The effects of tourism on the land did not originally strike me in the American West, but in the Global South. At Machu Picchu in Peru, I took this picture that not many people would think of when they think of Machu Picchu.
People come from all over the world to view the "lost city of the Incas." The place is a zoo. It's definitely not as "middle of nowhere" as the Incas intended it to be. Machu Picchu was a city built for 1000 people that 2500 people visit every single day of the year. 500 people can be found on the Inca Trail on any given day. According to our guide, they're thinking of restricting visitation even more due to erosion and death of tourists due to negligence. Aguas Calientes, the gateway village to Machu Picchu, has exploded (apparently within the last 10–15 years) with luxury hotels on dirt roads and wealthy folks asking where they can watch the Tour de France.
I noticed something similar in Yellowstone National Park. If I remember correctly, Yellowstone has the longest average visitor stay of all the national parks at 1.5 days. This gives visitors enough time to visit all of the drive-by attractions like Old Faithful or Grand Prismatic and get caught in a bear jam. Even with such a short average stay, Yellowstone is shouldering a burden with ~4 million tourists a year. Sewage, soil erosion, traffic, parking, invasive species, loss of wildlife, and safety are all part of this huge complicated monster of a problem that Machu Picchu, Yellowstone, Moab, Zion, and more have to tackle.
Taking in the beauty of Old Faithful and Beehive Geyser
Restricting visitation seems like the easy way out. Machu Picchu has and will continue to do it, but there are Peruvians who live and die in nearby Cusco (where many tourists fly into to go to Machu Picchu) who have never been able to go. There are folks from Salt Lake City that have never been to Utah's national parks. A four hour drive is feasible for some but impossible for others. It has become a destination for the privileged. It's also a money maker for the country. Havasupai Falls does a permit system as well because it is on the Havasupai Indian Reservation so restricting visitation is better for their livelihood and environment. However, the national parks aim to make nature more accessible, not necessarily a profit. "First come, first served" restrictions would be difficult because many national parks are off the beaten path so visitors can't just go home if they can't get in. Increasing the prices makes it less accessible to those who can't afford to pay or take time off work. Not to mention that if you can't cough up the cash required for the Old Faithful Inn or even a Super 8, camping is not cheap nor accessible for some. There's no rent to stay in a tent, but you still have to buy it.
The first groups of tourists starting the 10 mile hike to Havasupai at 7 in the morning
I think Zion National Park has done a good job at accommodating for large numbers. They have introduced a shuttle system to take visitors through the small canyon. I'm not sure how well places like Yellowstone could implement that because of their sheer size. While I'd rather not be in the shuttle, I am just another tourist hating tourists. I am not unique or better than others because I consider myself well travelled, outdoorsy, or prefer national parks over Disneyland. Tourism is tourism. Whether we are in Glacier or Hawaii, we are seeing a staged image of the area. Paths, roads, and boardwalks are specifically placed for the viewers' experience. We think we're seeing an untouched landscape. Visitors to Salt Lake City won't come to Pioneer Park unless it's had its makeover (AKA removing the homeless people) for the Farmer's Market or Twilight Concert Series. If you pass through Cusco, Peru on your way to Machu Picchu, you probably won't notice all the poverty because it's not where the tourists are.
A pristine view of Mt. Rainier from the visitors' center parking lot
A couple drinks wine and enjoys the smokey sunset over Many Glacier Valley from the luxurious Many Glacier Hotel.
While we have talked about more complications than solutions as a group, a growing population should hopefully force us into finding a cure, which older folks cheerfully say is our future job as leisure becomes more of a commodity. We set aside national parks to protect them from development and extraction, but at what point are we deteriorating them and the surrounding communities?