By Roberto Savio*
ROME, Jan 2018 – This year, we will have 3 million tourists each day wandering the world. This massive phenomenon is without precedent in human history and is happening (as usual), with only one consideration in mind: money. We should pause and take a look at its social, cultural and environmental impact and take remedial measures, because they are becoming seriously negative if things are left as they are.
Sameer Kapoor listed for Triphobo Trip Planner a list of 20 places that have been ruined, due to excess of tourism. Antarctica is getting an alarming level of pollution. The famous Taj Mahal, a monument of love from the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to the memory of his wife, Mumtaz, has changed its shining milky white marble into a yellow shade. Mount Everest is strewn with trash from invading visitors.
The Great wall of China has been so mistreated by the massive invasion of tourists that it has begun to crumble in places The famous beaches of Bali are littered with trash; traffic is in a gridlock and roads and footpaths are in a dangerous state of disrepair.
Macchu Picchu has a such large number of visitors that archaeologists are worried about preservation of the site. Once there was a train to a small village, Aguas Calientes, to then continue by foot or mules. Now you can reach the enigmatic and sacred Inca citadel by air conditioned bus, and Aguas Calientes is now a town of 4.000 people with five star hotels. The famous Australian Coral Reef Barrier, has lost already one third of the corals.
The Galapagos islands, where Charles Darwin conceived his famous theory of natural selection, has so many visitors impinging on his fragile eco balance that in 2007 UNESCO placed it on the list of endangered World Heritage Sites but to no avail. The Parthenon has many visitors taking pieces of rocks and ruins, and drawing or carving on ancient pillars, that special police squad had to be created.
The wonders of Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, is suffering the same fate, together with the Colosseum in Rome, where every week somebody gets caught for chipping away pieces of columns, or graffiting the pillars.
But maybe the best example of the negative impact of tourism is Venice. The town has now officially 54.000 residents. They were 100.000 in 1970. Every year 1.000 residents leave for the mainland, because rents and cost of life keeps going up, and the hordes of tourist make life impossible for the residents. The number of sweepers and cleaners employed by the city has to go up continuously. Giant ships continue to go over the delicate microsystem of the lagoon and their lobby is very strong. They insist that without their megaships landing at the centre of the town, 5.000 jobs would be in danger.
There is now a clear conflict between those who live off tourism and those who have other jobs. Like in Barcelona, residents now stage demonstrations against mass tourism. Venice will become a ghost town, like the village of Mont Saint Michel, the medieval village in Normandy, jammed by thousands of visitors, to see the famous high-speed sea tide. At night, 42 people sleep there.
What is impressive is the speed of the phenomenon since 1950 when the total tourist numbers were 25 million, two thirds to Europe meant 29.76%of the tourists , Africa a mere 1.98% and the Middle East 0.79%, like Asia and Pacific. 66 years later, tourist numbers rose to 1.2 billion, Europe is down to 50%, Americas to 16.55%, Africa is at 4.52%, while the Middle East is at 4.7%. And Asia Pacific? It is now at 24.2%.
What is more impressive is to look further – at 2030, for which we have all the data (from the United Nations World Tourism Organization). Well, in a short time, we will go up to 1.8 billion: 5 million tourists every day. Europe is again down, to 41%, Americas down to 14%, Asia up to 30%, Africa to 7% and Middle east to 8 %. A totally inverted world in respect to 1950.
Tourism is already today the largest employer in the world: 1 person every 11. China has surpassed the US as the largest nationality. In 2016, they have spent 261 billion US dollars, and they will spend 429 billion in 2020.
UNWTO points to the fact that in 2025, China will have 92.6 million families with an income between 20.000 and 30.000 dollars per year; 63 million with an income between 35.000 and 70.000 dollars per year; and 21.3 million, with an income between 70.000 and 130.000 dollars. A large part of them is expected to travel and spend money. How many people speak Chinese and know anything about their idiosyncrasis ?
But any other consideration beside money, is totally absent in this debate. For instance, a large part of the jobs is in fact only seasonal, and poorly paid. Most of the money does not stay in the place where it is spent, but goes back to big companies and food imported for the tourist’s habits.
It is calculated that in the Caribbean, a full 70% goes back to US and Canada. Culture and traditions are influenced as outsiders come. Local culture and traditions become just a show for foreigners, and can lose roots. Hotels are built just for tourism in the most beautiful spots, degrading habitat and nature.
Price increases in local shops, because tourists are often wealthier than the local population. It is sufficient to go to a town which is out of the tourist’s circuits, to see the difference. In fact, now there is a growing search for “intact” places, different from “tourist’s places.
Tourist restaurants have become synonymous with poor food and high prices. And a tourist place is one that has lost its identity to conform with the demands of tourists. It has been the proliferation of Mc Donalds, Pizza Huts and other fast food joints, often in the most beautiful parts of towns, that pushed Petrini, in an old village with gastronomic tradition, Bra in Piedmont, to start a movement called Slow Food movement. The movement defends the freshness of materials, that must be local, preserving the original and traditional cuisines, and defending local products form the ongoing homogenization. It has now over 100.000 members in 150 countries, which defends identity against globalization.
Florence can well be a good example of how tourism is uprooting the locals’ identity and tradition. It was since the Renaissance, a place of art and culture. It was a must for cultured tourists and the forebearers of today’s tourists: German, British and French visitors, until the Second World War. A city of elegance, antique dealers, art shops, handcrafts and a very recognized Florentine cuisine.
Now it is full of tourist’s shops, jeans places, cheap standardized handcraft, a lot of pizzeria and tourist restaurants. The concierge of the classical Hotel Baglioni, when questioned about the decay of the town, had a simple answer: “Sir, we are a town of merchants. We did create the letter of change, the banks, and the international trade. Here come people who looked for art and antiques. Today we are awash with people who want to buy blue jeans and cheap stuff. We provide with what people want.” And for those living, in Rome, the main street via del Corso has suffered the same transformation.
It is scary to think what will happen when in the not so far 2020, 100 million Chinese will travel worldwide, with Europe as their first destination. Anybody who had a Chinese visitor (or from a different culture),knows how difficult it is for him to understand what he sees.
One of the main artistic European buildings are churches, and for a totally different religion they are strange places. It makes no sense to a Chinese what is Romanesque or Baroque, as they do not have any equivalent at home. And the classical tourist tour is now for about a week, in which they see at least 5 towns. This is the equivalent for a European to visit the temples in Tibet, without having studied Tibetan Buddhism, which is very different from other branches of Buddhism. Or, for that matter, visit the Egyptian temples without some knowledge at least of the Egyptian cosmology, the reigns of death, and the Pantheon of Gods. What will be remembered is the size of the pyramids, the smell of the incense in Buddhist temples, and other mere esthetical impression. That has nothing to do with culture and art.
To talk about the negative impacts of tourism, opens inevitably the question of classism. The more cultured you are, the more you can get from your travels. Does that mean that only cultured people (that until the second world war, also meant affluent: today the two concepts have split, may be for ever), should travel? Is tourism not a way to enrich and educate, so it should be on the contrary an important tool for the less cultivated?
I do not think that there is an easy answer to this issue. What I know, is that only a small minority of those visiting the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, or the Potala Palace in Lhasa, or the valley of the kings in Egypt, have a book in their hands, that they have bought to prepare themselves. They depend on their tour guides, who confess that they do not even try to teach, but only to show what their tourists can all understand. That means that when you are in the Sistine Chapel, you are nearly unable to move, while the custodians try to move people on, so to make space for the waiting line of visitors. Among that crowd, there are some people who can place the difference between Michelangelo and Matisse, and would certainly benefit from some more time, while this is irrelevant for others.
It is clear that we cannot let 1.8 billion people wander in the world, without introducing some global regulations on how to limit the negative aspects of tourism, and relating it not only to money, but to education, culture and personal development.
To come in touch with different cultures, civilizations, foods, habits and realities should be an occasion that should not be left only to money. A paradox is that we are fighting against immigrants, because of different cultures, but we accept gladly the same people if they come as tourist and not as refugees. And the other paradox is the two parallel words which coexist: one, the real, about poverty and violence that we read in newspapers; and another of the same place, which exists only for tourists, about the beautiful beaches, wonderful nature, and fantastic hotels.
Right now, you can visit the Vatican after its closing, with a modest fee of 100 Euro per person, in quiet and small numbers. Is the future of tourism made with two tracks, where money will be the dividing factor ?
It is obvious that we should link tourism to education and culture. A proposal is simply to ask every tourist, when he buys a tour, an airline ticket, or asks for a visa, to buy and read a very simple and schematic book (they do not exist until now), which can be read and understood in no more than 10 hours about what he or she is going to visit.
A small commission formed by one teacher of history, one of geography, and one of art, is established in any small or large cities, where now lives the large majority of the population. In all of them there are schools with these studies. They conduct a small exam, and charge a small fee for a certificate, to justify their extra work.
Tourists can choose to go to the commission or not. Few extremely simple questions such as – which is the capital of the countries you are going to visit ? Is the country independent ? Is it a monarchy or a republic? How does it makes its money? Its monument and art have different moments in history? The commission would give two certificates. One would give access to museums and monuments for the first two hours of the day, and only those with the certificate could then enter. After those two hours, everybody with the two certificates can enter. But this would enable those who can understand and enrich themselves, to have some time in peace and quiet.
This would make two tracks of tourism, not based on money. And this could generate a demonstration effect, where tourists would probably dedicate sometime to prepare themselves. I asked one former director general of UNESCO what he thought of a such proposal. His answer was – it is a great idea, but where is the political will to support this or, for that matter any international agreement?
* Italian-Argentine journalist, Roberto Savio is the publisher of Other News, adviser to INPS-IDN and to the Global Cooperation Council. He is also co-founder of Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and its President Emeritus.