Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Rethinking Mass Tourism

There was a time when everyone -- or almost everyone -- seemed to be booking a cruise, a flight, or a road trip. But the pandemic has changed all that. Mass tourism is no longer a thriving business. And maybe, Martin Regg Cohn writes, that's not such a bad thing: 

The march of mass tourism once seemed unstoppable — flotillas of cruise ships and jumbo jets disgorging swarms of tourists to invade ancient sites and intrude on living cultures.

The global trend lines were undeniably explosive, rising from 400 million visitors a year in 1990 to 1.4 billion in 2019. Nothing could deter mass tourism, not terrorism nor war — not until it became a casualty of COVID-19.

The world’s biggest source of employment and entertainment has lost a staggering 1.1 billion tourists over the past year, slumping right back to where it was three decades ago. Today, we are almost all stuck at home, pondering the unbearable remoteness of being … locked down, with our luggage locked away.

But all those people produce lots of negative impacts:

As people search for ever more remote destinations to get away from the crowds, it creates new tensions and contradictions. How do we deal with the power imbalance that pits the visitors against the visited, the hunters versus the hunted?

By visiting an unspoiled place, do we spoil it for others — the “others” who live there, and the “others” who come after us? The tidal wave of tourism has a way of engulfing the most tranquil waters.

The truth is that mass tourism, or over-tourism, was already becoming a drag on the environment, a drain on water resources and a deterrent for future visitors.

If you’re surrounded by your fellow travellers who come from the same place and are going to the same place, you have to ask: Why travel to the far ends of the earth only to feel like you never left home?

It’s not just the overwhelming crowds but the underlying infrastructure that can be so unsettling. Mass tourism leads to the bulldozing and demolition of traditional structures to make way for new tourist hotels with huge restaurants and oversized parking lots.

When this is over, tourism will return. But should we be willing to take the journey?

Image: MDS


Hugh said...

Tourism is all about CO2 emissions from people moving about: air planes, cruise ships, trains, cars, trucks, etc all emit CO2.

BJ Bjornson said...

I recall this issue becoming more visible just before the pandemic hit, particularly for places like Venice that were literally drowning with too many visitors and the locals wanting to leave because they were outnumbered and overwhelmed in their own city. (Also, cruise ships are floating pollution hazards in addition to being literal plague ships these days.) Plus stories of off-beat locales that got suddenly overwhelmed due to some “influencer” identifying it or being a filming location and sending whole hordes of fans into sensitive areas that are incapable of dealing with the traffic. I also seem to recall other locations or countries in Europe considering caps on visitors and “tourist taxes” for anyone planning to vacation there.

I’m also certain the author is right that the flood of travellers will pick up as soon as possible when the restrictions are eased, particularly given lots of people now have a pent up desire to travel after being locked down for so long. How to deal with that is tricky. Limiting numbers and/or making it expensive probably means you create an environment where only the truly wealthy can afford to go to desirable locations. I’ll be interested to see what he comes up with in his future columns.

Owen Gray said...

Emissions have declined because people are not flying and driving as they once did, Hugh. There are crucial benefits to less travel.

zoombats said...

It's not all about tourism. I remember being gobsmacked by a sight down the shoreline in Hong Kong's New Territories on my daily travels from work. The sky was so clear and blue that the revealed water resevoir was something I hadn't really noticed.My friends told me that the sight was made possible by the Chinese taking the entire month off for Chinese New Year thereby shutting down all industry. I think in my seven years there it was the only time one really saw sun and blue skies.

Owen Gray said...

It truly is about sustainability, BJ. We live in a finite world with finite resources. Pursuing growth at all costs -- and not recognizing limits -- is the way we bring the whole house down.

Owen Gray said...

Your experience is a cautionary tale, zoombats. For all the pain the pandemic has caused, it has also provided us with many valuable lessons.

The Disaffected Lib said...

I don't mean to gloat but tourism, post-70s, sucked. I lived in the UK and Europe in the 60s when that area was still extracting itself from the near past, demolishing and rebuilding, often in the American fashion. In UK and Continental villages the High Streets were still vibrant. It was not unusual to while away the evening in a pub that, save for electricity, had not much changed in a century or two. Places where the latrine was out back and consisted of an unheated room where everyone peed into the same trough. That was delightful in mid-winter.

From the mid- to late-70s, I made three more trips to Europe only to find the place transformed, made over, a lot of the history removed and replaced by something more suitably modern.

There was a tiny fishing port in the southwest where the locals had once supplemented their incomes by moonraking, luring passing vessels onto the rocks on storm swept nights. There was a great little pub if you knew where to find it. I was smitten. When I returned ten years later the first thing I saw when I walked in was a garish poster advertising Colt 45 malt liquor while a jukebox played Tammy Wynette singing "Stand By Your Man."

Imagine greeting the first rays of dawn from Stonehenge when it's just you and the custodian present or strolling into the Tower in the off-season without having to endure long lines.

I decided I wanted to remember all these treasures as they were, not as they had become, and so I stopped going as the hordes began to gather. Around that time, 60 Minutes' Morley Safer did a piece that saw him standing outside a Tudor shop in Stratford. The camera zoomed in on Anne Hathaway's (manor) Cottage and then over to Safer. The camera pulled back to show the Tudor shop behind Safer was a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. The point was clear - mass tourism had homogenized the world into a depressing sameness.

It's too soon to tell how much the industrial-tourism industry will rebound - without me.

BJ Bjornson said...

Not arguing about the need for limits. The question is, limits for who? I mean, it is already an enormous privilege to be able to afford to take time off and fly or sail or whatever halfway around the world, but how much do you limit people’s freedom to travel in the name of sustainability? Given how bad wealth inequality is already, do you pursue a strategy that effectively takes away the ability to travel for the vast majority of people while still allowing it for the super rich? If not erecting an economic barrier to such travel, what do you use?

Again, not arguing against the need for such a solution, but really curious how we actually get to one that is, for lack of a better word, fair. Or at least fair enough that you don't face a massive backlash and rebellion against it.

Anonymous said...

With rising standards of living in China, India and other Asian countries, the problems caused by tourism are bound to worsen. Maybe proof of Covid vaccination should become a condition of boarding, just like a valid passport and ticket. That would at least screen out the antivaxxers.


Owen Gray said...

Morley Safer had a talent for presenting a problem starkly and unflinchingly, Mound. I still remember the piece he did for CBS on how American troops "pacified" Vietnam villages by burning them to the ground.

Owen Gray said...

COVID has put the issue of fairness squarely on the table, BJ. I admit I see no easy solutions. On the other hand, it seems clear that we don't have to change our place of residence to make good use of whatever leisure time we have. The term "staycation" has become quite popular.

Owen Gray said...

One way or another, Cap, we're going to have to find a way to screen out anti-vaxxers.

Trailblazer said...

Two years ago I had the privilege of working on a Habitat for humanity project in El Salvador.
One of our accommodations was a converted chapel come convent.
No hot water, bunk beds and local food.
Due to bad press there were almost no tourists as we visited the pyramids and other historical sites.
There was almost no English spoken but it was fun creating conversation with the friendly locals.
I really don't wish to go back to the concrete jungle of mass vacations.


Owen Gray said...

My wife and I had a similar kind of trip to Haiti over forty years ago, TB. It wasn't a vacation. We were there to learn. And we certainly learned a lot.

Trailblazer said...

Perhaps our ideas of vacation should be challenged?


Owen Gray said...

COVID should challenge lots of our ideas, TB.

Northern PoV said...

I wrote this on a fledging blog back in 2012 and thought I'd repost it here.

I am leaving, Bangkok, Thailand and Asia today and heading home to Canada.  Some reflections on my recent travels..........

As I bounced back and forth from the local-food/backpacker circuit to mid-range accommodation and western foods and drinks I have enjoyed the friendly people I have met, both locals and tourists.  I have noticed that, often, the friendlier people came with the simpler surroundings.

While all travelers fly long distances and otherwise burns tons of carbon, backpackers save loads of money (and keep a lower carbon-footprint) by using local transport: buses, ferries and trains. I've used a mix of this local transport plus minibuses and shared taxis (which are local transport for the local-middle-class) and a few speedboats as well some motor-cycle and private-car taxis and tuk tuks.

Backpackers & Mid-range Travelers vs Five-Star Tourists in Asia: Which group is better for Asians?

At one extreme, the cheapest backpacker will spend $5-$10 per day on a room. I've mostly traveled at (what I call) the mid-range and I've been spending $15-$40 most nights.  The better rooms/facilities have been at both ends of that range. (i.e. How new and/or well maintained the place was did not always show up in the price.) And I stayed in a $7 room that was OK and an $8 room that was great.  Eating in local (or backpacker) restaurants can be done for $10 per day and that is what I have spent, on some days. Mostly I have eaten local foods or indulged in western foods/drinks at the more "upscale" restaurants and spent 2 or 3 times that.

Backpackers  (especially) travel slowly and spend quite a bit of time in the nice places they find along the way.

At the other extreme, five-stars tourists never really leave the comforts of home and the prices they pay reflect that.  Five-star hotels range from $200 to $2000 or more per night and their restaurant prices are at western levels.  Five-star tourists can spend thousands of dollars per day (on their brief visits).

So an economist might decide that five-star tourism is better for the economy.  And that may be true if the frame of reference is conventional and GDP-oriented.  However, from the perspective of an average Asian, the backpacker is a far more beneficial visitor.  Most of the package-tour and the five-star money ends up in the hands of the local or foreign elite, with a small amount trickling down to the poor folks as minimal wages.  Backpacker and mid-range money generally goes directly into the hands of the local businesses: small hotels and guesthouses, tuk tuk and taxi drivers, local bus companies, local shops, independent fruit sellers and small restaurants.  Backpacker and mid-range travel stimulates the local economies and directly benefits the local people.

;-) And if you travel that way, you meet some darn, interstin' folks along the way.

Owen Gray said...

Our experience coincides with yours, PoV. The world would be in better shape if we backpacked our way around the world.

BJ Bjornson said...

“Staycations” have been a thing, but usually the result of a lack of resources (time and/or money), rather than something most people do by choice. Which also meets the criteria for those of us who followed the expert advice and avoided travel to keep from potentially spreading Covid around. I am somewhat unusual since I live in Nunavut, but the result of following that advice means that I have not been further away from my house than easy walking distance for more than a year now. I suppose it is good for my personal emissions and even quite handy for the pocketbook, but the prospect of remaining in such a state indefinitely is not something I would be happy with, to say the least.

And in regards to the backpacker versus other types of tourist, while I mostly agree with which is the better way to experience a new country and/or culture, I do have to note there is also a point of privilege going on there. Most people simply do not have the luxury of time would allow them to travel in such a style. When you only have a week or two all year that you are allowed to travel and get away, you can’t spend a month casually strolling around the countryside, or a week or two getting there and back. (Also, did you ever do those backpacking tours with a family that includes small children?) Much as I detest them, this is how the cruise industry makes its money. “We’ll get you to the hotspots (relatively) quick and back home again in a jiffy! Experience a whole tour in a week!” Utterly horrible for all sorts of reasons, but if all you have is a week, I can understand the temptation.

I suppose that adds to my previous comments. We need a whole cultural shift around how we spend our leisure time, and that needs to include ensuring people actually have sufficient leisure time to use in ways that don’t require the more destructive and less beneficial modes of tourism.

Owen Gray said...

We very much need a cultural shift around our concept of work and leisure, BJ. A good place to start would be with paid sick days.

BJ Bjornson said...

Well, I will disagree with that, but only because sick days are not and should not be considered leisure time! Otherwise, people absolutely need to have them available and be encouraged to use them when needed.

Owen Gray said...

I agree, BJ. They're not leisure time. But, under the current dispensation, they are so considered.

the salamander said...

.. I miss the mountains & also Vancouver Island
But as the bones age & I get lazy
I hope we see Turks n Caicos again soon..

Prob 2000 each and stash the dawgs in London
So 3-4 hours drive X 2 on both ends of our getaway from Toronto
Dogs go back to their breeder's place
Hang with their dam & sire - bros & sistahs woof woof
Get the pro grooming chop chop while there with about 30 others

We go float with mask n snorkels at walk in sites
Eat like little Club Med piglets.. and I pour my own Island beer
Boss does her 2 hour walks & I slam OJ
Bits n bites of scrambly egg, a sausage, tomato slice
and book a Hobie Cat refresh lesson
we ride the trade wind & visit the Rock Iguana at Little Water Cay
with watermelon, grapes, fresh water, apple & raisins

Boss needs the refresh & escape, her music business has cratered

We're now also thinking of our Toronto exit plan..
Pelee Island ? Sunshine Coast (harass Mound ?)
Hey.. Go French - St Pierre & Miquelon ?
Costa Rica ? Panama ? Tobago ?

I want warm .. gracious walk in shallows & lotsa fish
preferably not big enuff to eat me
I OK with large barracuda .. can make deals
Cold beers .. and conch salad forever

Maybe we just need 1-2 years to outlast the Covid ?

Owen Gray said...

It's all about outlasting COVID, sal, and it's turning out to be a stubborn opponent. It keeps coming back in a newer version -- like one of those monsters from Universal Pictures.