To many tourists, leaving behind coins in a fountain, lovelocks on a bridge or clouties (offerings) at sacred sites is a symbol of luck, gratitude or tradition, yet few stop to consider the impact that these actions can cause to the places they so revere. Here we look at the damage that tourists can unwittingly inflict on some of the most beautiful places on the planet.
Tourism is just as environmentally damaging as any other industry with air travel, cruise ships, overcrowding, noise and overbuilding being responsible for a huge impact on the health of the countries affected - in fact tourism is responsible for nearly 10% of all greenhouses gases alone.
While many travellers are aware of this and will go out of their way to mitigate their impact, these same people will happily attach a padlock to a bridge to symbolise their 'eternal love', throw coins into any fountain or stream they may come across for 'good luck', or leave offerings at sacred sites to 'respect' some vague deity. These actions are just as damaging to both the environment and to the people who live in these places, and there are other options out there.
Lovelocks are wretched things. Started in Paris for some unknown reason, you can now find padlocks attached to nearly every bridge, railing or heritage site across the world. They are meant to symbolise eternal love, with people engraving their initials on the lock, attaching it to the bridge or railing and throwing the key into the river below.
The Pont Des Arts in Paris Photograph © Berlinuno
It all started at the Pont Des Artes in Paris in 2008 and swiftly reached epidemic proportions. As well as being an eyesore to the locals who just wanted their bridge back, in 2014 part of the bridge collapsed under the weight of the locks. The sides of the bridge were boarded over to prevent more being added and glass panels were then put in place to replace the railings. When the padlocks were removed, they weighed 40 tonnes. Sadly it seems that tourists are now happily writing their names all over the glass panels instead - seemingly graffiti is unacceptable in their own cities, but just fine in someone elses.
Aside from the ugliness of turning architectural pleasures into rusting, metallic eyesores, or the risk of being on a boat under one of these bridges when they collapse, there is also the damage caused by thousands of keys being thrown into the river below, which cause pollution, rusting, damage to the waterlife, and an increased risk of flooding for the locals.
While the tourists are safely back in their home country dreaming wistfully of their eternal love left on the bridges of Paris, the locals are dealing with an an increase in their taxes to pay for the lovelock removals, repairs to their bridges as well as unsightly damage to their beautiful hometown.
You have to ask yourself just how in love you really are if you feel the need to declare it with a rusty lock that causes nothing but damage and destruction.
Alternatives to lovelocks? Just don't. If you think they are 'cute', put one in your own garden and you get to admire it every day. If you really feel the need to publicly declare your love somehow, plant a seed, donate to charity, shout it from the rooftops, but leave the bridges and heritage sites of the world alone.
Photograph (and further information available at) © No Lovelocks
Coins in a fountain
This is another tradition, one that started centuries ago as offerings to deities that dwelled in the waterways, probably with Roman/Celtic origins. One of the most famous locations for doing this is another of the world's most romantic cities, this time Rome. Throwing one coin into the Trevi Fountain is meant to mean that you will return to Rome, two that you'll return and find eternal love, three that you will return, find love and marry.
While there is little harm in throwing coins into a fountain (they all get collected and given to charity), people now seem to chuck coins into any pretty bit of water that they find anywhere in the world. If there is a beautiful grotto somewhere, fish swimming around, gentle waterfalls, tumbling plantlife on the edges; you can guarantee that some idiot will have chucked a coin into it.
Scientific studies have proved that the water can react with the coins, depending on the coin's composition, and that chemicals can leach into the water.
This can have a devastating impact on the fish and plants that live in it. It is well known how filthy coins can be, covered in germs, fecal matter and other nastiness - all of this gets added to the water and can wipe out entire water based populations.
In India, it is considered good luck to throw coins into rivers. In the past, when coins were made of copper, it would have a beneficial effect to cleanse the water. Now that the coins are made of cancer-inducing chromium, these coins can cause death on a massive scale.
Alternatives to throwing coins? Either stick to throwing them in man-made fountains with no life in them, or better yet, just give your money directly to the charity and save some poor sod from having to wade through the water to collect them all.
Tying clouties (rags) to a sacred tree, well or site started as an ancient Celtic tradition in the UK and Ireland, but has now fragmented off into several different branches. Cloutie wells seem to be the origin of the tradition, with people visiting a sacred well, dipping the cloutie into it, washing a part of their body that needed healing with it, then tying the rag to the tree. As the rag rotted away, so the ailment would end. Others see the cloutie as an offering to the spirits that live in the well.
Although the tradition is one which was originally used by pagans, it now seems to be popular amongst people who have no idea of why they are doing it, and clouties are no longer biodegradable rags, but made of plastic, metal and other permanent materials.
Photos from The Witches Trees at Grovely Woods, Wiltshire
People leave all sorts of stuff attached to places that they have been told are sacred, or have some vague connection with witches, without considering that they are killing the places they are trying to 'honour'. Not only do these man-made materials look garish and unnatural, they never disintegrate and are just basically littering. If not removed, the tree can grow around the object, absorbing the chemicals and dying. The objects are often consumed by the birds and animals that call the place home, thereby killing them.
If people really feel the need to continue the ancient tradition, then do it the ancient way and use biodegradable materials. Some people will leave offerings of twigs and leaves - both far less destructive, ugly and invasive.
The same could be said for 'Wishing Trees' - the habit of hammering a coin into a tree trunk. This act directly kills the tree. It is an awful habit, even on dead trees - what may look dead to us is actually still a living habitat for the thousands of insects and algae that live on it and who are rendered homeless or killed by it.
If you really want to chuck money at woodland, donate it to the charity that looks after it.
Photograph © Ethan Doyle White
You really have to wonder why we have become so obsessed with leaving something of ourselves behind in a place we have visited, why there is a need to not just pass through a place but to claim ownership of some small part of it, to leave evidence of our presence there, to the point where we will actively destroy the place we claim to love so much?
Its time to move beyond our egos and to stop trying to colonise everywhere we go. Visit a place, then move on, it is really very simple.
"Leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time"