My mind instantly responds to the expression “mass tourism” with “grotesque nightmare!” Having worked, lived in, or traveled in over 90 countries around the world, the prospect of travel no longer entices. Congestion on the roads and in the airports, concerns about security, inspections, and bureaucratic hassle, unsettled weather patterns and unpredictable politics are all unsettling. The prospective arrival to a city in terms of the architecture, hotels, restaurants, the conventions of politeness of service, each have become so stereotyped that they leave little to my imagination. Put simply: All fun in the process of getting there has vanished.
It says a lot about our species and our global civilization that tourism has become the largest (or perhaps the second largest after food) industry. Mass travel has shrunk our globe in more ways than one. I regret to say that mass tourism, while good for the creation of jobs, is also causing serious erosion of our environment. The carbon emissions alone are staggering.
Tourism used to be about exploration and getting to know other people and their differing ways of life. No longer. The mass tourist is primarily interest in taking “selfies” in front of the Grand Canal and then being able to say “I have been there.” Venice, one of my favorite cities, can have so many tourists struggling to reach St. Mark’s Square or the Rialto bridge that I can only compare it to morning rush hour in the New York or Tokyo subways. Fortunately, when there, I can hurry away and, in just a few blocks from the crush, can then stroll calmly through narrow alleyways and intimate piazzas to mingle with ordinary Venetians going about their daily chores: bliss!
Mass tourism entails levels of standardization, conformity, uniformity and cost cutting, all working against individual choice. (Yes, the “holiday package” may be structured around ‘singles’, gourmets, seniors, or even flora, but the driving force is numbers.1)
I live in the academically renowned city of Cambridge (UK) where more than 10 percent of the work force is employed in tourism. About four million visitors a year come to visit this historic site bringing in more than $300 million (or £200+ million.) A new phenomenon has been the arrival of bus load upon bus load of Chinese who have come to regard Cambridge as one of the “musts” of their ‘grand tour’ of Europe. Most of these want to pay homage to the 20th Century poet Xu Zhimo who wrote a highly nostalgic verse, “Leaving Cambridge Again” (1928) which has been taught in every Chinese primary school for over a generation.
During their visit to Cambridge, none of these visitors is likely to speak to a single resident. Most are unlikely to see much beyond the punts on the Cam river and ‘the backs’ of Kings and neighboring colleges. What will they come away with when, having “done” Cambridge, they eagerly mount their buses to return to London’s Chinatown in time for dinner? Perhaps they will decide that there are as many cyclists in this city as there are in their city in China? Or that there is less air and water pollution than back at home? Or that they miss the black tea they are used to? Perhaps the visit to the rock with the poetic inscription of Xu Zhimo may just have been another essential rite in affirming their social status?
All too often the faces of mass tourists, their digital cameras at the ready, express fatigue and boredom, as well as anxiety and irritation. Much of their time is spent queuing for food, entrance fees, or toilet facilities. They never seem quite comfortable when distant from their flag bearing guide or from the bus which will take them to their next destination as printed in their illustrated packaged programs.
Would that some of the thrills of sensation open to the individual traveler were enjoyed by the mass of tourists, but the age of the independent ‘Grand’ hotels (which was launched with the opening by Princess Eugenie of the Paris Grand in 1862) has now passed. Replicating intimate service on a mass scale is an inherently implausible task in the 21st Century. There are some 16,500 posh hotels scattered around the world run mostly by a variety of national chains. The five biggest hotel loyalty schemes, half of which are upscale/posh or luxury, have a total of 200 million members. The Economist, in surveying this state of affairs, speculated that “In the future the hotel may offer neither bland conformity nor authentic warmth but a proliferating number of experimental worlds in which to insert yourself.”2
There was a time, not so long ago, when travel was an adventure full of the unexpected and sometimes even redolent with charm. Looking back two centuries at the experiences of different travelers and adventurers, one encounters startlingly different perceptions and reactions. I note this not only as nostalgia on my part but also as a protest at the way the human race has voyaged of late. Boswell, crediting his libertine friend, Samuel Johnson with a verse from Naples on March 7, 1765 when, on a visit to what had already become an essential stopover of the European “Grand Tour,”3 he wrote:
Why curse fair Naples, strangers, wherefore swear
That all the human race are worthless there?…
At Naples lives the woman I adore,
Oh, had I seen her ere she turned a whore!
But whore or not I love her with my soul,
And to her health will drink a brimming bowl.
Twelve days later, in a somewhat different mood, he wrote that
“Naples is indeed a delicious spot. I have been near three weeks here and have been constantly employed in seeing the classical places all around. Is it possible to conceive a richer scene than the finest bay diversified with islands and bordered by fields where Virgil’s Muses charmed the creation, where the renowned ancient Rome enjoyed the luxury of glorious retreat and the true flow of soul which they valued as much as triumphs?”
There was indeed a time before tourism became a mass industry that the prospect of travel could fill the visitor with pleasurable anticipation. Few tourists today travel for travel’s sake. Catering to the market has entailed the loss of spiritual values and has replaced these with material concerns: Getting the best deal for your money and getting you there fast.
But do not despair. New tourist vistas (without any visas) are opening up for those willing to spend $200,000 (or £125,000) for a risky two hour journey to outer space at ever higher speeds. Those who already have signed up for Sir Richard Branson’s commercial space flight on Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo, are unlikely to get a much smoother ride than that described by Catherine Roget on October 5, 1793 on her five day+ coach journey from London to Edinburgh:
“I had the most disagreeable journey I ever experienced owing to the new improved patent coach, a vehicle loaded with iron trappings and the greatest complication of unmechanical contrivances jumbled together that I have ever witnessed. The coach swings sideways with a sickly sway, without any vertical spring, the point of suspension bearing upon an arch called a spring, though it is nothing of the sort. The severity of the jolting occasioned me such disorder, that I was obliged to stop at Axminster and go to bed very ill.”
Lady Roget cautioned that “unless they go back to the old-fashioned coach, hung a little lower, the mail coaches will lose all their custom.”
Sir Richard, Beware!
1Maxine Feifer, Tourism in History, (1985)
2“Be my guest A short History of Hotels,”The Economist, December 21, 2013.
3Christopher Hibbert, The Grand Tour,(1987)