What has changed since the turn of the century, when that number was about 600 million, is the rise of technology that acts as both an accelerant of the desire, and offers us many more ways to satisfy it. (Incidentally, techlash – a word for the growing disillusionment with big tech – also features on the shortlist).

But nannyishly declaring a destination off limits, or staying silent about what draws people to it, won’t help; if anything, there’s an even stronger case for explaining what is popular, as that’s what travellers often want to know first, provided we cover it warts and all.

Sunset over whitewashed houses of Fira, Santorini, Greece Is Santorini over tourism? © Adrienne Pitts / Lonely Planet

Paradise lost

Take Santorini, for example: having adorned the covers of countless books, brochures and magazines (including our own), it’s the island that lures a thousand ships – okay, not quite a thousand, but hundreds each year, making it Greece’s most popular cruise destination. Why? Well, just take a look: black cliffs; white houses; fiery sunsets. Ravishing. But it’s also in danger of becoming a paradise lost. After her recent visit to update our content about Greece, our writer felt it was time to go further than simply stating Santorini was crowded for much of the year; now, alongside an explanation of its popularity, she says it is in effect dying of love.

With the world’s population projected to pass 10 billion halfway through this century, it won’t be alone. From Venice to Kyoto, the challenge is enormous – a Gordian knot whose untangling requires a coordinated, multi-pronged effort from governments, businesses, communities and, of course, travellers themselves.

As well as reflecting these growing problems (and, yes, there is much more for us to do on that front), we can, and do, flag up lesser-known but no less great destinations – this is one facet of our annual Best in Europe campaign, for example. We can point to underrated neighbourhoods and alternative experiences. And we can bang the drum for shoulder and off-season travel if your circumstances permit it.

Lonely Planet covers more than 200 countries and territories, recommending more than 270,000 experiences; to paraphrase Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata, despite all the challenges, it’s still a beautiful world. Our job is to tell people about it, inconvenient truths included, so that they can make informed decisions about where, when and how to travel. Done right, we still believe it’s a powerful force for good.