Tourism can bring many benefits to a local community. Employment opportunities, funding for public works, preservation and protection of heritage sites just to name a few. So when does enough become too much? How does doing something we love, that can provide so many benefits, destroy the thing we looking to revere? More importantly, what can we do to minimilise the negatives while supporting the positives?
Its an unfortunate fact that as the volume of tourism increases, so does pressure on the environment, infrastructure and with that, the local population. In this article we look at how mass tourism destroys the cultural soul of a destination.
In the Beginning…
Thomas Cook was the first to see the potential of mass tourism with the opening of a local railway link. He charged 500 people 1 shilling for a round trip to a Teetotal rally in nearby Loughborough and the rest is history. With the development of improved roads, better rail links and larger passenger ships, tourism flourished. Exotic destinations such as Venice, Paris and London were suddenly within reach. By the 1960’s, Europe was really opening to tourism. Package holidays, initially to Spain & the islands, resulted in a surge of Hotel construction. This added capacity, coupled with improvements in air travel, fueled an ever-increasing demand.
Accessibility is the key to tourism growth. 1969 saw the introduction of the first “jumbo jet” a wide bodied Boeing 747. Able to fly further and faster than previous models, it could fit 500 passengers. With a range of 13,450 km, the world immediately became a smaller place.
In the 20 year period from 1990 to 2010, the number of international tourists has more than doubled. Attractive package tours, competitive airfares and technological advances has all added to the surge in tourist numbers.
The case of Barcelona…
Lets fast forward to the present day. The headlines are filled with stories like “Eiffel Tower set to reopen after strike over queues” or “Venetians flee toxic tourists” and “Dutch declare WAR on tourists!” So what went wrong? Sometimes, as is the case in Barcelona, destinations can be the victim of their own success. In an effort to curb rising unemployment, the government embarked on a plan of urban development and promotion culminating in the 1992 Olympics.
Today, even though the government is loath to kill the “golden goose” it recognizes mass tourism is a double edged sword. Indeed in Barcelona (as with other tourist hot spots), local shops that have been serving residents for a lifetime have been forced to make way for pricey, tourist-oriented emporiums.
Agusti Colom, chief of tourism for the Barcelona municipal government sums this up by saying “if the city becomes over-saturated and homogeneous, it could lose the charm that drew visitors in the first place” (read full article here). While regulators battle to introduce new legislation to kerb this trend, its unlikely that the damage of the past 20 years can be undone.
The Sharing Economy…
The rise in popularity of short term rentals, made popular through Airbnb, has only added to the problem. This unregulated industry encourages short term tenants, reducing longer term property availability and thus pushing up permanent rentals prices. Residents are forced to move to the outskirts or capitalise by selling to investors, which only perpetuates the cycle.
Once you lose the core of the community – its essence, the whole cultural soul is destroyed. Venice was recently described as ” a theme park by day and a ghost town by night“. Its easy to see why. On a recent visit, I noticed people preferring to eat at a chain restaurant rather than one of the (dwindling) local cafes. On my next visit I fully expect to see a chain restaurant in its place. Sadly, Venice as a “lived in” city is dying with the majority of original families now residing on the mainland. The population in the historic city (which peaked at 164,000 in 1931) now sits at less than 55,000 which is below the number of daily visitors. There is little employment opportunities except tourism, which is over subscribed.
Bali, trouble in paradise…
Like any developing country, Indonesia relies heavily on tourism dollars. The problem is that over 30% of tourists to Indonesia flock to the relatively small island of Bali (for reference, there are over 15,000 islands in Indonesia). We have been visiting Bali since the late 1990’s and seen plenty of change, but the pace of change over the last few years is phenomenal.
It seems to follow the same mass tourism pattern. Beautiful idealic location, difficult to reach and only visited by adventure travellers. Some form of promotion (book, movie, govt. etc), increase in tourist numbers to see the idealic location. Demand grows, prices increase, access gets easier and cheaper (more flights, cruise ships etc). Locals get squeezed out and the whole thing becomes a parody of the idealic location that once was. Off to find the “next big thing”…
Unfortunately, these issues are not just confined to a handful of places such as Barcelona or Bali. Recently a new term was introduced by the Italian writer Marco d’Eramo – UNESCO-cide. This describes the slow process of cultural disintegration of a destination after it has been granted UNESCO world heritage status – ironically to protect the sites cultural (or natural) heritage. It’s interesting to note that of the 1121 sites on the current list (869 cultural, 216 natural and 39 mixed), the majority (except war-torn countries) have problems with over tourism. View the full list here
A major failing of UNESCO’s program appears to be the complete lack of regard for the people living in these areas. By their own charter they seek to protect “monuments, groups of buildings and sites” but no mention is made of the people who reside in these places – the sociocultural aspect that gives life to these places.
One only has to visit Luang Prabang, San Gimignano or Old Town Dubrovnik to realise something isn’t working. In most cases the entire centre has been turned into a tourist trap with bars, restaurants and souvenir shops replacing the bakers, markets and artisans that use to live and work here. Most, if not all the local inhabitants have been pushed out and reside in modern apartment blocks on the outskirts.
Ironically, a recent survey indicated most people travel to “experience new cultures and way of life” with 74% seeking “unique and unexplored places.” Yet, just like countries aspiring to host an Olympics, (who seem blissfully unaware of the impending financial doom) governments, councils and tourist offices around the world still line up to obtain World Heritage status.
The latest scourge of international travel is the “wannabe” Instagram influencer. They can be found in temples, around cultural ceremonies, standing on train lines or dangling over cliff tops (indeed recent reports put the figure at over 100 “selfie” deaths confirmed for 2018 alone). A recent study found that “Instagramability” was the most important factor for millennials when choosing a holiday. More important than the opportunity to be immersed in foriegn culture, sightseeing and even the cost and availability of alcohol! Just this morning I read a news article about the small Austrian village of Hallstatt (pop. 780) that has been overrun by tourists trying to get that perfect shot (its been dubbed “the most Instagrammable town in the world”).
Tourism and photos have always gone hand in hand. Who can forget those childhood memories of being dragged around to the Jones’s to watch a seemingly endless array of slides from their recent European vacation. The difference now seems to be the focus on replication rather than originallity. Indeed, social media algorithims favour a certain format. So, rather than encouraging diversity of experience (culture, landscape, cuisine, fashion…) it just consentrates society into a homogenous whole that is mass tourism. This is every bit as boring as the Jone’s slide nights,
So, what can we do?
Reorientation toward tourism can help revitalise dying communities. Without robust management plans however, mass tourism and over-commercialisation will eventually destroy a destinations authenticity leaving just a theatrical shell. What is needed is a coordinated push towards sustainable tourism practices and a willingness of the individual to avoid any destination that does not meet these criteria.
We look forward to meeting you all on the path less travelled!
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