Off the beaten path travel is increasingly difficult to find as time marches on. Mass tourism is impacting everything from our favorite cities to the seas that surround them. All the while locals and the environment are often an afterthought. This series, Trailblazers, checks in with writers, photographers, filmmakers, activists and environmentalists who are passionate about off the beaten path travel.
Margherita Ragg is the co-founder of The Crowded Planet and comes from Milan, Italy, but is now in the United Kingdom where she has spent the better part of the last nine years traveling — first part-time and then full-time from 2014 onwards. Her passions center around hiking, ecotourism, good coffee, tasty street food, cats, and when her schedule allows, sleeping in.
Without A Path Off the beaten path travel seems to be increasingly popular. What are your impressions?
Margherita Ragg I think off the beaten path travel has become a necessity nowadays. Overtourism has ruined many places and increased the rift between travelers and locals, yet at the same time, tourism has the potential of doing wonders for communities. I think it’s sensible to travel off the beaten path, but we need to be careful because, in the age of ‘viral’ content, it’s very easy to flood formerly off the beaten path locations with visitors, which can have negative consequences.
WAP Tell us about The Crowded Planet.
MR We started The Crowded Planet as a way to share what we are passionate about, namely hiking, adventure, nature, unusual destinations, and photography. I also work as a freelance journalist and The Crowded Planet has become an outlet for stories we wanted to tell, but we couldn’t find an outlet for, like our Grindadrap in the Faroe Islands piece, which has attracted a fair bit of controversy.
WAP What inspired you to get more involved in writing about sustainable travel?
MR I think it was witnessing terrible animal cruelty while on our first trip to Asia in 2009; the fact that everyone seemed nonchalant about riding elephants, drinking civet coffee, and all that. Things have definitely improved since then, but there’s still a lot to be done. I was recently in southern Africa and activities like lion encounters are still routinely offered. Also, sustainable travel is not just about interacting with nature, but also with communities. I still see travelers routinely disrespecting local cultures or using sacred places as a backdrop for their insta-perfect images without sharing info about the significance of that place. I think much still needs to be done to educate travelers about how to interact responsibly with local cultures.
WAP How do you wrestle with encouraging people to visit alternative destinations with the carbon footprint your readers will be leaving behind?
MR This is a really tough one. We can’t give up flying altogether so we try to limit long-haul flights to only a few a year. For instance, I have seen travel bloggers fly from Europe to Asia for a week-long campaign, then fly back to Europe for another project, then off to Asia again. We wouldn’t do that. We would choose to be involved in fewer things but not move around as much. Also, sustainability is what got us into long-distance hiking. We’ll never achieve carbon-neutral travel, but long-distance hiking is as close as we can get.
WAP What’s been the biggest surprise you’ve experienced since getting started?
MR In terms of blogging, it was the amazing level of support offered by the travel blogging community. It truly is one big family. Don’t get me wrong, there are some nasty people here and there, but generally speaking most people are just amazing.
In terms of travel in general, it’s how quickly a destination can move from being unknown to becoming overwhelmed with tourists. We saw that happen in Svaneti, Georgia, and Jericoacoara, Brazil. What were once small villages became hot destinations, overrun with tourists in a matter of years, upsetting the balance of local life.
WAP Do you have a favorite off the beaten path travel destination?
MR This year we visited Kyrgyzstan for the first time and really loved it. We worked with USAID to promote examples of community-based tourism. Instead of creating infrastructures and giving them to western companies to run, they’re left in the hand of locals, creating empowerment and employment opportunities. The fact that locals are left to run things directly means that locals are able to benefit first hand from tourism income instead of simply becoming employees of western-owned establishments.
WAP How can the travel industry both preserve off the beaten path travel destinations and help those areas that have been negatively impacted by mass tourism?
MR I think control and careful management are key. I think the most effective way to preserve off the beaten track destinations is involving locals, not just using them as cheap labor, like in the Kyrgyzstan example. To control overtourism, many African locations limited tourist numbers in national parks by charging exorbitant daily fees. It certainly worked, but it cuts out an entire section of the traveling population — those who aren’t able to afford those fees. I think capping numbers, like it’s done on the Inca Trail, is fairer, but then again, there probably isn’t a perfect solution.
WAP Could you offer a tip for readers who want to find off the beaten path travel destinations and travel responsibly?
MR Search out locations where tourism is still in the hands of locals and be very careful to respect local norms when posting on social media. It’s true that a picture can speak a thousand words but sometimes images can be misunderstood. Always share stories, not just pictures.
WAP On a happier note, what’re you most looking forward to in your work and travels?
MR This is the time of year when we plan our travels for the year ahead and so far we’ve confirmed Mexico and possibly Canada for spring/summer 2018. In the fall we’ll head back to Asia, but nothing has been planned yet. I’m so excited to see where the industry will be heading, too, even though sometimes it’s so hard to keep up!
All photos courtesy of Margherita Ragg