Off limits: why are we drawn to forbidden sites and endangered destinations?

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From people taking forbidden trips to visit the world’s tallest tree to tourists taking mopeds for a spin in Pompeii, some of us like to go where we shouldn’t.

The sometimes irresistible lure of risky travel means people often defy the rules despite possible fines, jail time and other penalties.

Beyond banned destinations, places in danger of disappearing also attract huge crowds – even when increased visitor numbers cause additional damage to the places we want to see most. Thousands of people flock each year to delicate and beautiful regions that may not be the same by the end of the decade.

So why do we do it and what’s the appeal of the adventures we’re told not to take?

We spoke to consumer psychology expert Matt Johnson to find out.

Why do we visit forbidden destinations?

Recently, officials at California’s Redwood National Park warned intrepid tourists they could face a $5,000 (€4,912) fine and jail time for visiting the world’s tallest tree. There are no official paths to the site, they warned, and increased visitation is damaging the surrounding forest.

And even, driven by travel bloggers and influencers sharing its exact location, a significant number of hikers still trekked through the glades to see this record-breaking tree in person.

There are a range of motivations for visiting places where tourists are expressly prohibited from going, according to Johnson.

“Some, for example, believe that the world is for people to enjoy and see, and that no government or organization has the right to restrict their visit. They reject authority, and may even be visiting these sites as a sign of rebellion.

For others, it’s the rarity of the experience that makes them want to go. When visiting a site is illegal, it makes sense that few people have taken the risk of doing so.

“There is probably something very valuable to a certain subset of travelers in the rarity of a travel experience that so few people have had,” Johnson says.

Influencerstravel bloggers and writers – like those revealing the location of the world’s tallest tree – can also have a big impact on people’s perception of doing something illegal.

“One thing that savvy influencers excel at is building a like-minded community. And if they can convince their audience that it’s okay to go to a certain forbidden place, that normalizes the visit.

Johnson says that usually, if you expressed interest in visiting one of these sites, you’d receive a pushback from family and friends — what psychologists call compensating influences. In an online community where everyone thinks they are acceptable, this kind of behavior is normalized.

“If everyone around you thinks something is acceptable, you will most likely adopt the same line of thinking.”

What is the attraction of “last chance” tourism?

Even when visiting a destination is not illegal, some holidays have a negative impact on the place you choose to visit.

Climate change has triggered an influx of tourists to Greenland, for example, who feel the need to see its magnificent glaciers before they disappear forever. This beautiful natural environment could soon disappear and it is this threat that is fueling an influx of visitors.

“The general trend of consumerism is that as opportunity becomes scarce, demand increases. The same is especially true for travel,” says Johnson.

“When it becomes clear that a certain place may not be there for too long, it increases the demand to go and visit it during the narrow window that it is still there.”

But the more people visiting, the more a place is damaged by the high number of tourists and the flights they use to get there. Even though we know our vacations will damage the destination, Johnson says the urge to see rare sights before they’re gone is so strong it overrides many people’s ethical concerns.

“Unique opportunities are very hard to pass up.”

The individual impact of each visitor is seen as a small part of the overall problem. This means that the damage each person feels responsible for is minimal, reducing the burden of guilt for many tourists.

“The degradation really happens when this behavior is practiced by thousands of people over several years. And so it’s very easy for any one person to think that there’s nothing really wrong with that kind of behavior,” Johnson adds.

What can we do to prevent bad tourist behavior?

To discourage people from visiting places they shouldn’t, we need to paint a bigger picture. When we focus on the individual, we tend to assume that we are the only ones doing something and that our actions don’t matter.

“As humans, we tend to have a very hard time thinking about our behavior as part of a larger pattern of activity,” Johnson says.

“The problem is, when thousands of people all think they don’t have a lot of negative impact, they collectively have a pretty big negative impact.”

As more people visit, Johnson says we feel like changing our behavior won’t do anything.

“I also think people can be very cynical about other people’s behavior, which leads to a kind of cynicism about making these visits,” he says.

“You may think, ‘Well, nobody’s going to stop visiting it. I might as well visit it too and see it while it’s still there.

People embark on these kinds of trips because they’ve come to believe that it’s socially acceptable to do so – even if the consequences of being caught are dire.

Showing tourists that not everyone thinks it’s okay to do what they do could be the key to deterring them from damaging or illegal behavior.

Johnson explains that “tactics could be used to reduce this line of thinking by highlighting how negatively this behavior is actually viewed.”

“This could include disclaimers that list statistics about it, such as ‘95% of travelers consider traveling to X location a mistake’ or ‘95% of travelers dislike people who travel to X location’. “

This, he concludes, provides those strong “compensating influences” that are often missing in communities that normalize visiting places we shouldn’t.

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