How Do We Save National Parks From Overtourism?

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CC BY 2.0. Shutterbug Fotos – Crowd on a mountaintop

Selfie culture poses a real threat to the great outdoors.

National parks have been around for a long time, but until social media came along, fewer people went to them. They were seen as the domain of outdoorsy individuals, who were as committed to spending time in the wilderness as others were to, say, hitting up the mall or getting their hair done.

Once selfies became a thing, though, and the general public had a platform on which to post evidence of their adventures (and enjoy the fleeting sense of status that accompanies it), national parks became inundated with visitors, all striving to get that Instagram-worthy photo.

In an article called, "How selfie culture ruins the great outdoors for everyone else," writer Joel Barde expresses concern about how the increasing popularity of natural spaces might end up destroying them. Places like Joffre Lakes Provincial Park in British Columbia, Canada, have gone from 52,000 visitors during the summer season of 2011 to 150,000 in summer 2018. Meanwhile, the infrastructure and budget have not changed, making it very hard for parks to manage the crowds.

Lacking, too, are basic outdoor skills that were assumed in most visitors up until recently. Barde writes,

"Exploring such places has traditionally been the reserve of a self-selected group of adventurers whose backcountry know-how and environmental ethic were forged in outdoor clubs or passed down through generations. For years, BC Parks catered to their needs, assuming a certain level of environmental values and skill."

Now the influx of selfie-hunters means parks are flooded with people who don't know what they're doing, are unfamiliar with trail etiquette, and inexperienced at gauging risks. The result is an increase in the number of emergency calls, which come at a cost to taxpayers.

Mike Danks, head of North Shore Rescue in the mountains near Vancouver, said he's hearing from more and more inexperienced hikers. "There is a clear link between increased call volume and the adoption of social media, which has attracted an international crowd."

anti-selfie sign

King Dumb/CC BY 2.0

All of this leads to complex questions. On one hand, it could be seen as a good thing that people are getting outside and exploring the wilderness near their homes. After all, as Barde put it, "Not everyone is lucky enough to have grown up backcountry camping or spending time in cottage country. And a conservation ethic is learned, not innate."

On the other hand, how does one learn a conservation ethic if every interaction with nature is mediated by a cell phone camera? The presence of that phone – and its constant wielding in every direction – impedes a person's ability to interact truly and deeply with their surroundings because one is always thinking about the next great shot.

There are lots of ideas floating around for how to improve the situation. Some parks have responded by improving signage to warn about risks, framing it as a text conversation or using catchy graphics. (This doesn't always work, as I witnessed at the Athabasca Glacier in 2016 when a woman ignored a sign warning of multiple people who'd died falling into crevasses and stepped over a barrier because she "didn't want it in the picture." She lived, but I remain shocked by her nonchalance.)

Some parks have increased the number of parking spaces, waived entry fees, and widened and flattened trails. But this, to me, is basically an invitation for more crowds to descend. It plays into that whole commodification of travel that I dislike for so many reasons – when travel is made so easy and efficient that great numbers of people descend for minimal amounts of time while causing disproportionate harm and offering few benefits to local inhabitants, whether human or animal. It also begs the question of where the limit is; at what point do we stop paving trails and expanding the parking lots to welcome visitors because these natural spaces are maxed out?

I prefer the idea of concentrating visitors at parks and natural sites closest to urban areas – a sort of sacrificial zone, I suppose – where Parks Canada or other overseeing agencies could concentrate their environmental ethics and etiquette training, in order to better prepare people for going further afield. Entry fees could be waived for these places and increased for other, more pristine locations. Public shuttle services to parks could be improved as well, discouraging people from driving their own cars.

Conversations about selfie etiquette must be implemented both within parks and further afield – in schools, ad campaigns, and in the parks themselves. Geotagging specific locations on social media remains a faux pas, as it can spell destruction, and more visitors need to realize that.

It's a complex issue with no clear solutions, but a valuable first step is for visitors to take responsibility for themselves and understand that having these gorgeous parks is a great privilege that deserves forethought and respect. Read up on the principles of Leave No Trace, visit in the off-season to reduce the burden, seek out less popular spots, carpool or use public transit or bicycles to arrive. Last but not least, consider leaving your phone behind in the car, doing as people used to do and simply enjoying the wilderness for its own sake.