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Peak Tourism

Is ir possible to be small, cool and overrun?

‘Eight Million Tourists Expected To Visit Ireland Next Year As Star Wars Effect Lifts Off’
Headline in the Irish Examiner,
December 1, 2015

Marrakech is a hard city to leave, because someone is always tugging at your arm. One hour south, near the highest mountain in North Africa, you can hike to a pass with a view of three valleys and still be interrupted. I was alone up there for half an hour when an elderly man appeared, smiled and presented me with a sad lump of coal about the size of a tennis ball. I almost laughed, but I was wrong. He opened the stone to reveal a shimmering bed of purple crystals. It was a piece of amethyst.

The old man seemed reluctant to part with his treasure for just €20, and I felt a bit guilty about defrauding him, but we shook hands and the deal was done. On holiday one craves experience that feels privileged, local, unusual. In Ireland that means drinking in a pub after closing time, the ancient but highly regarded lockin. In India it might be a ten-day silent meditation. Authentic and rare, here was another great travel moment.

Half a mile up the road there was a hut with a rusty Pepsi sign. That’s charming, I thought, I must be their first customer today. But no! The owner was chatting to my friend the amethyst dealer. Not talking, really, so much as laughing, as if they had just played a practical joke on someone. And look! There I was, sipping a lukewarm Pepsi, not Lawrence of Arabia but something more mundane. The first proper patsy of the day.

Coal or amethyst
Coal or amethyst

My amethyst story was not supposed to end like that. Going on holiday is meant to broaden the mind. Saint Augustine said the world is a book and people who don’t travel read only one page. If that’s true, then we’re in luck. It has never been cheaper or easier to fly to faraway places, and sometimes tourists have a benign impact. In 2003, when going to Burma – with its corrupt military dictatorship – was widely frowned upon, a diplomat told me that one of the most encouraging developments there was a rise in tourism, as it facilitated a more open society. In 2008 I discovered the power of personal diplomacy when I spent three weeks hiking in Iran. One day I taught a 12-year-old boy how to juggle.

In Morocco I was a traveller until the moment I became a stupid tourist. Still, I can’t blame the chap for selling me that rock. The observer always affects the observed. And there is often a tension between visitor and host. In Barcelona, locals hang banners from their balconies, begging tourists to allow them a good night’s sleep. The 42-year-old mayor of the city, Ada Colau, was elected on a promise to recapture Barcelona for its citizens. In Hong Kong, local residents have marched in protest against visitors from China, whom they call ‘locusts’.

As they say in, well, everywhere, tourists are a pain in the ass.

Why do we bother going on holiday, anyway? Personally I travel to get away, to be alone, to escape myself, or at least to meet a more attractive version of myself. moments of transcendence – ‘that wine is delicious and it costs half-nothing’ – but for the most part holidays are confused, even disturbing, experiences. Consider: Your flight takes off in just five and a half hours. There you are, packing new clothes in an old suitcase. As you fantasise about lounging by the pool it’s easy to forget that you will be appearing as yourself. (Look! The skin is falling off your nose.) Then there’s the quiet domestic hell of other people. The comedian Kelly Kingham: “My wife and I can never agree on holidays. I want to fly to exotic places and stay in five-star hotels. And she wants to come with me”.

Who among us knew that a hotel reception would make such a lively venue for a family row? Or that a short flight could be quite so depressing? Consider the fatalistic niceties (“In the event of an accident…”), the casual indignities and the cruel economies that are now accepted as part of the bargain. When Michael O’Leary of Ryanair joked about charging to use the toilet, many of his customers thought he was serious.

The literature is of no assistance. Brochures are works of fiction. Travel journalism is PR with a suntan. And guidebooks are just as bad. Over-scripted drivel, they rob travel of its novelty, thus its charm. (“No visit to New York is complete without seeing the view at sunset from the top of the Empire State Building”.) Maybe we are not explorers, you and I. Maybe we are rough girls and lonely plonkers – a nuisance, frankly, with all our demands that strip a place of what made it attractive in the first place. When I tell you that Starbucks tastes just the same in Marrakech, I should be blushing.

It was the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger who first argued that tourists threaten or destroy what they have come to see: originality and local colour. That was nearly 60 years ago. Enzensberger’s theory (“Tourism anticipates its refutation”) still seems topical. Writing in the Guardian a few months ago, Tobias Jones observed the same Faustian pact: “The more visitors you have and the more money you make, the less you are the naive, folkloric, authentic, untouched place of the tourist imagination”.

Last year there were 1.2 billion tourists. There will be two billion tourist arrivals by 2030. We coach-tour insects like to think of ourselves as a benign presence. We imagine that a long journey absolves us of any petty provincialism. It’s good of us to meet the people. But most of the time the exchange is purely commercial. We are just a source of revenue, and most of it goes to elites.

In 2006 the Canadian journalist Martin Regg Cohn lamented that European capitals have become giant theme parks. “Beset by swarms of tourists, the Acropolis looks more like an anthill than a Greek temple. Invaded by cellphones, Westminster Abbey feels like a playpen for tour groups rather than a revered place of worship”. These are fair observations. Even in pleasure zones it is becoming ever harder to have the sort of authentic experiences that attracted the fashion designer Yves St Laurent and his partner, Pierre Bergé, to Marrakech. In his book, Letters to Yves, Bergé remembers the old days:

“Those young Moroccan men were so kind and handsome. We had a relationship with them that had neither a whiff of money nor vulgarity about it. It wasn’t sexual tourism, something we’ve always disapproved of, in the same way we hate those who profit from the poverty and misery of others… It was still the old Morocco that hadn’t yet been invaded by mass tourism, when luxury brands were unknown and they didn’t even know your name”.

(How often do we consider the political implications of our presence in a place? I only ask because Moroccan law prohibits same-sex acts. On an annual index produced by Freedom House, the country is currently rated as “partly free”, with a score of 41 out of 100. Thailand (32) and Dubai (20) are even more popular destinations. Freedom and civil rights are important to everyone, but for some of us they are not as important as sandy white beaches.)

In 1980 Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent saved the Jardin Majorelle. Visiting this large garden remains a charming experience for travellers, who are advised to arrive at 8am, an hour before the tourists. However, even this precaution is no longer sufficient. Bergé and Saint Laurent did such a good job of inventing ‘Marrakech’ that no one can visit the city without paying homage. In the garden’s café I was disappointed to find myself sitting between two English-speaking couples. This is what happens when you become the numberone visitor attraction on TripAdvisor.

In the old days nobody went to the Majorelle Garden. “It was mysterious and abandoned”, says Pierre Bergé. “When the real estate promoters wanted to destroy it, we did everything to stop them and bought it ourselves. Today, the garden welcomes more than 600,000 visitors a year and I believe we can be very proud of that”.

Heritage attractions are enjoying a boom. In China, over 100 new museums opened in the last 12 months. In the Little Museum of Dublin, where I work, footfall has quadrupled in the last three years. We have capped visitor numbers at 100,000 because our building is too small to accommodate more. The museum is alive but not throbbing. (What makes us human? We never think we are the problem.)

Visitor restrictions will become more common as we approach Peak Tourism. Italian authorities already limit the number of tourists in the Cinque Terre, while super-sized cruise ships are banned from entering the Venetian lagoon. Writing in the Financial Times in 2015, Simon Kuper worried that such measures could “complete the transformation of Europe’s nicest cities into gated communities for the super-rich. Then tourism might again become the elite privilege it was in 1950, when only 25 million people travelled internationally”. But is there a sustainable alternative?

Four and a half million people visited Dublin last year. The city has a shortage of 4,000 hotel bedrooms. This is great if you are a hotelier, but not so good if you are a tourist on a tight budget. Is it possible to be small, cool and overrun? In some parts of the Mediterranean one struggles to eat like a local but can order a full English breakfast 24 hours a day. Bakeries and grocery stores have been replaced by souvenir shops and currency exchanges.

The population of Venice has shrunk from 120,000 in 1980 to only 60,000. Twice that number arrive to gawk at the place every day. A report in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung recently concluded that the city has been “mummified” and mutated into “a walkable postcard landscape”. By 2020 the plan is to attract 6.2 million tourists to Dublin. That’s the target, five times the city’s current population. I wonder if it’s the optimum number.

In the tourism industry they talk about changing the dispersion profile as a way of controlling demand. This means getting consumers to go when and where they don’t want to go. It’s why you can fly to Hamburg for €19.99 in February. And sometimes price is used as a lever to keep tourists out. In Bhutan, which was off-limits for decades, visitors have to spend up to $250 a day. Spain is trying something similar. In an effort to tackle gridlock, pollution and water shortages, a sustainable-tourism tax has been introduced in the Balearic Islands, which have a total population of one million people. This summer thirteen million visitors descended on the islands.

The International Air Transport Association is a lobby group for high flyers. Acknowledging that air travel has a significant environmental impact, the Association’s CEO, Tony Tyler, says the industry wants to achieve carbon-neutral growth. “But we need governments to help by agreeing a global market-based measure, to be implemented from 2020… We urge all governments to agree a global solution and help air transport meet its goals for a sustainable future”. Such panglossian talk is rather undermined by the cynicism of many within the industry. As Michael O’Leary once said of global warming, “It’s all a load of bullshit”.

At least the young are a bit more hip to the problem. Trend-spotters assure us that millennials are very conscious of their social responsibility when they travel. Preferring ecofriendly or sustainable hotels, they claim to enjoy authentic experiences and want to contribute to the local community. If you like a fresh towel in your hotel bathroom every morning you were probably born before 1980. But no matter what age we are, everyone is fighting for the same low fare on the plane.

Cruise ships dump sewage into the oceans, pollute our beaches and contaminate coral reefs. Besides, I didn’t have time to sail to Morocco, so I bought a plane ticket in the full knowledge that air travel is a major contributor to global warming. For €189 I flew 7,000 kilometres. This is not unusual. In the age of rising temperatures and low-cost flights, how much do we really care about sustainability?

At dinner one night in Morocco, a Frenchman complained that a lot of water is used to keep golf courses green in semi-desert. Incroyablement: “Golf!” There was much tutting, yet the four people sitting at the table would soon fly back to Europe, guiltlessly. Our concern for the environment had extended to the waste of precious resources in a country far away, but not to how we got there. That night I thought of the veils we wear, those who are cast as visitors and hosts, and of the lies we tell ourselves on the road.

Everyone frets about excess baggage. No one considers the weight of our collective misconceptions – how travel promises, say, to make us feel cosmopolitan, then turns us all into patriots. Suddenly, for the first time in history, that small-town weatherman matters. (“Look, it’s him!”) But in a neat twist it turns out that the most patriotic thing we can do is also the most sustainable: holiday at home. Keep it local.

In 2006 the founder of the Lonely Planet Guide, Tony Wheeler, was asked about air pollution. “I haven’t got an answer”, he said, “except we should all stay home and raise vegetables in our gardens. But that won’t work”. This view, that holidaying at home is unreasonable or even silly, is often expressed by promoters of travel. However, Google searches for the term ‘staycation’ have gone up by 10% each year for the last five years.

Staycations may yet become a social epidemic – if, that is, something happens. It could be the arrival of virtual reality, rendering the exotic in lush detail, but it may be something more dramatic still. Imagine the environmental cost of air travel being factored into the price; high oil prices bringing an end to low-cost travel; imagine if flying becomes too dangerous, or even if flying seems too dangerous.

Islamic fundamentalism has already complicated the way we get from A to E. If you’ve ever worried about being blown up you know the threat: A Bomb Could Destroy Everything. In Morocco I found a razor at my throat as news of another atrocity emerged on Al Jazeera. (The barber didn’t flinch.) But Europe is no safer. A few months ago my wife turned to me in the middle of Covent Garden. She said, “Let’s get out of here”. I knew exactly what she meant.

My wife declined to join me in Morocco this summer. Perhaps there will come a time when all flying seems unduly reckless. That would be terrible for the tourism industry, yet it would also present opportunities. We know, for example, that holidaymakers crave the exotic, even close to home. That is why there is a tropical island outside Berlin, a ski slope in Dubai and a German village recreated brick-by-brick for Chinese people to see what Europe is like. It gives me no pleasure to predict that we have not seen the end of artificial beaches.

On the final day of my trip to Morocco I told my tennis coach to visit the Majorelle Garden. “You must go”, I said, earnestly reminding him that to be a tourist at home can often teach us something new about who we really are.

“I can’t’, he replied.
“Why not?”
“It’s too expensive for a Moroccan”.

Back in Dublin, I searched my case for the sad lump of coal that became a piece of amethyst. It wasn’t there. So, in a final flourish, it became an unvouched gift to the maid in the riad. I thought about the amethyst and the pollution caused by that flight home. The jewel and the carbon footprint. And then, consumed by guilt, I decided to take my family to Kerry next summer.

I love County Kerry. So does everyone else. In 2015 the final scene of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ was filmed on Skellig Michael, an island that was home to a monastery in the sixth century. Conservationists warned that shooting could damage a World Heritage Site, just as tourism chiefs made promotional films in which cast and crew extolled the beauty of the natural landscape. Luke Skywalker called it “indescribably beautiful”. He neglected to mention the best thing that you and I can do for Skellig Michael: stay away, preferably forever.

Skellig Michael
Skellig Michael

Before it became the one place on earth that features in the new ‘Star Wars’ film, 132 people were allowed to visit Skellig Michael every day during the four-month summer season. Even now, after the daily limit was increased to 180, hundreds of tourists come away disappointed. This is the result of a blockbuster connection and shrewd marketing. As someone who works in Irish tourism I must support ideas that generate jobs and revenue. As an Irish citizen I am not sure that jobs and revenue should trump all other considerations.

The Star Wars Effect is to take a small, remote destination and turn it into the centre of the universe. The result is somewhat dazzling. Less impressive is the act of making a promise one cannot, or should not, keep. Part of me wants to see Skellig Michael enjoy the fame it deserves. Part of me wants to see Skellig Michael before the place is ruined.

Such oppositions are within the bailiwick of the 21st Century Tourist, for whom the lie travels further than the truth. I am not going to visit Skellig Michael next summer, but I did think about it. To justify the intrusion I told myself that I am not some coach-tour insect, but a lightfooted explorer, teaching the world to juggle. For even a journey of a thousand miles begins with a pack of lies. Some of them make us feel better about stomping all over this fragile planet. Others are designed to show how corporations care about people and places they exploit for profit.

In Morocco I realised that there is no art in being a tourist. Or else we have forgotten how to journey lightly. I don’t want to stay at home forever, but I do need to get better at seeing the world. That might mean travelling less, to more obscure places, without myself; that is, without the weight of all that baggage. And perhaps we should all consider the possibility that this is not the beginning, but the end, of a Golden Age. That we are approaching Peak Tourism.

Imagine more chronic overcrowding. More bombs. More taxes on travel. More restrictions on our movement. Climate chaos. Empty planes. Imagine becoming the owner of a useless passport. When this seems all too real, remember that in the year 2016 you could fly to anywhere in the world for less than the price of a new mountain bike. Finally, try to recall what it was like to be a stupid tourist, and why, for all its depredations, that facility was worth defending: because it brought you closer to a proper understanding of the human condition.

Travel teaches us that freedom is something you have to defend from time to time, but also that freedom is nothing without responsibility. This may be one of those times.

By Trevor White