Published on : Tuesday, January 9, 2018
There is a paradox in which two parallel worlds coexist: the (real) world of of poverty and violence that we (occasionally) read about in newspapers or see on TV and the other world featuring the same places which exist only for tourists, the world of beautiful beaches, wonderful nature and fantastic hotels.
Behind this paradox lies a fundamental question: how many tourists travelling the world this year will consider the social, cultural and environmental impact of their activity?
Antarctica has been hit by an alarming level of pollution, Mount Everest is strewn with rubbish from invading visitors and the Great Wall of China has been so mistreated by the massive invasion of tourists that it has begun to crumble.
However, perhaps one of the best examples of the negative impact of tourism is Venice. Officially, the city now has 54,000 residents, down from 100.000 in 1970, with people steadily leaving for the mainland as rents and living costs continue to rise with hordes of tourists making life impossible. The city is continuously increasing the number of rubbish collectors and road sweepers to clean up in their wake.
As if this was not bad enough, giant ships continue to navigate over the delicate microsystem of Venice’s lagoon, but the strong lobby in their favour insists that without the megaships landing in the centre of the city thousands of jobs would be in danger. There is now a clear conflict between those who live from tourism and those who have other jobs.
What is astounding about tourism is the speed of the phenomenon. In 1950, the total number of tourists was 25 million – in 2016 they numbered 1.2 billion, with Europe accounting for 50 percent, Asia and the Pacific 24.2 percent, the Americas 16.55 percent, the Middle East 4.7 percent and Africa 4.52 percent.
More astounding are the figures for 2030 when, according to the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), global tourists will number 1.8 billion or five million every day. Europe will have fallen to 41 percent, the Americas to 14 percent, while Asia and the Pacific will have risen to 30 percent, the Middle East to eight percent and Africa to seven percent – a dramatic change compared with 1950.
Tourism is already today the largest employer in the world: one person in every 11. China has surpassed the United States as the country with the largest number of people travelling as tourists. In 2016, they spent 261 billion dollars, and are expected to spend 429 billion in 2020. UNWTO estimates that by 2025, China will have 92.6 million families with an annual income between 20.000 and 30.000 dollars, 63 million between 35.000 and 70.000 dollars and 21.3 million between 70.000 and 130.000 dollars. Many of them are expected to travel and spend money but how many people speak Chinese and know anything about their idiosyncrasies?
Not only is much of work in the tourism sector seasonal, and poorly paid, most of the money it generates does not stay in the places where it is spent, but goes back to big companies and food imported to meet the tastes of tourists. It has been calculated that in the Caribbean, a full 70 percent goes back to the United States and Canada.
You only have to visit a town off the tourist circuit to see the difference. In fact, now there is a growing search for “intact” places, different from “tourist” places.
Florence can be taken as a good example of how tourism uproots the identity and tradition of local inhabitants. Ever since the Renaissance, Florence had been a place of art and culture. It was a must for the cultured tourist and precursor of today’s tourist and favourite destination of British, French and German visitors until the Second World War. Florence was a city of elegance, antique dealers, arts shops, handcrafts and a very recognised cuisine.
Now it is full of tourist shops, jeans stores, cheap standardised handcraft, pizzerias and tourist restaurants. When questioned about the decay of the town, the concierge of the classical Hotel Baglioni had a simple answer: “Sir, we are a town of merchants. We created the bill of exchange, banks and international trade. It was people looking for art and antiques that used to come here. Today we are awash with people who want to buy blue jeans and cheap stuff. We provide people with what they want.”
Talking about the negative impacts of tourism inevitably opens up the question of class – the more cultured you are, the more you get from your travels. Does that mean that only cultured people (which, until the Second World War, also meant affluent people: today the two concepts have split, maybe for ever) should travel? On the contrary, is not tourism a way to enrich and educate, should it not be an important tool for the less cultured?
I do not think there is an easy answer to this issue. What I know, is that only a small minority of those visiting the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, or the Potala Palace in Lhasa, or the valley of the kings in Egypt, have a book in their hands that they have bought to prepare themselves. They depend on their tour guides, who confess that they do not even try to teach, but only show what all the tourists on their party can understand.
It is clear that we cannot let 1.8 billion people wander in the world, without introducing some global regulations on how to limit the negative aspects of tourism, and relate it not to money but to education, culture and personal development. Coming into contact with different cultures, civilisations, food, habits and realities should be an occasion that cannot be left only to money.
It is clear that tourism needs to be linked to education and culture, and in this regard I have the following proposal.
When buying a tour or airline ticket, or asking for a visa, every tourist should be required to buy and read a very simple and schematic book (which does not yet exist) – which can be understood in no more than 10 hours – about where and what they are going to visit.
A small commission formed by a history teacher, a geography teacher and an art teacher would be established in all cities or towns where the large majority of the population now lives, and all of which have schools offering these studies. The commission would organise exams – which would-be tourists could opt not to take. The exam would consist of a few extremely simple questions such as what is the capital of the country you want to visit; is the country independent; is it a monarchy or a republic; how does it makes its money; what are its monuments and art in different moments of history?
Right now, you can visit the Vatican after its closing with a modest fee of 100 euro per person, in small and quiet numbers. Is the future of tourism a two-track future, where money will be the dividing factor?
And this should not be the trend in tourism during the days to come.
Tags: Dark side of tourism