The invisible impact of mass tourism

(Credits: Far Out / Claudio Schwarz / Dim Hou)


I was recently sent to write about a city on the shores of the Mediterranean. The land was rich and fertile – the sea a brilliant powdery blue. On Sundays the cathedral was heavy with incense, and in the evening the sun cast a rosy glow over the fishing boats in the harbour. It was fall, it wasn’t even that touristy – except for the obligatory herds of tough retirees. Why, then, did I find it so hard to ignore the tired faces of the restaurant staff? Maybe because I was starting to feel a little guilty for being there. With its booming hotels, crowded beaches, and EDM boat parties, this town was curated with me in mind, right?

The palm trees clogged with tar; the mulberry trees pruned so as not to produce unsightly puddles of rotten fruit; the countless fake Italian restaurants; souvenir shops selling cheap sunglasses, lavender soap and oil; zero hour contracts; the luxury houses left empty in winter: they were all the product of tourism, and they made me feel dirty.

Tourism as we know it is relatively young. Thanks to cheap air travel, people who traditionally vacationed at home suddenly had the opportunity to soak up the sun in Lanzarote or sample unknown culinary delights in Saint-Tropez. Although, at first, many travelers were wary of foreign food. Every time I board a plane, I remember the group of miners who traveled to Italy in the 1960s with backpacks filled to the brim with Fray Bentos sauce pies.

Tourism has bought money from previously destitute towns. It allowed families who had once made a living as subsistence farmers to work only six months of the year. It has led to the restoration of historic towns and contributed to the conservation of endangered species. No wonder, then, that so many people refused to acknowledge the downsides. Today, the impact of overtourism is impossible to ignore. Instagram culture has played its part: a well-followed influencer has the power to turn a quiet romance into a bubbling maelstrom of beaming couples and half-dressed models. But social media is not entirely to blame. After the last crash of 2008, mass tourism has become a vital lifeline and has been welcomed with open arms by local councils as a way to cushion the impact of the global recession.

This overreliance inculcated a priority consumer ethic that placed the needs and desires of tourists above those of residents. During my trip, I encountered several locals who considered overtourism a dangerous rumor. “We love you guys,” one girl told me with what sounded like genuine enthusiasm. “We can’t say we don’t like tourists; this place wouldn’t be here without the tourists. I also met several people for whom tourism had become totally suffocating, both economically and psychologically. Many of them miss the spotless beauty of the beaches they knew as children; others deplore the absence of local culture.

In the summer, this city turns into a playground for muscular youngsters who want to have a drink in the bars on the beach, work out in the hotel gym and party until the early hours. Meanwhile, most of the young people who live here are forced to work insane hours for six months of the year. By the time October rolls around everyone has closed up shop and there is nothing to do. “Businesses are encouraged to ‘make the most of’ tourist waves”, Gilda Bruno, an arts and culture journalist who writes for publications such as VICE Italy, tells me. “The same drink that would cost you two euros until the start of the tourist season would be increased by 50 cents or more in a few days, so that bars and restaurants could make the most of the first ‘tourist’ invasion’ of the year.

When people hear the word “overtourism,” they usually imagine narrow streets brimming with passenger vehicles. But what about the things we don’t see? During my trip, most of the young people I met told me that they planned to leave their home town as soon as they had the chance, so disappointed with the options available. The countless restaurants and bars along the Lungomare are already struggling to find staff. With no local population, many of these establishments end up hiring workers from less traveled inland towns who, out of desperation, accept low-wage, high-hours contracts. “Only idiots stay here,” said one (admittedly rather drunk) local in his twenties. “There’s nothing here for us – unless you want to live with your parents.”

But finding accommodation is not just a problem for young people. Tourism drives up rental prices, which means locals cannot afford property in the area where they were born. Towns rented out to boast of a “more authentic way of life” are being emptied of the communities that once supported them. “The few vacant, affordable houses and apartments that once served as alternative housing solutions for financially challenged locals have now almost entirely been converted to Airbnbns or short-term housing,” says Bruno, “making it even harder for Italians of lower socio-economic status to afford to live in affluent cities.While on the one hand local residents are gradually driven from their birthplace, wealthy tourists and international entrepreneurs take over, buying many properties available as summer homes – only to be used for a few weeks a year.”

What in the 2000s was a minor annoyance has now become a full-fledged crisis. Across Europe, cities have become tourist caricatures, where, as Bruno puts it: “The demands of those who live there 365 days a year are constantly ignored”. It does not benefit anyone. Tourists should no doubt realize that their indulgences are not without consequence. However, local councils and tourist boards also need to rethink the type of tourism they wish to encourage. If the needs of local people are not heard, out-migration will continue, ecologies will suffer and communities will be drained of life. “50 years from now, this place, this country – one big private beach,” my new drinking buddy concluded. “A great seaside resort”.

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