I want to talk about a subject that has hit the news headlines during this month, August 2017. Mass tourism.
You know the old cliché, travel broadens the mind. But at what cost?
What damage is the rapid increase in air travel and tourism over the last twenty years doing and, just as importantly, what responsibility must we take as individuals?
Worse still, as a travel blogger I actively promote and encourage others to visit places. What responsibility must we travel bloggers and writers take for our actions?
Anyone who has visited places such as Venice, Rome, Barcelona, and historic sites like Pompeii and Auschwitz, will at some stage probably have felt overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of other visitors around them.
I would go as far as to say I really didn’t enjoy visiting Venice. Not because of the stupendous hangover I was suffering on the day I visited (okay, maybe that played a little role!) but because of the vast numbers of other people all around me. It was impossible to walk freely down the narrow streets without bumping into other people. There were so many people I just couldn’t relax, take in the place and enjoy it. That sort of travel experience, for me anyway, didn’t broaden my mind and isn’t enjoyable.
Anyway, the Venezians probably didn’t enjoy my visit either. Protests began there this year, with marches against tourism.
Travel Tip: On the day before visiting Venice avoid sitting in the sun drinking can after can of Birra Moretti!
Yet, what do we really expect when we visit such popular places? The uncomfortable truth is that – whether you think of yourself as an independent traveller or a tourist on an organised tour – we are all part of the problem. Yet few of us like to admit it.
This was illustrated on a recent visit to the Sorrento area of Italy. My wife and I had taken a ferry to the nearby Island of Capri, in order to visit the famous Blue Grotto (Grotto azzurra). We arrived nice and early to avoid the worst of the crowds, but even then the place was heaving with visitors.
We stopped for lunch in a cafe, sitting at a table next to a lone Australian woman. Having finished her lunch she took out her phone and had a – loud – Facetime conversation with a friend in Australia (which I actually consider very rude in an eating establishment on it’s own merit). I heard the woman say, “…it’s a lovely place, but Capri is just crawling with tourists.” There was a distinct tone of distaste in her voice, she was obviously clearly looking down her nose at everyone else. What she meant was “I’m a cultured traveller, I belong here. Lots of these other people are just ignorant tourists and don’t.”
I wanted to say, “lady, you’re part of the problem too.” Like the ignorant driver sitting in the traffic jam who says “this traffic is awful!” without realising that that they themselves are the cause of the traffic.
Granted, some places like Tokyo are just ‘naturally’ packed with people. However, when sparsely populated places like the Isle of Skye, Scotland, begins to complain they can’t cope with visitor numbers then we have to acknowledge there is a problem. Which is spreading.
Other cities are, regrettably, doing much more than just complaining. In Barcelona tour buses have been attacked by militant protestors and anti-tourist slogans painted on walls, what began with a march in Venice is now spreading across popular destinations in Europe.
The problem for residents in these places isn’t just the sheer number of visitors. Prime accommodation is bought up by investors and rented via channels like AirBnB, which in turn pays virtually no taxation in those countries. As a result homes become over-priced and locals are driven out – and local services miss out on tax revenue to fund civic amenities. It’s a real problem.
I haven’t even mentioned the significant environmental impact that the increased air travel is having on the planet. Global air travel has increased eight-fold over the last four decades. It’s set to double again over the next twenty years.
However, it is certainly not for me, or anyone else, to deem who is worthy of travel and who is not.
What Can Be Done?
Much of the changes that are needed, in some places, need to be addressed by Governments. However, it’ll be a brave Government that legislates to cap tourist numbers. Visitor numbers are often seen as a key measure of success by an industry that employs more people than any other on the planet.
Governments can also impose more stringent regulations on the buy-to-let market to secure affordable housing for the indigenous population.
Education systems could be fundamentally altered, so that school breaks are staggered. This would avoid the bottle neck of much of a country attempting to get away during the same six week period every summer.
A difficult one for me. I always say to people that they should be the change they want to see in the world. Yet, I want to see as much of the world as possible.
Therein lies the consciencious conflict.
The main thing, I believe, is to act responsibly. As individuals we alone are accountable for our actions. For example, we can choose to lessen our carbon footprint, we can choose fair trade products and we can choose locally sourced goods.
We can choose to act with respect towards others, not only when we travel, but all the time. We can abide my local customs and traditions to ensure we do not offend. We can learn a few key phrases in the local language or dialect to endear ourselves towards them. We can be ambassadors for our own country.
We can choose to get off the beaten track, but in doing so risk bringing the problems to new areas.
Travel can indeed broaden the mind – but it’s wholly dependent on the individual’s attitude.
I would question whether any group of lads or lassies travelling on an alcohol-fuelled stag or hen trip abroad broaden their minds at all. I sincerely doubt it. Someone staying at home and reading, or simply enjoying the beautiful scenery of their own back garden may achieve much better mind-broadening results.
Ultimately, we could – perish the thought – even choose to travel less to ensure sustainable travel for the future. Now there’s a thought.