OK. You and your delightful spouse are each 70 years of age. Of an evening, you love to pull out your respective bucket-lists (travel section) and discuss which foreign adventure should come next. Among many other outings over the recent years, you have already been once to Machu Picchu; twice to Iceland; five times to NYC; eighteen times (sic) to Paris. You have seen the Alhambra, the Mona Lisa, Petra, the Edinburgh Military Tattoo and the Monaco Grand Prix. You tried the Oktoberfest at the age of 65 but had to acknowledge that you could not keep pace with the younger drinkers. Today, you have a notion to give Kenya a try as your next destination and plan to buy the latest guidebook in Stanfords for a gander. In the background, your family finances are strong enough to absorb the tariffs that come with such adventures. Life has been more than kind. Your bucket is made of silver.
OK still. Here is the proposition:
The modern Western septuagenarian should take it as his/her duty to voluntarily refrain from international tourism. This section of the bucket list should be heavily cut. If you have travelled a lot over the decade and your tourist gaze has alighted on so many wonders of the world then a sense of self-imposed quota should be respected. You have had your go.
It’s an easy argument to mount. As follows:
In Europe, a very live revulsion at what is considered to be a serious surfeit of tourism is being expressed in many places. In Spain, we have the phenomenon of turismofobia taking the form of populist and sometimes aggressive demonstrations in venues (not really the right word) such as Mallorca and Barcelona. A quick news review of the issue will reveal slogans/graffiti such as Tourist Go Home and Tourist : You Luxury Trip / My Daily Misery and Tourism Kills City. Similar agitations are being heard in Italy, especially a run-ragged Venice and a trampled-down Rome. The inventory of perceived vexations – in Europe and elsewhere – usually contains one or more of the following items/claims:
• Tourist attractions get so crowded that local residents cannot commute easily or indeed find reasonably priced places to live.
• Beautiful places get trashed under the weight of so many passing feet.
• Local colour and culture are oppressed as the grimest form of globalisation takes hold : hotel chains, fast-food outlets, t-shirt vendors, bad-karma “disneyfication”….
• Transport infrastructures cannot cope with the ever-swelling population of visitors and, perversely, new investment in this area might well favour those visitors (in their desire for ease of movement) rather than the indigenous family of taxpayers.
• Mass tourism equals mass environmental despoliation. There is no way to circumvent this equation. The Summer skies fill with kerosene-burning jets; the beaches fill with discarded plastic; the plazas and the piazzas fill with polystyrene and puke.
• Certain types of tourist seem programmed to behave badly on holiday; this has a dark side in public drunkenness (“el turismo de borrachera”) and gruesome anti-social behaviour – with an even darker side still in sex tourism.
Meanwhile, growth is the natural dynamic of global tourism. Our septuagenarian middle-class bucket-listers knew, when they were young, frequent foreign vacations as something of a luxury. Air travel was glamorous and rather expensive. A cruise was for the old folks. Package deals had simple, limited but not unattractive menus. The travelling tourist tended to be Western and moneyed and predictable in his/her tastes. This latter attitude was partly driven by the fact that so many countries did not seriously encourage in-bound tourism – Soviet Russia, China, the Eastern bloc would be examples. Not many Europeans tried back-packing in Vietnam at the time of the Tet Offensive. During the 1980s, Central America with all its esquadrones de muerte and roamingly murderous thuggery hardly appealed to even the most daring. And the term Gap Year was still only a way of euphemising one’s inability to get a job after leaving college.
It’s all different now. We are the children of the great socio-cultural consummation that is AirBnB with Ryanair. It’s cheap to fly and it’s cheap to sleep. DIY packages take 10 minutes of clicking. In this era of fragile growth, just about every government – if not every local citizen – wants the tourist dollar, euro, rupee, ruble, RMB, whatever. Over-supply has perversely stimulated excessive consumption. Even in the wreckage of the global financial disaster of 2008, the global tourist market grew at 4+% per annum and, as we write, is stretching substantially beyond even that performance (Source : WTO). In these circumstances, in the words of the McKinsey study of late 2017 – Coping with Success : managing overcrowding in tourism destinations – some holiday venues found themselves “in danger of being loved to death”. Yes, this is where we are.
And so to our point. So far, over-tourism, recognised as a problem, has stimulated what is essentially a debate about policy. Perhaps there are creative ways of smoothing out the arrival of visitors from venue to venue; perhaps the owners of attractions could be persuaded to extend opening times and thus compress queues; perhaps tourism taxes could be increased just enough to cauterise but not choke demand; perhaps visits to certain sites could be structurally de-casualised (ie only pre-booked excursions to be allowed)….
To scan the news reports of tourism-stress is to find plenty of public authorities selecting from a broad menu of such options. Mallorca, for example, now restricts apartment-renting in high season. Venice bans the building of new hotels. Only a limited number of cruise ships are allowed to dock in Dubrovnik. Botswana increases visitor taxes. The Philippines closes entire islands. NYC now restricts hotel construction in East New York, Greater East Midtown, East Harlem, the Far Rockaways, and Jerome Avenue. Tourists to Australia will soon be banned from climbing the walls of Uluru. It is being almost universally recognised that tourism has to be properly and creatively policed.
But. All this effort has to be supplemented and enriched by serious cultural change. For the natural tendency of the global tourism market is to swell; it already constitutes 10% of worldwide GDP. Public policy initiatives (of the kind we itemise above) will not be enough to the beast’s inherent tendency towards obesity.
Sooner or later, ever more Third Age travellers will take it as their duty to show restraint and ration their trips.
The issue will become ever more vibrant in those economies which are net exporters of tourism. For the UK, for instance, Brits take over 70m trips abroad each year (75% of them taking place within the EU) while non-Brits make around 39m visits to the UK; around 15m visits are made each year to Spain alone, the most popular destination for British holiday-makers. (Source : ONS). Spanish statistical data reveals that spending by British tourists in Spain far outstrips the spend of any other nationality. Meanwhile, most indigeneous Spanish tourism (ie vacationing Spaniards) takes place inside Spain; less than 10% of Spanish holiday-makers actually leave the country in any given year. (Source : INE). To the extent that anxiety about excessive tourism rises so it must seem inevitable that any call for voluntary restraint – or any mobilisation behind such an idea – will target certain nationalities and certain established behaviours. That is the force of our example here. The anti-tourist slogans we quote above are all written by their authors in English : not insignificant surely.
So, why might older travellers think about stepping back from the plate? Why should they put their passport on the back-burner? Well, as we suggest above, it is not likely that there are that many among the UK’s over-65s who have never been abroad. (The Census of 2011 put passport ownership at 80% in England). Many will, alternatively, have visited a combination of, say, Spain-France-Italy every year since their twenties. It could well be argued that in the interests of inter-generational equity those in this category should progressively, as they grow older still, presume in favour of staycationing.
We accept that this is a radical thought. But we are confident that sooner or later eco-lobbies and regional political movements will put themselves behind it – for the stresses of mass tourism are real enough and something, it will be argued, has to give. Our point here is not an argument against tourism per se and besides tourism is just like the universe : it cannot stop itself from expanding. Much profit and prosperity turn on the ever-growing tide of holiday-makers from amongst a global middle-class which wants, big time, to reward itself for the daily grind in high-quality Summer fun.
In the state of Nevada, no income tax is levied on the local citizenry because tourism hoovers $2b into the public budget every year. (Source : LVCVA). In the UK, a new railway line linking London, Oxford and the designer retail outlet in Bicester beckons an army of Chinese shoppers – the station tannoy at Marylebone now speaks Cantonese – while benefiting local commuters and sustaining employment. In Spain, some 13% of the economically active population resides in the tourism sector while the national unemployment rate is 15%; no Government will want to preside over a forced reduction in airport Arrivals. (Source : Turespaña). Across the globe, it will remain in the nature of the tourism sector to keep the party going.
But the times will be a-changin’. Rinkli Funstaz data shows that only around 30% of British septuagenarians agree that “a holiday cruise is my idea of fun”. Nearly 40% disagree strongly with the proposition. Yes, for a long time now the older traveller has been becoming more interesting to tour operators and hoteliers and attraction-managers; tired assumptions about what the getting-on-a-bit voyager defines as fun have been taking a cultural battering. But maybe that voyager is going to expect him/herself to accept new and surprising responsibilities and get more interesting still. Maybe our nice septuagenarian lady will soon say to her spouse : “Put away the brochures, Darling. Maybe we have had enough”. Not another suitcase and not another hall.