Anti tourism: should we really all just stop travelling?

Everybody hates tourists and all travelling is bad. That is the opinion of The Guardian which has published nine articles this month alone urging us not to travel abroad. These articles include opinion pieces from Martin Kettle “We have to re-examine the idea that we enjoy an unfettered liberty to travel at will or for pleasure,” Simon Jenkins “Why do people feel this restless urge to “get away” all the time?” and a particularly harsh piece from Suzanne Moore “You are not wanted. You are killing the thing you love. You are ruining everything. You think the locals are pleased to see you, but they are not.”

Anti tourism - Barcelona

The reason for this spate of anti travel articles is down to the recent “anti tourism” movement in Spain which involved members of Arran, the youth wing of the radical CUP (Popular Unity Candidacy), slashing the tyres of tour buses and tourist bicycles in Barcelona, along with as protests in Mallorca and San Sebastian. This follows a demonstration in Venice last month where 2000 locals marched through the city to protest the negative effects caused by the 20 million people a year who visit their small town.

So The Guardian’s response to this anti tourism sentiment from a minority of people in two countries, in a world of over 100 countries who welcome tourists every single day, is that everyone should stay inside the neat geographical borders they were born in and never travel outside. Ever.

There are huge problems caused by mass tourism. I’ve visited places which have had any charm they once had stamped out by the hordes of tourists who flocked there. I’ve also visited places which accommodate many tourists and wear it well (Berlin, Rome and Sydney spring to mind). Locals have a right to be angry when they struggle to find accommodation in their home town due to Airbnb and are forced to deal with people teeming into their city who have no desire to drink within their limit, pick up their litter or generally behave like a decent, considerate human being.

But to suggest the solution to this problem is that everyone should stop travelling? Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater – this approach is akin to throwing out the baby with the bath and kitchen sink attached. Everyone should stop travelling? Really? There are hundreds of places around the world which rely on tourism. There are industries built around it. If everyone decided to stop travelling, economies would collapse. Millions of people would lose their jobs.

Local governments can implement laws that put locals before tourist profit and ensure their towns and cities don’t become theme parks existing solely for the purpose of entertaining tourists. They have the power to regulate Airbnb. To put a stop to the cruise ships, or at least cut down on them. Put planning laws in place that limit the number of tourist tat shops. Secretary General of the World Tourism Organisation Taleb Rifai said “It (tourism) should not be given up for the sake of mismanagement. Ensuring that tourism is an enriching experience for visitors and hosts alike demands strong, sustainable tourism policies, practices and the engagement of national as well as local governments and administrations, private sector companies, local communities and tourists themselves.”

Of course, us travellers have a responsibility too. To not behave like louts. To be respectful of the local people and culture. To not expect everyone to speak English. To consider visiting destinations outwith peak season or visit places that don’t host as many tourists (which is more enjoyable anyway).

In her opinion piece Suzanne Moore said: “We claim that travel opens our eyes to the world – and it does, a little. But it also requires closing them. We have to turn a blind eye to much of what we see to enjoy ourselves. Sometimes it is big things such as poverty and unemployment.” But isn’t that what we do in the UK every single day? Does Suzanne stop at every homeless person she walks past? Does choose to live to an area of poverty so she can fully understand what many people in the UK live like? Does she give most of her money to charity?  

In travelling, and in everyday life, we make series of daily decisions weighed up against ethical considerations. While travelling, this might result in choosing not to ride on an elephant in Thailand or visit an orphanage in Cambodia. At home it might result in buying from local businesses or using your free time to volunteer. It might also result in drinking a can of Coca Cola or wearing a jumper that’s been made in a factory in Bangladesh.

If you’ve arrived on this blog you will obviously be aware that I love to travel. I consider travelling to be one of the most enjoyable and rewarding things you can do in life. I believe there’s an entire globe out there filled with wonderful things to see. Oh, I’m not silly enough to believe that by spending time in another country I understand what it’s like to live there, but what is the harm in trying to at least learn a little? I firmly believe that if everyone was able to travel, the world would be a more open minded place.

I agree with The Guardian in once sense: travelling is not a right. It’s a privilege. It’s a privilege many people in the world don’t get to enjoy and with all privileges come responsibilities. But something that disturbs me about the recent anti travel articles is the repeated suggestion that tourism is now a problem because travelling it is too cheap. This suggests the answer is to make travelling more exclusive, something only wealthy people are able to experience.

Does everyone hate tourists?

In her piece, Suzanne Moore said “You think the locals are pleased to see you but they’re not.” I believe the truth to be more nuanced than that. Some people who live in Barcelona hate tourists so much they take to the streets to protest. A 2016 government survey revealed 86.7% of locals believe tourism is beneficial to Barcelona. 47.5% surveyed wished to attract more tourists. 48.9% wanted to find a way to limit the number of tourists arriving. I found the most liked comments under The Guardian’s Facebook post of the article to be interesting. A man called Fabiano Thor guidi said:

“What a stupid and superficial title. Europe does not hate tourists at all. I speak for my country, Italy. We know we have a lot to offer and we like sharing it with tourists, whether they are Italians or foreigners. Some cities are indeed overcrowded like Venice or Florence but Florence or Venice are not whole Italy or whole Europe! Nevertheless it is true we do not like tourists pissing around, throwing up everywhere or people swimming in Renaissance or Baroque monumental fountains… this is indeed unacceptable! Nothing to do with hate.”

And a woman called Ja Lee commented: “This is such a load of crap. I love tourists. I’m from NYC, where one of our favorite pastimes is making fun of visitors. But after 9/11, many of us felt grateful that anyone still wanted to visit us. I am grateful that people visit to see the Christmas decorations in midtown, to visit Ground Zero and pay their respects, I even found two Italian tourists who barely spoke any English wandering thru my inner suburb.

When I travel outside of my country, mostly to Canada and Europe, I always brush up on language and manners. I always respectfully ask if the other person speaks English if I can’t manage in their language. If you hate ME simply because I’m a tourist, I’d say you’re the one with the problem.”

I asked three two colleagues who live in Edinburgh, Jonathan Trew and Daniel Strachan to tell me exactly what they think about the subject. With the Edinburgh Festival currently on, the city is at this moment one of the most tourist filled in the world. Here’s what they had to say:

Jonathan Trew said:

“I live in a beautiful city which, during August, hosts the world’s largest arts festival. Of course people want to visit Edinburgh and I’m very happy to see them. Edinburgh is a cosmopolitan city and that is partly down to the people who come from all over the world to take their holidays here. Sharing all that the city has is part of its appeal. It is a bit like having a really good bottle of wine – you could drink it all yourself but it’s more fun to enjoy it with friends. Besides, there is nothing to stop residents escaping the crowds. There are beautiful parts of the capital which are more or less untouched by tourism.

That doesn’t mean there are not problems.

Yes, it is more difficult and slower to move around the city during peak periods; August in particular. But that counts for three, maybe four weeks of the year. Plus I suspect that the problem is down to road works etc as much as it is due to the weight of visitors. It is an inconvenience. It is not a major problem.

I am lucky in that I am not in competition with tourists for accommodation but I can see that could be issues if rental properties are all ear-marked for short term holiday lets. I’m no expert on this but I’m not sure that has yet to become a significant problem here.

This is a generalisation but the people who complain about too many tourists are likely to be the same people who complain about the cost of the Hogmanay fireworks or new concert venues. ‘Why spend £X on these fripperies when you could be reducing my council tax?’ is the well-worn cry.

There are always complaints that tourism doesn’t actually benefit the residents of Edinburgh but this seems very short-sighted to me. Even if you put aside the cultural aspects, tourism still provides jobs and taxes. It encourages new restaurants and bars. It feeds hotel development. It puts Edinburgh on the global map.

I remember Edinburgh at the tail end of the Eighties before the tourism boom really got underway. Of course, it was still beautiful back then but it could seem a little morose, a little stuffy. Not any more.”

Daniel Strachan said

“Ninety percent of the time, I love the tourists in Edinburgh. The only time I don’t is in August for the Festival as it’s just too much – the Old Town is saturated. However, what can you do about this? The positive effects of the Festival, the economic benefit and cultural benefit to Edinburgh, far outweighs the negative.

“Also, a few of my friends who live just outside Edinburgh, are talking about going into the city centre for a drink – they’re not even planning to see a show, they just want to go into the city to soak up the crowds and atmosphere. So even locals make a point of going into the city centre during its busiest season.”

“The rest of the time, I love the tourists in Edinburgh. Tourists make Edinburgh what it is; they bring a vibrancy and buzz to the city. Edinburgh wouldn’t be the place it is if it wasn’t for the tourist trade. The complaints about the tourists are outweighed by the positivity from local people by ten-fold.”

I also asked my friend Neil Copland who lives in Cambridge, England, currently in peak tourist season, for this thoughts.

Neil Copland said:

“It seems so overcrowded that I do my best to avoid the (Cambridge) town centre on summer weekends now.

“There used to be plenty of tourists, but now there are far more large group tour parties and huge buses in the narrow streets in the centre, and punt touts everywhere. It puts me off enjoying the river in the summer myself.

“Back when lived centrally around the colleges, you soon learned that if you stopped to wait every time someone was lining up a photograph, you never got anywhere, so you just learned to walk through.

“There are huge numbers of language schools and other summer programmes many of which use the college accommodation, and I know a lot of the poorer colleges are very reliant on this money. Someone in Cambridge is certainly making a fortune out of it, I do hope it gets back to the residents.

“Feels like it’s the price you pay for living in a pretty place. Maybe I’m getting old and grumpy but it does seem to have become more ‘industrial scale’ in the last few years and less sustainable. Cambridge is a bit of a victim of it’s own success with property prices as well.

“At the end of the day it’s good for the city, and you can’t expect to keep it all to yourself, but when you’re going about your daily grind it can be pretty frustrating.

What do you think? Do you have any thoughts to add? Do you live in a place that is visited by many tourists? If so, how does it affect your home town?

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