Overtourism, a term that has become an integral part of the global discourse in the past years, has shown the staggering effects of unchecked tourism on destinations worldwide.
According to a World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) report, international tourist arrivals skyrocketed to 1.5 billion in 2019, putting a strain on beloved landmarks and fragile ecosystems as local cultures reach a tipping point. Adding to the urgency, reports have pinpointed the tourism industry as the source of roughly 8% of global CO2 emissions.
As countries and cultures crack under this weight, the shift toward sustainable travel has become imperative.
Steven Garcia, the founder of Empire Tours and Productions, has long been aware of the dangers overtourism poses.
Steven’s approach to the industry is fueled by a unique passion: to find a way to let people explore the world without leaving it worse off. His company, which operates in multiple cities from Chicago and Charleston to New York, has set itself apart not just for its captivating tour experiences but also for its uncompromising commitment to balancing tourism with conservation.
“When we talk about sustainable tourism, we’re talking about more than just the environment. It’s about sustaining cultures, economies, and traditions,” he shares. “As professionals in the sector, we must ensure that all the world’s wonders are here to stay for the generations to come.”
The backbone of Garcia’s approach to sustainable tourism is the emphasis on walking tours. While, at first glance, walking tours might appear as just another travel option, in the context of sustainability, they bear immeasurable potential. Not only can they reduce the carbon footprint by steering away from transportation-dependent excursions, but they also offer travelers a slower, more intimate connection to their destination.
The slower pace also naturally reduces congestion in popular spots, and with fewer vehicles, a reduction in pollution is a natural outcome. In fact, by operating walking tours instead of bus tours, Empire Tours alone has eliminated over 5,000 hours of bus carbon emissions a year.
“Travel has always been about connection. We must connect deeply with the places we visit, ensuring that our footprints are both light and positive,” Steven Garcia says.
But Garcia’s mission reaches beyond the environment. He highlights that overtourism doesn’t just erode beaches or crowd the streets. It threatens local economies and cultures. Overwhelmed by a sea of travelers, destinations often see their cultural essence diminished as customs and traditions get overshadowed by commercialized experiences.
Garcia seeks to change this as his dream is to see people not simply visiting a place but truly understanding its soul.
The vast range of walking tours that Garcia’s company offers certainly reflects the sentiment. From food tours in Chicago, New York, and Charleston that take visitors on a delicious journey of savoring local flavors to the more thrilling and mysterious Ghosts and Gangsters Tours in Chicago and New York, where individuals walk in the footsteps of legendary and (in)famous historical figures, Empire Tours and Productions offers people an intimate view of each city’s spirit while ensuring the local landmarks, as well as the people, will neither be damaged nor disturbed.
Regarding his efforts to preserve local communities, Steven Garcia has also actively been hiring local guides and staff to ensure that tourism directly benefits the people who call the destinations home. As he explains, “This not only brings a sense of authenticity to the travel experiences but, this way, revenue can circulate within the community. It’s a win-win situation for both the locals and the people enjoying the sights.”
As impressive as Garcia’s efforts are, their true power hides in his focus on education. Rather than stopping at experiences, he always endeavors to engage and enlighten his clients by giving them an educational journey that fosters deep connections with the places visited.
By truly understanding the significance of the landmarks, alleys, and small local restaurants they see, people can forge an unbreakable bond, which Garcia believes can promote responsible behavior.
“Real transformation comes when travelers shift from being spectators to becoming thoughtful participants in the world they explore,” he states.
While it’s not uncommon to find enterprises that prioritize profits over sustainability, Garcia and Empire Tours and Productions have set a higher standard in the tourism industry. Through their example, it’s evident that it’s possible to explore the world without causing harm – a model that all businesses would do well to follow.
As Garcia says, “Travel should be about connection – with the environment, with culture, and with each other. Profit should always be secondary.”