Sunday, August 25, 2019

Overtourism (Walden Pond, MA, USA)

“Overtourism,” a relatively new word, is the perceived overcrowding from an excess of tourists, to the detriment of the local population, the tourists, and/or local ecology. According to Wikipedia, it is now the most commonly used expression to describe the negative impacts ascribed to tourism. The quality of life of local citizens is affected, but there is also a negative impact on the quality of the visitor experience. Ask anyone who lives in or has visited such popular locations such as the French Quarter of New Orleans, or Venice, Italy, during the tourist season.

Locals are crushed by crowding. Moving about by car, or even on foot, becomes difficult. Any variety in shopping opportunity is crowded out by souvenir shops selling t-shirts and coffee mugs, and by fast-food restaurants. The tourist experience is also degraded by the crowding. Long lines plague getting to the attractions, and even walking across a plaza or down a market street becomes a shuffling daymare. Littering, water- and air-pollution become problems when local government infrastructure cannot keep up with demand.     

Can overtourism be overcome? A quote attributed to Yankees baseball player Yogi Berra, but actually much older, is: “Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded.” Popularity can wane once the reputation for an unspoiled and authentic experience is lost, but not if the core attraction is famous enough. Neither scores of tour buses (Chichen Itza, Mexico), nor cruise ships by the dozens (Barcelona, Spain), nor New York City by the tens of millions, have diminished the tourists’ desire to visit these locations.

Overcrowding occurs even on mountains. Nepal refuses to limit the number of permits to attempt Mount Everest, resulting in deaths because climbers run out of oxygen while waiting their turn at the peak. In Switzerland, numbers attempting the Matterhorn are limited. In Australia, climbing of Uluru, formerly known as Ayer’s Rock, will be banned effective October 26, 2019.

Walden Pond beach, Concord, MA
The closest experience residents of Stow and Maynard have to chronic overtourism is in neighboring Concord, both downtown and at Walden Pond. The former accommodates by providing off-street parking, a staffed visitors’ center (with bathrooms), and starting in 2013, a ban on the sale of bottled water. Walden Pond State Reservation now closes access to the park when the parking lot reaches capacity. The path around the pond is managed to minimize soil erosion.

The pond has its own problems. As a kettle pond, Walden Pond does not have streams flowing into it. This means that most of the water in the pond is a result of rain water and snow melt sinking down into the surrounding sand/gravel soil, then subterraneanously filtering into the pond. Historically, this resulted in a nitrogen- and phosphorous-poor body of water that did not support water plant growth. Thoreau’s description in 1854 was of water “so transparent that the bottom can easily be discerned at the depth of 25 or 30 feet.” One of Waldon Pond’s problems today is that of too many people peeing in the pond, contributing nutrients that promote algae and plant growth.

Improved bathroom facilities and signs advising against this practice are helping, but because there is no outflowing stream to remove nutrient-rich algae and surface water plants such as duck weed, the nutrient cycle is vertical: summer’s growth dies in fall, sinks to the bottom, there to decay, and thus releasing nitrogen and phosphorus back into the water. The same vertical problem plagues the Assabet River to a much greater extent, as the dams prevent the river from being flushed clean by winter’s snow melt. Town sewage treatment plants along the Assabet are now required to further restrict nutrient release, but tributaries bring in nutrient-laden sediment, with contributions from farm, lawn, garden and golf course fertilizer treatments.  

Neither Stow nor Maynard have much in the way of tourist attractions. (At apple-picking season, Honey Pot Hill Orchard, Stow, does cause traffic jams.) There have been recent and future changes that bring more visitors to Maynard: designation as a Massachusetts Cultural District, Emerson Hospital’s establishment of an out-patient center at the former Walgreens building, the Assabet River Rail Trail – including the nascent Trail of Flowers project – and the pending operation of two or three marijuana dispensaries. None of this will make Maynard a tourist Mecca. Stow gets it leaf peepers, but the effects are at most seasonal and modest.  

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