Italy is right to restriction visitors to its beauty spots the culture exchange has become purely commercial
Italy is the original tourist destination, an open museum for pilgrims, Grand Tourists, foodies, beach hoboes and church crawlers. The country the fifth most visited in the world, with almost 47 million guests spending a total of PS32bn a year is assiduous in promoting tourism. It takes a brave person to turn those various kinds of gushing taps off. But in some overwhelmed areas of the country, that is what is happening.
This week Italian authorities declared they are going to limit the number of visitors to the Cinque Terre, a collecting of five fishing villages in Liguria. Tourist numbers will be capped at 1.5 million( a million less than last year) because these tiny communities are unable to cope with the influx. The announcement follows a ban last year on huge cruise ship entering the Venetian lagoon.
Its a counter-intuitive move, because most tourist destinations want as many guests as possible. And it shows up tourism as a Faustian pact: the more guests you have and the more money you build, the less you are the naive, folkloric, authentic, untouched place of the tourists imagination.
The defence of tourism has always been that it widens the mind. We imagine that hanging out with exotic peoples in unusual places will remove from us any petty provincialism. But in an age of mass tourism, the interaction with those peoples and places has lost its depth. Our exchange has become merely commercial.
I remember years ago asking for directions in a package-tour area of Jamaica. A man pointed me in the right direction and, just as I was imagining that he and I had broken down some kind of cultural or racial hurdle, he asked me for a dollar in a mildly menacing route. Tourism has become equivalent to a one-night stand, with each side grabbing what they want: the tourist gets a selfie in front of an iconic build and the locals empty guests pockets as thoroughly as possible.
The observer, of course, always affects the observed, and travel can ruin the places we come to see. The nearest tourist attraction to where I live is Glastonbury Tor in Somerset. Its a lovely, petite hill with views stretching far over the finest district in England. But so many people walk it that the route is now made of concrete, and were cautioned, in a written notice at the kissing gate, that we mustnt stray. It scarcely induces for a saunter amidst nature.
Thats why so many tourist destinations are savagely dismissive of those they receive. Every country has a similar term to the West Countrys grockle or Spains guiri: words which express dislike for these gawking, ungainly visitors.
The most painful recent example was the toe-curling tale of the couple who went to the Maldives to renew their matrimony vows. The hotel charged them PS820 for a ceremony in which hotel personnel, speaking Dhivehi which they didnt understand, viciously insulted them. That dreadful tale captured the weird world of westerners longing for a paradise, for virginal land; and of locals ripping them off and belittling them.
Some countries address the dilemma with innovation. Bhutan doesnt limit its number of tourists, but it does force them through package tours to expend $250 a day in high season ($ 200 in low ), which apparently funds education, healthcare and so on. Other places, such as Venice, have vastly differing costs for tourist attractions according to whether you are a resident or not. But those measures only underline that the relationship with you really is primarily commercial. Other destinations( like Costa Rica or the Galapagos) promote tourists to see themselves as eco-benefactors or as witness to sustainability. But eco-tourism is a blatant contradiction in terms.
Part of the problem is that our escapism often serves to emphasise the epic inequality in our world. Its entirely understandable( especially if youre from northern Europe) to chase sunshine and sandy beaches. But then every year we find those heart-wrenching images of refugees crawling ashore in Lampedusa as Europeans slap on the sun cream. We are those privileged Europeans, whether were in that photo or not.
We will maintain travelling manically because were instinctive wanderers. Curiosity is a good thing, and it genuinely does open the heart and mind as much as it does the billfold. No one wants it to end. If the tourism industry stopped existing tomorrow, the global economy would massively suffer. Tourism accounts for almost a third of the worlds services.
But perhaps we should put the sandal on the other foot. If we want the right to go anywhere, we should allow that right to others as well. It cant just be that merely the rich are permitted to visit, buy properties and lay down roots. If we expend our fund in its own country, surely we have a duty to allow foreigners to earn it in ours as well. Because until theres a sense of equality about human motion across the globe, until tourism implies a sense of actually living alongside other people, it will remain simply a one-night stand.
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