Are we the bad guys?

By | Category: Travel rumblings

The Rialto in Venice without the throng of tourists!

When I talk about being the bad guys I’m referring to you and I; tourists, holidaymakers and travellers.

Have we made the world a worse place because we have been part of the boom in travel, part of the boom that has powered the growth of more cruise ships, more planes and new developments such as Airbnb?

What prompts my thinking is a story over the weekend in the Guardian about the impact of tourists in Venice. It wasn’t the actual article that spurred my thoughts but the comments on the Guardian website as a result of the story. Within a day there were over 2,600 comments and whilst some were the usual twaddle that websites seem to garner, there were a large number that wondered about the impact of tourism on the world.

One lady, Pam Crane, wrote “Tourism is a self-indulgence and cash cow that is killing this planet faster than anything else. If we want an Earth to live on we have to stop being so stupidly selfish.”

Is this a fair reflection of what is happening? Is it self-indulgence on every holidaymaker’s behalf? Is it killing the planet and are we being stupidly selfish?

Macchi Pichu

Macchu Pichu in Peru.

It isn’t just Venice (the subject of the artice that prompted Ms Crane to comment) that is afflicted. There are restrictions on visiting the Galapagos Islands, Machu Picchu in Peru and, closer to home, the Isle of Skye is concerned about ever-growing tourism numbers.  The tourist authorities in Cambridge told me many years ago (the situation might have changed since) that they only wanted day-trippers because they didn’t have the number of hotel rooms to cater for overnight stays.  At Uluru in central Australia, there are restrictions on visiting the area and the same applies in Cambodia to some of the temples. If you want to see Queen Mary’s dolls house in Windsor Castle you join an orderly queue to walk past with just a few moments to look at it.  The same applies to many other popular attractions. All-inclusive holidays are criticised for being detrimental to the local communities. People stay inside the resort without needing to venture outside to eat, drink or buy anything. Cruise ships, be they ocean-going or river ones, bring people to a destinations and the local facilities bear the brunt of the visitors without receiving much of the cash that other tourist who stay in local hotels or guest houses bring. Many in Venice despair of the huge cruise ships that Venice attracts given the damage they do to the lagoon and the pressure they put on the city.

cruise ships in Venice

Tourism has become increasingly popular amongst politicians because it regenerates an economy quickly. The jobs may be low-paid but they are jobs. Workers pay taxes; tourists pay to visit so the local and the central economy gets a boost. It happens much faster than setting up a steel mill, a major road improvement or a manufacturing plant. So politicians announce VAT or equivalent deductions for tourism related industries, they encourage airlines because that will bring 180-300 people in on each flight, they create cities of culture or apply for UNESCO World Heritage Status. When the Caribbean tourism ministers announced concern with Airbnb, they weren’t necessarily concerned with a new tourism phenomena. They are concerned with the missing revenue they wouldn’t receive as they do from hotels, the missing jobs that a new hotel would bring and a potential loss of local housing as locals are priced out as investors move in to reap the benefits of the money brought in by an Airbnb model. The so-called sharing society means the one party that might miss some of the share is government. And politicians like to spend money so they always seek more.

In the light of all this are we, as Pam Crane affirms, self-indulgent? Should we infer that the world would be a better place if we didn’t encourage tourism and just stay at home?

FC Barcelona – football tourism is big business and attracts tens of thousands to visit their teams wherever they play

In my opinion, the major advantage of tourism is that it broadens the mind; the world becomes a little closer because we understand parts of it a little better than by not travelling. Some of us know parts of Spain, France and Italy better than we know our own countries.  Tourism has engendered interest in what used to be called foreign food and now we have access to any varieties of cuisine. Yet it was only forty years ago that one of the key indicators that the government used in their social surveys – as did market researchers – was whether a person liked foreign food. To indicate yes was to suggest an adventurous, broad minded-person who would be open to new things. To deny an interest in it could be interpreted as being a stick-in-the-mud, an unadventurous person whose mind is closed to many new ideas! These days, such an interpretation couldn’t be widely used. Tourism is responsible for that change.

The souvenirs that we bring back from holidays might include fridge magnets and tacky small gifts but we also bring back knowledge of how that society lives. Sport has assisted and generated tourism given the number of people that attend overseas sporting events. People are likely to have heard of Barcelona and Milan, Paris St-Germain and Feyenoord, Bayern Munich and Benfica even if they have not been there. Those that have will comment knowledgeably about the stadia, the local beer and the atmosphere of the cities in which teams play.

Is this self-indulgence? Ms Carne is wrong. Tourism is mind-expanding, anti-parochial and economically vital.


Uluru (formerly Ayres Rock) where visitor restrictions are in force

As to her other charge that we are killing the planet, tourism is probably no worse that littering, population growth and housing expansion as a contributor. The difference between tourism and population expansion is that we can manage tourism. It is difficult to manage population growth as the Chines are the only ones to really try and control it. Venice is considering a ticketing system where you pay more to visit the much busier tourism areas than if you visit the quitter parts. Many destinations such as Machu Picchu only allow a certain number of visitors per week.

What may be damaging destinations are not tourists per se but the management of tourists and that is due to local and national politicians. If they fail in their duties because they value the revenue tourism brings over the need to retain their heritage and culture then it is not due to the tourist. Tourists make fleeting visits in the scheme of things. How they be expected to understand the long term implications on such a short visit?

No Ms Carne, you are wrong.  Tourism and tourists are valuable for destinations and the tourists themselves. Both need to be managed like most of life has to be and that is what Ms Carne needs to understand.


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