Mass tourism is at a crossroads – but we are all part of the problem | Martin Kettle
NOTThirty years ago, while researching for a Guardian series on global population pressures, I interviewed zoologist Desmond Morris. During this interview Morris said something that was hard to forget. “We have to recognize,” he said, “that human beings can become an infestation on the planet.”
These words came back to me as reports came in of the growing backlash in many parts of Europe against the depredations of mass tourism. Last week I read a stressful story in The Times about appalling passport control delays at Milan airport; three days later, I walked through those same passport doors with only a brief and courteous check.
Nonetheless, when places from the Mediterranean to the Isle of Skye all start to complain more or less simultaneously about the sheer pressure of tourist numbers on their streets and beauty spots, as happened in August, we feels that the ever-precarious balance between places visited and visitors has gone beyond a tipping point.
Photos of a wall in Barcelona saying ‘Tourist Go Home’ or of protesters in Palma saying ‘Tourism kills Mallorca’ should strike a chord with anyone whose summer getaway has taken them to places like San SebastiÃ¡n, Dubrovnik, Florence, Venice and – further afield – New Orleans and Thailand. Because all have taken or are considering measures to limit the relentless pressure of mass tourism by people like you and me.
As you might expect, Venice is one of the most agonizing of all pressures. It embodies the increasingly irreconcilable forces of vernacular life, tourism and sustainability in historic parts of Europe. But that doesn’t stop millions from arriving all the time – 28 million this year, in a city of 55,000 people, many disembarking from monstrous cruise ships that eclipse the ancient city as it approaches the Grand Canal. Every summer day is a humiliation for most of the things the world cherishes about Venice. Not surprisingly, many locals have had enough.
This is a pattern that is repeated in different ways in other heavily visited regions of Europe and beyond. Barcelona anarchists grabbed the headlines by brandishing tourist buses to protest the cost of living they say is inflicted by tourism, especially short-term rental companies such as Airbnb, which drive up housing costs. Next week, something similar is promised in the Basque city of San Sebastian.
But these are just the hot spots. The tourism problem is much larger. Humans around the world make more than a billion trips abroad per year, twice as many as 20 years ago. In Britain, this week’s statistics show we took 45 million overseas vacations last year, a 68% increase from 1996. And overseas travel is cutting into the both directions. Many of those interviewed in the media when the narrow road to Glen Brittle on Skye became congested with traffic this week were visitors from Europe, drawn not only by the scenery but by the favorable exchange rate.
The problem manifests itself in both supply and demand. There is not enough room for most to walk around central Dubrovnik, or enough public toilets on Skye for visitors. But the number of people wishing to visit such places is steadily increasing, fueled by greater global prosperity, cheaper air travel and an increased overall supply of hotels around the world. Tourism is today the biggest employer on the planet. One in 11 people depend on industry for work. Unsurprisingly, few governments wish to curb such a source of wealth.
You only have to become a consumer of the travel industry, as many of us are doing this summer, to realize that you too are part of this problem, not the solution. We all want to go to places like Venice. And most of us are ready to submit to the indignities and embarrassments that come with it – whether it’s annoying but necessary security checks or overcrowded boarding lounges, no-frills flight regulations, price gouging. rental cars and everything in between. Rationally, the European mass travel industry is not suited to its purpose. I challenge anyone to say they love Luton Airport. Yet we still come. Few are seriously discouraged.
Can something be done to bring the visited and the visit into a more sustainable balance? It’s tempting to fall back on Morris pessimism and suspect that he can’t, that the problems are unmanageable. There are several really difficult issues involved here. The most important, in a global sense, is the rise of Chinese tourism. But why should the Chinese be denied the rewards – for they certainly exist – of travel? The carbon footprint of the tourism industry is also problematic. But if people want to take planes, and planes are available, who can say it should stop? Closer to home, there is no doubt that many British tourists behave badly abroad. The bachelorette party culture is out of control. But you can’t restrict access to Italy to those who know their Giotto from their Duccio.
Writing a few days ago, writer Elizabeth Becker argued that only governments can handle uncontrollable tourism. Governments can control entry into their countries, she said, can regulate airlines and ships, prevent inappropriate hotel development, and use taxes to shape visitor demand and benefit locals. , impose limits on fraudulent prices that distort markets. Yet even Becker admits that most governments prefer it the way it is. The prospect of truly effective coordination by governments remains remote.
It would be wonderful if governments could find effective ways to at least alleviate the worst problems. Some, like those in Thailand and Bhutan, have been bold, even though most restrictions hit the less well-off harder and are more easily bypassed by the rich. The role of government action in ensuring adequate and appropriate infrastructure in tourist areas is indisputable.
Ultimately, however, I think we also need to take on greater individual responsibility. This will irritate those who see themselves as independent travelers rather than members of tourist herds, but unless we more seriously embrace individual and collective restraint, destruction and damage to cities like Venice or to cities like Venice. Beauty sites like Glen Brittle will simply increase.
We need to re-examine the idea that we enjoy unhindered freedom to travel at will or for pleasure. We need to rethink the impulse that says vacations from work – or retirement from work – are an open sesame to exploring the world. We should learn from Henry David Thoreau that one can travel as much – and develop as much as a human being – in one’s own locality as in the far and exotic corners of the globe.
Traveling expands the mind, they say. But does the person whose air-conditioned tour bus takes them to a distant glacier in Patagonia or to the Mona Lisa for a quick selfie before dropping them off at a characterless international hotel richer in experience than one spending the same time? watching the birds or butterflies in the back garden? I doubt. We may not be an infestation yet. But we are a problem. Travel can also narrow the mind.