The world is being destroyed by tourism and I am the cause. There are currently 1.4 billion tourists out there and that number is only growing at an alarming rate. The world is addicted to travelling and I am one of the many pushers out there on the streets giving them their fix.
I have been travelling seriously since I was 15. An only son of two Airline parents I would hop a companion pass and take off with a few dollars in my pocket. Back then there was no internet, not smartphones, and the only information you had about a destination was what you brought in with you, usually in the form of a bent and beaten Globe Trekker guide that had 4 year old outdated information in it. It was an adventure to survive a city with every street a new possibility to have your mind blown. Not knowing what to expect was the greatest gift to travel.
I have watched the world, travel, and tourists change drastically over the last 20 years slowly building an acute awareness that we are destroying something that is not only a multi-billion dollar industry, but a true pure passion for most. Travel used to mean going someplace new, and more importantly, unknown. It meant discovery. It meant frequent bad meals, and quasi-dangerous hostels between getting lost, and very lost in places that simply had no use for another random person. However that environment yielded something that most travelers never even experience these days; discovery.
Cambodian children seeing a drone fly for the first time.
For most travelers they have already taken the trip before leaving their laptop or cellphone. They have had a full blown case of FOMO from seeing it on instagram, they know what the best restaurants are and even what the food tastes like, they know all the cool spots, secret menu items, and wifi passwords before stepping out the door. At best they will be walking through a memory yet had, expecting everything, being let down often, and seldomly being surprised. They will fake excitement to everyone not watching them eat something online, and they will return unfortunately with all the satisfaction of finishing a series on Netflix. Paint by numbers travel is the status quo, and I have been doling out these colors for years. No more.
I have extreme regret for what I did to destroy the world. Worse then what bankers did to our trust in economics, because I killed something living and breathing. There are so many voices out there forcing people to do this, see those, and eat that that we just seem to be running in circles of each other. Dreaded “top 10” lists are unnaturally formed, since most travellers only consider the most rated items on sites like Expedia, Kayak and Trip Advisor, which I have contributed nearly 1,000 reviews. I am the Baba Yaga of travel, and need to repent.
Last year I experienced something that shook me to my core, how much I disliked Reykjavik, or rather, how much Reykjavik disliked me. A friend and I had won a contest to make travel films for the famed WOW airlines (which we single handedly took down) and part of the “prize” to work for them was living in Reykjavik for a few months. The experience was unlike any other, in so much as I have never felt more unwelcome in my life.
“We are drowning in tourists,” Guðmundur, one of the only locals that actually befriended me during my time there, passionately tells me over an 18 USD crap draft beer. “We can’t eat, we can’t drink, we can’t walk down the street. We are infested with tourists. And I hate you.” Harsh, perhaps a bit intoxicated words, but true nevertheless. Iceland opens its doors to over 2 million overnight visitors each year, which is 6 times the countries population if you can believe it. “The tourists are like locust. That are loud, and fat and only go to see the stupid waterfall or sit in a man made pool to take pictures.” Guðmundur clearly has had enough but his point is made. Iceland’s greatest export is tourism at over 40% of their GDP coming from travel. With the end of WOW air, the country faced yet another collapse in their economy, one that travel tried to save. It is wholly unsustainable however, and more gravely, destroys the exact thing people are coming there for, the culture.
Beer is 18 dollars a glass. A $5 foot long Subway sandwich is 25 dollars. Renting a car requires a down payment of 300k dollars. That last one isn’t true, but that’s the feeling you get. When I tell you it is easier to rent an apartment in NYC then go out to eat in Reykjavik I’m not kidding.
Worse of all the people don’t want us. They don’t like us. We make everything expensive for them, we crowd the streets, and we are consuming disposable culture. “We are only interested in the 5 year friend, not the 5 minute friend.” Guðmundur tells me is the reason why no one even wants to talk to me at a bar. They know I’m just passing through.
In all my years of travel I have never felt so disgusting in all my life. Despite always trying to be a model tourist, there was no salvation here. It was a wake up call, that my love in life was threatening to implode on itself, and there is no way of stopping it.
There is, however, a way to avoid it.
There is a way to bring back the discovery, a way to bring back that original, irreplaceable feeling of wonder that I have been trying to maintain for 20 years. It takes a little work, and definitely courage, but it for the most part will ease the pain of an over-touristed planet. People are going to be irresponsible. They are going to take the easy road and top-10 themselves to death never to know the true beauty of being a professional traveler. We can only lead by example, so here are my 5 commandments to being a good traveller.
1. Be nice.
I start with this as it is the most important tool in your arsenal. Niceness will always get you the most out of any situation, period. Flight oversold and you’re stuck? Don’t yell at the poor human that is in front of you. Be nice. They’ll help you out if they can, or they won’t, but yelling is never going to make the odds of that any better. Someone purposefully trying to be a dick to you because they don’t like your accent/shoes/man-bun? Be nice, because it’s an opportunity to open their world to a new perspective, or at the very least you’re less likely to get shived if that was their plan. Just be nice. In general everyone around the world will open up to you if you show genuine interest in who they are and their culture, and if you’re nice about it, they’ll want to share. Don’t be afraid, be nice.
2. Be different.
I love Instagram. I love Trip Advisor. I love AirBnB. They tell me exactly the places to avoid writing about at all cost. If a country, a city or an experience is part of a top 10 then there is no reason for me to write about it. It’s had its moment in the sun, and I guarantee you there is better amatriciana, a better little museum, or a better secret bar just waiting to be discovered, mainly, because it will be yours, and the people there will be so happy to see you. SPREAD TRAVEL AROUND. That is your job as a travel journalist, to find NEW experiences for people to have, not to regurgitate well tread garbage. Sure some things need to be seen like Barcelona’s La Sagrada Familia or Machu Picchu, but don’t leave out Amsterdam’s Cat Museum or a visit to the oldest lightbulb in the world.
3. Be honest.
No one fails at vacationing. Or do they? I think failing is one of the most important parts of travel, yet, you would be hard pressed to find some of the most popular instagram accounts with anything less then impossibly perfect travel shots. This is garbage. Travel is hard. Bags are heavy. Communication can be difficult. Jet lag is real. Be honest. Be honest with your travel, and you will get so much more out of the experience of sharing it. If everything is so damn fabulous then how do you know it’s actually fabulous? Share bad experiences, and more, just be real with your audience about what is happening. Do they really have to eat this donut? Will it really blow their minds? I hundreds of reviews on Trip advisor, you know how many I’ve given 5 stars to? only 3. It’s no secret people find bad reviews more telling then good reviews.
4. Be ready.
If you like to make things to make things while you travel like me, you know that having the right gear is key. Too much and you’ll weigh yourself down, too little and you’ll be cursing yourself for not bringing “that lens”. Be ready. While technology changes constantly, I have a pretty solid set of tools I like to bring with me on any job. Here’s a quick little film I put together before my last trip:
And here is a rundown of the gear. Mind you I’m not sponsored by any of these brands. This is just my honest opinion from my experience as a traveller.
Sony A7rIII – light, fast, proxies on the fly, dual slot, sees in the dark.
24-105 Sony lens – great zoom lens, one lens to rule them all.
Zeiss CP 50mm macro – for the fancy stuff. great for portrait and food.
Sony A6300 – small B cam – great for incognito, also underwater.
CCTV lens – slap this on the the A6300 and you get some rad art shots
Lowepro camera bag – the greatest low-fi, heavy duty camera bag out there.
Travelpro Carry On Bag – low profile, indestructible, cheap and good.
Mavic Pro Drone – I’ve shot over 30 films around the world with this little guy.
Rode VideoMicro – super compact on camera mic
Sony URX Wireless Mics (lav) – expensive, but necessary for good interview audio.
BEATS wireless headphones – don’t know how to fly without them.
Holdfast Buffalo camera straps – hipster lingerie for photogs.
Bungee Strap – this 3 dollar hack that will save your back and give you smooth pans.
iM Corona Old Boy Lighter – the ability to start a fire is what separates humans for beasts.
Manfrotto 930 tripod – light, easy, small, nuff said
BANDANAS!!! – see the film. they have 1000 uses.
Eceen bag – great portable bag that’s good for day trips
Global Entry – a must if you don’t want to spend half a day at customs
Alka Seltzer – a must if you want to not worry about what you’re eating.
Moleskine Notebook – portable, never fails, and batteries never run out.
Belkin USB Powerstrip – you got gear, you gotta charge it, you need this.
TSA locks – probably useless but good piece of mind.
5. Be lost.
Perhaps the most important tip is to get lost. Getting lost is the only way to really discover anything about a place, and about yourself. If you research everything before you go, your experience will be predetermined. It is what is plaguing the world right now, channeling millions of people to the same city to eat the same meal in the same restaurant. How very boring, and dangerous, to the travel industry. Instead, be lost. Put the phone away, turn off the internet, forget the top 10 places and explore. Try talking with people that live in the city. If you are going to use social media, then reach out to locals for their advice. That’s what we did when we made films for WOW airlines and while TripAdvisor, Travel & Leisure and Culture Trip are great resources, we wanted what locals knew best about their city in hopes to give intrepid travellers a more authentic experience. If you are running into other tourists at places on trips, you may want to rethink your strategy.
They are simple guidelines I like to follow that hopefully will not contribute to the pandemic travel malarkey that is shrouding our world. I have always believed that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness” but unfortunately it’s becoming less effective. Hopefully this is a growing pain of a world getting smaller, and people will become more savvy looking for real experiences other then just virtual instagram moments. Finally, because I love “top 5” lists, I’ll answer the top 5 questions I get.
Q: Do you ever have any trouble with the TSA with all that gear?
A: Depends. There is no rhyme or reason when they will stop and search a bag of mine, despite literally packing it the same way for a decade. I do have TSA pre and Global Entry which helps a ton, but overall rule number one of “Be Nice” seems to be the only real salvation in a TSA situation.
Q: What phone carrier do you use? Is it not really expensive traveling as much as you do?
A: Google Fi on a Google Pixel. Before Google Fi I had AT&T for my iPhone, and yeah, it sucked. I did buy a cheap Samsung that I could pop a local SIM card in, but that was a pain too. Google Fi changed all that as I can literally go anywhere in the world and my phone works for the same data rate. It’s a game changer.
Q: Do you need a permit to fly a drone in all those countries?
A: Yes. You do. Legally. Drones are amazing tools that really take travel filmmaking to a new level. The key with them, as with anything, is be professional. I am FAA and IAA certified and licensed. I never fly in dangerous areas and don’t break laws. More importantly I don’t ever fly if I’m going to annoy someone or ruin their experience. Drones are loud, and people don’t like them, so be invisible, be quick, and be safe.
Q: Are there any specific clothing brands you like?
A: Socks I like Stance. PrAna also makes great travel gear that looks swank, great jeans and pants and shirts that don’t wrinkle. Buck Mason makes great lightweight clothes that look good dressed up or down. Duluth makes great tactical underwear. Yes tactical underwear.
Q: Do you know any travel hacks?
A: Hmm… well one thing I do is always keep an old hotel key with me in my go bag. Reason being is that most modern hotels these days require you put a key in to get the outlets to work, and if you’re charging batteries, then you best leave a key in while you’re out.