Saturday, March 25, 2017

Tourism at the Tipping Point; what is too much of a good thing?

Tourism is a wonderful industry, but as with many endeavours, it comes with its own perils. It embodies the ideal of people moving around the world to meet other people, understand other cultures and become more globally aware, an important asset in today’s globalised society. It brings wealth to countries with few natural resources, and in many regions, tourism is a major employer.

What is not to like?

Lisbon is a very desirable place to visit.
Success is a very, very hard key to measure, and for each tourism destination there is a “tipping point” at which the problems start to outweigh the benefits. It is difficult to see that spot, and harder still for societies to protect themselves against Rampant Tourism.

This is only March, and mid-March, at that, yet Lisbon is full, Funchal was full and I could only shudder to think of these cities in the height of the season. Prices rise, and rise for locals as well as visitors, for everything from restaurant meals to property; crowds are relentless, rush hour lasts all day, there seems to be nowhere to escape People, and the destination loses its rhythm. While I have often scoffed at the made-for-tourism resorts like Cancun and much of the Spanish shoreline, I am now seeing these developments as necessary buffers for those folks who actually live there.

The Ice Park in Dubai. Really?
Visiting these man-made destinations makes no pretense at visiting a "real" destination; there are none of the same pressures that come with a gradual transformation of a local town or community into a theme park. Global brands are there, prices are high and everyone knows the score. It is the gradual layering of visitors on top of functioning destinations that leads to problems.

There are places that have, in my humble opinion, passed through the barrier and are now distinctly top-heavy with visitors. Barcelona leads the pack, Dubai, Florence and Edinburgh are not far behind, and for the world’s smaller destinations, there is nary a Caribbean capital nor a Mediterranean town of any size that has not fallen foul of the tourism bug.

Even cities like London have become oppressive. It is difficult to manoeuver even in the “off season”, and come the heat of the summer and the hordes of visitors trying to press their way in every direction, the city will become overwhelming and stressful.

Costa Nova waiting for the tourists to arrive, and Agadir, wishing that they would return

There is, however, a fine balance, and it has been interesting to contrast and compare Funchal and Lisbon. Funchal, with a population of about 110,000 is unquestionably a tourist city; its geography leads toward a concentrated centre, and although one realises that there is a great deal of commercial and administrative activity that have nothing to do with the visitor economy, the life of Funchal has been subsumed by tourism. Lisbon is a considerably larger city, of course, but its population of 520,000 is rather differently spread. There are densely populated, high-rise developments that circle the city, and a central, historical core that is where the tourism activity is concentrated.

Load of tourists! 
Lisbon is one of Europe’s top short-break destinations; the advent of the three-day vacation has been propelled by Europe’s low-cost carriers, and these seem to have become the staple break for millions of people. Walking through the city one can hear dozens of languages spoken; hotel occupancy has grown from 63% to 76% in only five years and this 20% increase in tourists has been hugely positive to the local economy. Restaurants are booming and the local tourism providers are making a good living.

What is not to like?

Nothing at the moment, but it is only March. July and August will be hot, very crowded and the prices for all of the goods and services that tourists use will rise. Pressure on the city’s infrastructure will grow, and at some point in the future a positive, balanced growth will give way to a something more dangerous. Prices will rise fast, for tourists only; pick pockets and petty crime will rise; the tolerance and good humour of the locals whose city has been overrun and transformed will become increasingly distant.

Lot's of things to sell to the visitors!
We start by visiting a city to see how interesting life is in that destination; we engage the local people in this exposition; and finally we turn the destination into a parody of itself. Locals in Barcelona do not like the vast numbers of tourists who now visit; Londoners are fed up with throngs that make their city unlivable in certain months; and most certainly Mexicans, Moroccans and Dominicans resent the fact that their homes have been turned into expensive and unaffordable theme parks.

It is a fact of life that visitors change the places they visit. It always starts well, but as travellers want and demand more and more services, and local residents are priced out of markets for property, food and entertainment, tension will grow. We can help, of course, by being less demanding, by seeking local interaction and not simply observation, by exploring and getting even a mile away from The Hoards. And by visiting countries and parts of countries that are less explored we help spread the wealth and allow a greater interaction with the folks who live in our destination all year round.

We will also be very welcome, and not simply seen as another visiting ATM.

Aveiro, Portugal; off the beaten path, and very welcoming