Mass tourism – scourge of the urban environment


The people of Berlin are protesting about the large number of tourists who visit their city and I have every sympathy.

Mass tourism is a scourge on society. The enormous buses clog our streets obscuring the very views that the tourists have come to see and eventually the local culture is displaced by an international tourist culture of burgers, beer and bullshit. Local charm is replaced by shops selling plastic beefeaters and pictures of how things used to be before mass tourism.

We all love to travel and from the tourists point of view mass tourism is a boon enabling us to see the world. Without mass tourism many of us would have no experience of anything outside our immediate vicinity.

But mass tourism destroys the thing it loves. A herd of tourists cannot visit a city without damaging it like some socio-economic version of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

When a person reads of the Left Bank in Paris he learns of Picasso, Matisse and Hemingway. He thinks that he too must experience this seminal environment and he buys his ticket. But the locals have seen him coming. They know that the age of art has passed and the age of commerce is upon us. So they open themed cafés, bars and restaurants with names like Bar Les Artistes or Le Lucernaire.

When our gallant traveller arrives he finds that he is not rubbing shoulders with writers or poets but engaged in a drinking competitions with a IT Administrator from Milton Keynes. Our intellectual explorer is now in the minority. The majority of the clientele are not interested in culture but feel they should “take a look while we’re here”. They have been sold culture in the same way that they are sold breakfast cereal and aftershave.

Our cities become caricatures of themselves, Ko Samui becomes Blackpool and an Indian tourists sits and enjoys the ambiance of Paris while eating a Big Mac.

The tourist industry markets travel as a liberating experience but mass tourism is not so much a manifestation of freedom as of greed, globalisation and hyper-commercialisation.

The population of Greater London is estimated at approximately 7.7 Million people. Wikipedia considers that London receives 15 million tourists each year and it is a safe bet that the vast majority of these concentrate their activity in central London. At the moment, the tourist industry sees no limits on how many people it can push down the subway at Oxford Circus. This has been detrimental to the quality of life of Londoners and no doubt Berliners suffer similarly and so are right to object.

Industry and commerce have long involved the appropriation of commonly held land for exploitation by self appointed “owners”. Communism recognises this when it declares that “property is theft”. We generally consider this property to be land used for homes, farms or factories and we assume that this confiscation means exclusion of the public but we neglect the public space in between private property. We neglect the commons.

This common space is owned, used and valued by all of us yet government and commerce now seem hell bent on exploiting it to herd around disinterested tourists in such wretched conditions that their goal, once they emerge from their air-conditioned packaging, is to take a piss, grab a burger and get back on the bus.

The scourge of mass tourism is as an example of The Tragedy Of The Commons (TTOTC).

The Tragedy Of The Commons may sound like a Thomas Hardy novel but is, in fact, a concept used by economists. To quote Wikipedia: “The tragedy of the commons is a dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen.”

The scenario usually given is where common land is used by multiple individuals to graze their cattle. It is in the interest of each individual to graze as many cows as possible yet this will eventually ruin the grazing land to the detriment of all.

One solution often proposed is that the commons should be privatised and access restricted to those with the ability to pay. The owner would then work in his own self interest to ensure that the asset was maintained in good condition. This could mean that the owner would limit access but this is, by no means, certain.

Intuitively I am against the continued expansion of the private sphere and I find modern shopping malls a poor replacement for a thriving high street.

Another way of addressing TTOTC is intervention by local government. Legislation could be implemented to limit use and protect the asset. In the case of mass tourism this might mean metropolitan rules restricting the number of Bulk Tourist Deliveries (BTDs) in a given period.

However, local government derives a lot of revenue from allowing companies to graze their tourists in city streets and officials often see their role as maximising revenue. According to Wikipedia “The Government Office for London states that tourism revenues constitute 10 per cent of London’s gross value added and contributes to the employment of up to 13 per cent of London’s workforce. According to the London Development Agency, visitors to London spend around £15bn each year.”

Obviously cities will not wish to give up this revenue but at the moment we are sacrificing our environment for short term profit. Reversing this trend and protecting our cities will make them better places to live and ensure that they continue to attract tourists well into the future.

The concept of tourists destroying what they visit is not new and was deftly described in a 1975 Science Fiction story by Garry Kilworth named “Let’s Go to Golgotha”. To quote Wikipedia: “In the future period where the story takes place, time travel has been invented and made commercially available. Among other historical events, tourists can book a time-travelling “Crucifixion Tour.” Before setting out, the tourists are strictly warned that they must not do anything to disrupt history. Specifically, when the crowd is asked whether Jesus or Barabbas should be spared, they must all join the call “Give us Barabbas!”. (A priest absolves them from any guilt for so doing). However, when the moment comes, the protagonist suddenly realizes that the crowd condemning Jesus to the cross is composed entirely of tourists from the future, and that no actual Jewish Jerusalemites of 33 AD are present at all.”


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