- By Chris Kremidas Courtney
The “Death of Venice?”; “The Dutch War on Tourists”; “How Tourism is Killing Barcelona”; these were among a slew of alarmist headlines in recent years calling attention to the problems of mass tourism in Europe. How quickly things have changed.
From overtourism, to no tourism at all – as the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage the travel sector, the narrative has shifted from how to control the crowds, to how to protect the livelihoods that have become threatened by their absence. But the question remains – will the experience of this pandemic cause a fundamental change in the way we travel? Or, as the borders in Europe reopen and the pandemic fades, will it be a return to business as usual?
COVID-19 has laid bare how reliant parts of Europe, and indeed the global economy more generally, have become on tourism. Not only is the travel industry a vital source of jobs – employing up to 10% of the EU workforce – but tourism also has a positive redistributive impact, bringing money, jobs, and infrastructure to the Mediterranean fringe and other regions outside the traditional economic heartlands.
But has Europe staked too much of its identity and economic fortunes on tourism? And have we, as consumers, become too addicted to its pleasures? There has been a growing sentiment that the record number of visitors spilling onto Europe’s historic streets and crowding its beaches is beginning to negatively impact the quality of life for local residents. Many people now feel their hometowns have become more a museum or theme park than a lived place. Such is the discontent that, in the wake of the widespread lockdowns, locals from all corners of Europe expressed appreciation for the renewed calmness of their hometowns as one of the positive side effects to come out of the crisis.
But it is also true that the explosion of tourism has exacerbated fears that travel has descended into a mindless mass consumer experience.
At times, a lot of the criticism of tourism can seem like a veiled and vaguely elitist discomfort with the democratisation of travel. It is easy to feel nostalgia for the days when the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel could be appreciated in relative solitude; tourism is all well and good when it is the province of the few, and the well-off.
But it is also true that the explosion of tourism has exacerbated fears that travel has descended into a mindless mass consumer experience. A lot of what passes as tourism today has become completely divorced from the travel we think of when we read some of the great travel writers and novelists of the past, when the world was just a bit more unknown and uncertain. Traveling around today one tends to wonder, whether waiting in the massive queues to enter the Louvre or shuffling through the narrow cobblestone streets of Florence, to what extent these destinations are still visited for their art and history. Or have these monuments to our past transformed into commodities for consumption; a site to check off the list, a picture to upload to social media?
Not to say that travel has shed its elitist pretensions entirely. For the well-to-do or educated, travel has become a sort of identity marker, an embodiment of sophistication. Many studies have shown younger generations today prefer experiences over owning things. And yet it is not altogether clear whether this represents a true reset of values or, now that cheap and abundant material goods are not the prestige symbols they once were, travel is the newest way to carve out status and recognition.
Far from transcending materialism, then, the travel frenzy sometimes seems more akin to what Kierkegaard called an aesthetic style of life, the endless accretion of new experiences and maximisation of pleasures, to ease the boredom and banality of bourgeois existence. Travel can give us the illusion we are living lives of purpose and action. To fill the void left by the decline of social bonds that emanate from family, community or religion, we have induced in travel a kind of spiritual significance.
The fact the lockdowns have reintroduced quietude and reflection into our lives is not necessarily a bad thing.
The coronavirus offers the opportunity to reassess all aspects of our life, including the way we travel. The fact the lockdowns have reintroduced quietude and reflection into our lives is not necessarily a bad thing. As the distances of our worlds have shrunk, we have been compelled to reacquaint ourselves with the joys of ritual and repetition, to find the sacred in the everyday, to renew our appreciation for our homes and our lived environment.
As limited mobility resumes in time for the summer holiday period, it is likely that we will have to reorient ourselves towards simpler modes of travel. That means more domestic holidays and road trips, possibly to destinations we previously overlooked. In its simplicity, it is a reset of sorts, a reversion to the past.
It is possible when a vaccine arrives, the onslaught of crowds will return, and the headlines decrying overtourism will reemerge in the pages of our newspapers. But that would be a missed opportunity. Travel is one of the great pleasures of life; it can open our eyes to new people and experiences and connect us more deeply to culture and history. But we must we seek a healthier and more balanced approach to seeing the world – to travel more slowly, responsibly and sustainably; to be more informed and curious about the places we are visiting, so as not to destroy the essence of what makes travel so alluring in the first place.
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