‘Overtourist’ Is Now A Verb
Above shows a serene Tokyo photograph, but it’s the top half only – I’ve divided it into two. For the other half, see the bottom of the article.
There have been some fascinating press pieces this month on a global problem that has been building for many years. Even in the times of the Grand Tour there were complaints about the despoliation of foreign destinations, but it wasn’t until the first cheap flights of the early 1970s that the subject became a standing joke – witness Eric Idle’s rant about the ruination of Spain by British holidaymakers;
It’s not just overtourism that’s damaging world heritage sites; out-of-scale construction plans in Liverpool threaten its status, political instability in Yemen, Iraq and Kosovo all play their part. But saving a national treasure also encourages us to visit it.
The search for the ‘unique experience’ has led to some of the tiniest off-map places being overrun. Recent articles about Chinese tourists mysteriously turning up in the tiny Oxfordshire village of Kidlington had nothing to do with them looking for Harry Potter’s Privet Drive. The day-trippers had been arriving in their coachloads wanting a glimpse of the ‘true’ sense of England. I suppose they got it; people trimming hedges and tending to rose bushes.
The super-rich can ‘enjoy seven gastronomical experiences by private jet’ in Spain for around seven grand, but for many cities the problem is bargain cruise ships which disgorge their passengers for a day in vast numbers. Cruise tourists get a very strange glimpse of whichever city they visit. Often their routes are designed to avoid impacting on local environments, so they’re herded in preset routes to restaurants set aside for their use. At least they can say they’ve been there, sort of.
Some cities aren’t suited for any kind of cruise ship – Venice is quickly being destroyed but endemic government corruption fails to stop them. Venice has its own people to blame. The centres of Paris and Florence have been all but ruined by tourism – on my last trip to a favourite restaurant in Paris I found that it was unwise to sit anywhere near the door, because it was regularly kicked open by Chinese tourists for photo opportunities, some of whom walked into the dining room to continue snapping.
Education is needed not just for tourists but for tour operators. After the British working class invaded Spanish coastal resorts, the authorities realised they had created an undesirable situation for their own residents, and now many tourism resorts are confined to a single area or ‘upgraded’ with more quality establishments that discourage hordes of drunken teenagers. A recent trip to Benidorm for a Spanish friend’s birthday showed a city undergoing a transformation from its old image as a booze-bar sinkhole to a far pleasanter place.
Is this any different to bussing out homeless people during the Cannes Film Festival, which used to happen every year? Yes, because as the posters around Barcelona put it, ‘Your holiday is our everyday.’ When the people who live and work in a smallish city find their lives impacted by higher rents, worsening businesses, the disappearance of shops and crowding of public transport it’s time to bring the problem under control.
London is a classic example; one of the world’s most popular destinations, it is so overcrowded in certain areas that tube stations now have to shut at peak times. Yet avoiding those areas takes you back into almost deserted streets. It’s even true of New York. One street away from the main drag and you can find yourself alone.
Tourists don’t generally stray far from where they’re sent. In Corfu it was found that the average holidaymaker travelled no further than three miles, so containment was planned. In Mallorca this summer I went to a village night festival and found no tourists there at all, because such fiestas offer nothing tangible for tourists. What I wanted was to be invisible and enjoy the atmosphere.
The bucket list mentality favours box-ticking over actual experience. But for places which have come to rely on tourist income, finding a balance will be tough.