Photo: A view down the Valley of the Kings, Luxor, Egypt (October 2004). Credit: Wikimedia Commons. - Photo: 2018

Let’s Put Order in Tourism and Tourism in Order

Viewpoint by Roberto Savio

The writer is publisher of Other News, an eminent proponent of “information that markets eliminate” and founder of IPS-Inter Press Service News Agency. This article is being reproduced courtesy of Other News with the writer’s permission. He can be contacted at and his articles and comments can be read on Facebook @robertosavioutopia

ROME (IDN) – We are living a paradox in which two parallel worlds coexist: the (real) world of places of poverty and violence that we (occasionally) read about in newspapers or see on TV and the other world featuring the same places which exists only for tourists, the world of beautiful beaches, wonderful nature and fantastic hotels.

Behind this paradox lies a fundamental question: how many tourists travelling the world this year will consider the social, cultural and environmental impact of their activity? Probably very few, and this is a serious issue with tourism having become a mass phenomenon driven (as usual) by money.

Writing for TriHobo, Sameer Khapoor has listed 20 places that have been ruined due to excessive tourism.

Antarctica has been hit by an alarming level of pollution, Mount Everest is strewn with rubbish from invading visitors and the Great Wall of China has been so mistreated by the massive invasion of tourists that it has begun to crumble.

The famous beaches of Bali are littered with waste and roads and footpaths are in a dangerous state of disrepair, while the citadel of Machu Picchu in Peru receives such a large number of visitors that archaeologists are worried about its preservation.

Australia’s Great Reef Barrier has already lost one-third of its coral and the Galapagos islands, where Charles Darwin conceived his renowned theory of natural selection, has so many visitors impinging on its fragile ecobalance that UNESCO placed it on the list of endangered World Heritage Sites in 2007, to no avail.

The Parthenon in Greece is afflicted by visitors plundering pieces of the ruins and drawing on its ancient columns. The temple complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia – the largest religious monument in the world – is suffering the same fate, together with the Coliseum in Rome, where at least one visitor is caught every week chipping away at or defacing the structure with graffiti.

However, perhaps one of the best examples of the negative impact of tourism is Venice. Officially, the city now has 54,000 residents, down from 100.000 in 1970, with people steadily leaving for the mainland as rents and living costs continue to rise with hordes of tourists making life impossible. The city is continuously increasing the number of rubbish collectors and road sweepers to clean up in their wake.

As if this was not bad enough, giant ships continue to navigate over the delicate microsystem of Venice’s lagoon, but the strong lobby in their favour insists that without the megaships landing in the centre of the city thousands of jobs would be in danger. There is now a clear conflict between those who live from tourism and those who have other jobs.

As in Barcelona, residents now stage demonstrations against mass tourism. Venice will become a ghost town, like Mont St Michel, the UNESCO World Heritage site located just off the coast of Normandy which is jammed by thousands of visitors who come to see the famous racing tides.

Astounding tourism growth

What is astounding about tourism is the speed of the phenomenon. In 1950, the total number of tourists was 25 million – in 2016 they numbered 1.2 billion, with Europe accounting for 50 percent, Asia and the Pacific 24.2 percent, the Americas 16.55 percent, the Middle East 4.7 percent and Africa 4.52 percent.

More astounding are the figures for 2030 when, according to the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), global tourists will number 1.8 billion, or five million every day. Europe will have fallen to 41 percent, the Americas to 14 percent, while Asia and the Pacific will have risen to 30 percent, the Middle East to eight percent and Africa to seven percent – a dramatic change compared with 1950.

Tourism is already today the largest employer in the world: one person in every 11. China has surpassed the United States as the country with the largest number of people travelling as tourists. In 2016, they spent 261 billion dollars, and are expected to spend 429 billion in 2020. UNWTO estimates that by 2025, China will have 92.6 million families with an annual income between 20.000 and 30.000 dollars, 63 million between 35.000 and 70.000 dollars and 21.3 million between 70.000 and 130.000 dollars. Many of them are expected to travel and spend money but how many people speak Chinese and know anything about their idiosyncrasies?

Not only is much of work in the tourism sector seasonal, and poorly paid, most of the money it generates does not stay in the places where it is spent, but goes back to big companies and food imported to meet the tastes of tourists. It has been calculated that in the Caribbean, a full 70 percent goes back to the United States and Canada.

Meanwhile culture and traditions undergo a metamorphosis as outsiders arrive. Local culture and traditions become just shows for foreigners and lose their roots. Hotels are built just for tourism in the most beautiful spots, degrading habitat and nature. Prices increase in local shops, because tourists are often wealthier than the local population. You only have to visit a town off the tourist circuit to see the difference. In fact, now there is a growing search for “intact” places, different from “tourist” places.

A tourist restaurant has become synonymous with poor food and high prices, and a tourist place is one who has lost its identity to conform to the demands of tourists. It was the proliferation of fast food joints like McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and other fast food joints, often in the most beautiful parts of towns, that pushed Carlo Petrini – who first came to prominence in the 1980s for taking part in a campaign against the opening of McDonald’s  near the Spanish Steps in Rome – to start the Slow Food Movement. That movement defends the freshness of material, which should be local, preserve original and traditional cuisines, and defend local products against ongoing homogenisation. It has now over 100,000 members in 150 countries defending identity against globalisation.

Florence example of tourism uprooting tradition

Florence can be taken as a good example of how tourism uproots the identity and tradition of local inhabitants. Ever since the Renaissance, Florence had been a place of art and culture. It was a must for the cultured tourist and precursor of today’s tourist, and favourite destination of British, French and German visitors until the Second World War. Florence was a city of elegance, antique dealers, arts shops, handcrafts and a very recognised cuisine.

Now it is full of tourist shops, jeans stores, cheap standardised handcraft, pizzerias and tourist restaurants. When questioned about the decay of the town, the concierge of the classical Hotel Baglioni had a simple answer: “Sir, we are a town of merchants. We created the bill of exchange, banks and international trade. It was people looking for art and antiques that used to come here. Today we are awash with people who want to buy blue jeans and cheap stuff. We provide people with what they want.”

It is frightening to think what will happen when in the not so far off 2020, 100 million Chinese will be travelling worldwide, with Europe as the first destination. Anybody who has come across Chinese visitors (or for that matter visitors from a different culture) knows, how is difficult for them to understand what they are seeing. Churches are Europe’s main artistic buildings and for someone from a totally different religion they are strange places.

This is equivalent to a European visiting Tibetan temples without having studied Tibetan Buddhism, which is very different from other branches of Buddhism. Or, for someone visiting Egyptian temples without some knowledge at least of Egyptian cosmology. What will be remembered is the smell of incense in the Buddhist temple and the size of the pyramids, or some other merely aesthetical impression, all of which has nothing to do with culture and art.

Talking about the negative impacts of tourism inevitably opens up the question of class – the more cultured you are, the more you get from your travels. Does that mean that only cultured people (which, until the Second World War, also meant affluent people: today the two concepts have split, maybe for ever) should travel? On the contrary, is not tourism a way to enrich and educate, should it not be an important tool for the less cultured?

I do not think 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 Palalace in Lasa, 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 show what all the tourists on their party can understand.

Proposal to link tourism to education and culture

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 relate it not to money but to education, culture and personal development. Coming into contact with different cultures, civilisations, food, habits and realities should be an occasion that cannot be left only to money.

Right now, you can visit the Vatican after its closing with a modest fee of 100 euro per person, in small and quiet numbers. Is the future of tourism a two-track future, where money will be the dividing factor?

It is clear that tourism needs to be linked to education and culture, and in this regard I have the following proposal.

When buying a tour or airline ticket, or asking for a visa, every tourist should be required to buy and read a very simple and schematic book (which does not yet exist) – which can be understood in no more than 10 hours – about where and what they are going to visit.

A small commission formed by a history teacher, a geography teacher and an art teacher would be established in all cities or towns where the large majority of the population now lives, and all of which have schools offering these studies. The commission would organise exams – which would-be tourists could opt not to take. The exam would consist of a few extremely simple questions such as what is the capital of the country you want to visit; is the country independent; is it a monarchy or a republic; how does it makes its money; what are its monuments and art in different moments of history? 

The commission would be authorised to award two certificates and charge a small fee for each. The first certificate would give access to museums and monuments for the first two hours of the day, while the second certificate would recognise a higher level of knowledge and only those also holding this certificate could stay on after the first two hours. This would enable those who are more knowledgeable to enrich themselves and have some time in peace and quiet.

I asked one former director general of UNESCO what he thought of such a proposal. His answer was that it was a great idea, but not surprisingly he wondered where the political will – or any international agreement – was to support such a proposal! [IDN-InDepthNews – 09 January 2018]

Photo: A view down the Valley of the Kings, Luxor, Egypt (October 2004). Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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