A force for good, or a victim of its own success?
Our Patron John Carter takes a long hard look and doesn’t always like what he sees.
Having returned from a long spell in Colorado, I had intended to write about my experiences in that splendid state. And, in utter contrast, about the unexpectedly pleasant resort of Felixstowe. But those reports will have to wait because another and more pressing topic is occupying my thoughts. Yours, too, possibly.
Travellers queue for hours at airport immigration desks. Protestors spray anti-tourism slogans on a coach in Barcelona. The authorities in Dubrovnik declare that cruise ship numbers are to be limited. And Venetians demand that something be done to curb visitor numbers in their sinking city.
All of which reminds me that, from the moment I began writing about travel and holidays and the many aspects of tourism – the world’s largest industry – I was aware of its greatest anomaly.
That success equals failure.
‘Success’ in tourist terms, means attracting more visitors to a region or a specific resort. More passengers going there by plane or boat or coach or train. More guests booking in to hotels and boarding houses, campsites, apartments or villas. More diners in its restaurants. More shoppers in its markets and souvenir stalls.
‘Failure’ is the effect those numbers have on the transport and accommodation infrastructure and the ambiance of the destination. Visitors do not need to drink and brawl in the evening streets or discard their litter on the beaches (though, sadly, too many of them do) in order to ruin a destination. They do so by sheer weight of numbers. By simply being there.
A specific example of this effect is what happened when Arthur Eperon’s ‘Travellers’ France’ was published in 1979. It was a guide to six major routes across France, avoiding the motorways and finding small hotels and restaurants in out-of-the-way places.
One of those routes was featured in that year’s ‘Holiday’ series on BBC television – with the excellent Frank Bough driving along empty roads through idyllic scenery, accompanied by his wife Nesta. His pieces to camera were invariably delivered from pavement tables where a simple but superb meal had been enjoyed, or from roadside vantage spots overlooking panoramas that took your breath away.
The following year, filming in France, we happened to be on one of those routes and decided to break for lunch at a bistro in one of those off-the-beaten-track communities.
Its tiny forecourt was crammed with cars bearing British number plates. Its tables were packed with unhappy British travellers who had Arthur’s book in their glove compartments. A better example of success equalling failure would be difficult to find.
The action of the Dubrovnik authorities reminds me that I wrote here recently about our visit to that city being spoiled in part by the volume of cruise ship passengers shepherded in groups through its ancient streets or standing aimlessly in the Placa, hindering the progress of others.
I told you, in an earlier article, of a day in Florence, spoiled for exactly the same reason.
And it was there I witnessed the ultimate folly of people using their ‘selfie sticks’ to obtain pictures of statues and monuments they could not see or photograph directly because of the throngs blocking the view.
They were, for the most part, diminutive Japanese. And I thought: “Why go to the expense and trouble of travelling all the way from Tokyo or Nagoya, Kyoto or Niigata, when you could simply find better photographs of Florence on your laptop?”
While iconic cities are in my thoughts, I must say a word about the Venetians and their anger over visitor numbers. For as long as I can remember, they have displayed this attitude and, for as long as I can remember, have done absolutely nothing about it. There was, I recall, a scheme to limit day trippers by issuing a fixed amount of admission tickets – or, in practice, rationing the number each tour company could bring in. That plan came unstuck because nobody could agree about who should issue the tickets.
So don’t worry too much about Venice. And resign yourself to enjoying it in the evening when the day trippers have all gone back to their seaside resorts and the cruise ships have sailed away.
The anti-tourist protesters in Barcelona did stop me in my tracks, but only for a second or two. I’d bet quite a few Euros that those graffiti artists are too young to remember when tourism was the only thing that kept Spain financially afloat.
It was, admittedly, the Spain of General Franco and the main reason for growth was the peseta – as weak a currency as you would find on the shores of the Mediterranean. But the Costas went into overdrive with high rise hotels (‘multi-storied Benidormitorie’) sprouting around what had been fishing villages and Spain then was more than happy to welcome tourists and the money they brought with them.
Tourism can be a massive force for good. What the travel trade calls Long-Haul destinations provide many examples of this, but my personal experience is of the Algarve coast of Portugal. When I visited it first in 1962 it had no airport and bad roads. I got to the beaches by driving down farm tracks, finding those beaches deserted save for fishermen mending nets beside their upturned boats. From the Spanish frontier to Cape St. Vincent there were, probably, half a dozen decent hotels – maybe less.
Within a few years the Algarve became a popular tourist destination, especially after the airport at Faro opened in the mid-1960s. Some of us regretted that it had become ‘spoiled’, but others pointed out that, as far as the local people were concerned, the tourist industry provided jobs and a decent future for a generation who would otherwise have had to rely on fishing or farming neither of which offered any hope of profit.
I suppose it all comes down to how you manage the expansion of your tourist industry and somehow control numbers. The easiest way is by price. It is no accident that the most desirable destinations are the most expensive.
And no accident that airports are overcrowded because the cost of flying has never been lower. I concede that the inability of governments to provide an efficient border control system is at the root of the present situation in the UK and mainland Europe, but when the short-term problems of the peak season have passed, airports will still be crowded.
So what shall we do? Stay at home? Avoid airports by rediscovering the delights of the British seaside? Search out neglected destinations?
There are plenty of options, which sort of brings me back to where I began. I mentioned Colorado, but very few tourists go there from Britain, just as they do not go to other parts of the USA. Florida and California, New York and New Orleans are all very well, but there are many, equally attractive, alternatives.
As for the British seaside, I must remember to tell you about Felixstowe.