15 Travel Destinations Being Ruined by Tourism

A highway runs right past the world-renowned Stonehenge site in England.
Cars travel past the neolithic wonder of Stonehenge in the English countryside.

Aaron Black / Getty Images

Travel provides folks with the opportunity to discover new places, experience different cultures, and learn about the great wonders of the natural world. While tourism can be positive for some in the local economy, it isn't always beneficial to the environment or local residents. Unfortunately, many of the most beautiful places in the world are being marred by too many visitors.

Here are 15 places around the world that are being threatened by tourism.

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Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu on a bright, sunny day

Kelly Cheng Travel Photography / Getty Images

Perched high in the Andes Mountains of Peru, these Incan ruins remained relatively unknown to outsiders until 1911 when archaeologist and explorer Hiram Bingham was led there by local Quechuas. Since then, hundreds of thousands of tourists have flocked to Machu Picchu every year, threatening the fortitude of the ancient site. In January 2020, for instance, the Peruvian government deported several tourists who had snuck onto the grounds and caused damage to the stone wall of the Temple of the Sun. UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency, has issued repeated warnings of the ongoing threat posed to Machu Picchu by tourism.

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A pyramid at Teotihuacan near Mexico City

Anuska Sampedro / Getty Images

Constructed between the first and seventh centuries CE, the pre-Hispanic city of Teotihuacan is a spectacular display of Mesoamerican civilization that sits just northeast of Mexico City. The remarkable ancient city and the structures found there, like the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon and the Temple of the Plumed Serpent, are under constant threat of urban development encroaching ever closer to the site. 

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Angkor Wat

The large temple Angkor Wat is reflected in a pool on a cloudy day

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The massive Angkor Archaeological Park in Cambodia contains the remains of the Khmer Empire, including the iconic Angkor Wat temple, and has been under threat since opening up to tourism in the 1990s. One significant issue created by the influx of tourists involves the tremendous amount of strain put on the local water supply. Due to these shortages and the resulting tapping of groundwater to make up for the losses, the water table in the area has dropped to dangerous levels. In turn, this has caused the soil on which these ancient temples stand to begin to sink.

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Stonehenge on a clear day in the English countryside

Beachmite Photography / Getty Images

Stonehenge, the famous Neolithic arrangement of stones in southern England, receives more than one million visitors per year. The roughly 5,000-year-old monument is situated amid bucolic rolling hills that might inspire tranquility, if not for the loud and often-congested two-lane highway that runs near the site. To remedy this, a proposal was approved in 2020 to replace the problematic section of road with a tunnel that would carry passengers underneath the grounds. Many archaeologists, as well as UNESCO’s world heritage committee, however, have expressed serious concern that the tunnel’s construction would destroy millions of artifacts in the soil that have yet to be discovered.

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Mount Everest

A line of climbers hike toward Mount Everest's peak

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The 29,032-foot-tall Mount Everest on the border of Nepal and China was first summited in 1953 by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Since then, adventure-seekers have reached the mountain’s peak with ever-increasing frequency, with many more (500 per day during peak season) ascending to the mountain’s Base Camp. As a result of this influx of tourists, Mount Everest has become riddled with trash and its footpaths have begun to erode. In 2019, 24,000 pounds of trash were removed from the site, but the root cause of the problem persists.

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Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal in India on a clear, blue-sky day

Tony Shi Photography / Getty Images

Built in the 17th century by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the memory of his wife, the Taj Mahal is considered one of the premier architectural wonders in the Indo-Islamic cultural sphere. The white marble mausoleum has attracted more and more tourists each year, with several million visiting per year. To limit any potential damage to the site by the large, daily crowds, UNESCO has proposed that an “Integrated Management plan is necessary to ensure that the property maintains the existing conditions.”

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Ngorongoro Crater

A female lion hunts in the Ngorongoro Crater

Abdelrahman Hassanein / Getty Images

The Ngorongoro Crater in the United Republic of Tanzania is one of Africa's great natural treasures. Known for being the biggest, unbroken caldera, or volcanic crater, in the world, the Ngorongoro Crater is home to many endangered species, like the black rhino, and archaeologists have discovered much about human evolution from evidence found beneath its soil. Unfortunately, the rapid increase in tourism to the crater is placing severe pressure on the infrastructure needed to support such numbers. Further construction of roads and accommodations for tourism pose threats to the crater’s natural state and the wildlife that live within it.

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A large crowd gathers near Piazza San Marco in Venice at sunset.

Blaine Harrington III / Getty Images

Venice, Italy—the romantic, ancient city built on water—is home to some of the most impactful architecture and culture in all of the world, but the large number of visitors who travel there are threatening its very survival. While only around 50,000 people live year-round in the historical city of Venice as of 2021, roughly 30 million tourists fill its buildings and canals each year. The disproportionate number of residents versus tourists has caused many Venetians to be displaced from their homes in favor of commercial interests, which, apart from the personal human impact, fundamentally alters the culture of the place.

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The Galapagos Islands

Plant life on the Galapagos Islands with a cruise ship in the background

Markus Gebauer Photography / Getty Images

The 21 islands of the Galapagos, made famous by Charles Darwin for his study of the endemic species there, are under threat from overtourism. Large cruise ships bring more than 150,000 tourists to the Ecuadorian islands each year, and they frequently contaminate the seawater with engine oil. New high rise buildings, hotels, and restaurants have been built in Puerto Ayora, the most populated town on the islands, to support the lucrative tourism industry. One conservation plan aimed at reducing tourism includes allowing only small cruise ships into harbor. Another plan hopes to achieve the same goal by doubling the fee to Galapagos National Park.

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A cruise ship carrying passengers in orange coats arrives at a rocky and icy shore in Antarctica

Andrew Peacock / Getty Images

Although Antarctica is the least visited continent in the world, its fragile ecosystem makes tourism there all the more impactful. Each austral summer season (November to February), tens of thousands of visitors flock to its icy shores on large cruise vessels. Tourists seeking to get the most out of their experience often visit the most dramatic landscapes with a high density of animal life. Some penguin species, like the Adélie penguin, become frightened of the large crowds of people and are forced to migrate away from their preferred nesting grounds.

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Masai Mara

A row of tourist-filled jeeps trap three female lions

Paul Souders / Getty Images

The 580-square-mile Masai Mara game reserve in Narok, Kenya is known the world over for its extraordinary wildlife population—from leopards and lions to ostriches and African wild dogs. The reserve is also notable for the Great Migration that takes place within its borders and includes millions of Thomson’s gazelles, blue wildebeest, topi, Grant’s zebras, and common elands. However, an increase in tourism to Masai Mari is dramatically impacting the land and the animals that live on it. Hordes of tourist-filled jeeps on safari startle, and even chase, wildlife through the Serengeti for just a glimpse of an animal. The increasing crowds have also built up demand for more lodging, which presents its own set of problems with roads and construction that disrupt the natural cycle of life on the reserve.

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Phi Phi Islands

A crowd of beachgoers with the limestone cliffs of the Phi Phi Islands behind them

Fabio Achilli / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The beautiful Phi Phi islands in Thailand were made famous by the 2000 film “The Beach,” but the spike in tourism that followed has damaged the delicate ecosystem there. In a place that is ostensibly popular for its natural beauty, tourists are welcomed to the Phi Phi Islands by dozens of hotels, a strip of shops, restaurants, and nightclubs. Maya Bay, where filming for “The Beach” took place, was receiving 5,000 tourists per day for swimming, snorkeling, and boating. As of 2018, however, Maya Bay has been closed off to tourists entirely in an effort to repair its fragile ecosystem.

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A sign welcoming tourists to Cozumel sits in front of a large cruise ship

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Known for its scenic beaches and vibrant nightlife, the 250-square-mile island of Cozumel off the coast of Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula has long been a popular tourist destination. Although a boon for the local economy, the millions of visitors who flock to the Caribbean island each year have begun to negatively impact its environment. The large number of ships and boats that crowd Cozumel’s waters create underwater noise that scares off the very creatures divers hope to see. Coral reefs are also under grave threat from overtourism, although groups like the Mesoamerican Reef Tourism Initiative have worked to mitigate the damage through extensive education efforts.

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The Great Wall of China

A heavy crowd of tourists walk on the Great Wall of China as barren mountains stretch into the distance

Fabio Lotti / EyeEm / Getty Images

The ancient Great Wall of China contains sections that date back to 221 BCE during the Qin dynasty, but now the 13,171-mile-long historic structure faces a tremendous threat. While damage to the wall caused by storms and a lack of renovation funding are part of the problem, the high number of visitors greatly exasperates it. The Badaling Great Wall Scenic Area near Beijing, the most popular section of the wall, received a whopping 10 million visitors in 2018 alone. To combat the dramatic rise in tourism, the number of visitors to the Badaling section was limited to 65,000 per day, and ticket reservations were made mandatory.

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Hundreds of tourists sit under umbrellas at sunset on a beach in Bali

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Bali receives millions of tourists each year who come to experience its volcanic landscapes, lush rice paddies, and scenic ocean views, but the large crowds are taking a toll on the small Indonesian island. The cultural hotspot is now facing a severe water shortage due to the high demand placed by tourists. This scarcity doesn’t only pose a risk to drinking water and sanitation for visitors, it disrupts the local economy as well. Many young farmers have been forced to leave the agricultural trade because the high cost of water has made irrigation difficult. Bali also suffers from a plastic waste problem that is heightened significantly by the heavy volume of visitors.