Regular readers of this blog will know that I normally write about specific destinations rather than about the travel industry itself. However I’ve read two articles recently that have got me thinking about the future of tourism. It seems to me that we’re going to have to rethink our attitudes towards how and why we travel.
What’s Wrong With the Tourist Industry?
These two articles seem to sum up many of the problems with the tourist industry as it is now, and as it could be in the future. The first was How A Bucket List Ruins Travel by Betsy Wuebker of Passing Thru. Betsy describes the way so many travellers concentrate on the “must do” sights, rather than focusing on what they actually want to do. It’s an easy trap to fall into – I’ve often done it myself. And it is reinforced by guidebooks, tour agents and all those articles with titles like “10 Places to See Before You Die”. (Have a look at Betsy’s piece for some alternatives to bucket lists.)
The second article was I Have Seen the Future of Tourism and It’s Designed to Keep You Out by Sean Thomas on The Spectator website. This predicted that there would be much more tourism from the growing economies of India and China in the future – potentially billions more tourists crowding into already overcrowded places. Sean describes the way in which some destinations have started to “ration” travel, through price or other mechanisms. He thinks it is inevitable that other places will do something similar in the future.
The Problem With Bucket Lists
The obvious problem with bucket lists is that they create tourist jams by sending everyone to the same places. So two million people visited Angkor Wat in 2015, and Machu Picchu gets up to 5,000 visitors a day at busy times. Unless something changes, those numbers are going to increase as the number of world travellers grows. Which means an awful lot of getting stuck in traffic, standing in line and dodging round other people to get your photos.
Another problem is that the places featured in guidebooks or Bucket List features are someone else’s choice, not yours. Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why you want to see Stonehenge or the Mona Lisa? Are you planning your trip to Giza because you’re interested in ancient Egypt, or because you want to cross it off your list? Or just because you want to take a selfie in front of the Great Pyramid?
Finally, you are likely to be disappointed. You’ve eventually got to Paris and seen the Eiffel Tower, and – surprise – it looks just the same as it does in all those hundreds of pictures you’ve seen in the past. There is no sense of wonder or discovery. (Of course, it might surprise you that all those pictures didn’t show the hordes of tourists, or that you can’t see much from the top on a cloudy day, but that’s another matter.)
Is There Room for Everyone to Travel?
Is it inevitable, as Sean Thomas suggests, that the most popular tourist attractions will start to limit access? That travel will become the province of the rich and privileged, as it was in the past? In practice, it does seem likely that extreme measures will be taken by some destinations; however this should not mean an end to travel as we know it. We just need to do things differently.
I’m no stranger to popular sites myself. I’ve been up the Empire State Building and I’ve been sucked into the crowds on Florence’s Ponte Vecchio. And I had a miserable day (chiefly remembered in terms of traffic, crowds and too much sun) visiting the Taj Mahal. However my best travelling experiences have been the simpler and more unexpected ones. Like the back street café in Al Ain, in the UAE, where we used sign language to indicate we wanted something to eat and drink. We ate a plain but delicious meal surrounded by friendly locals who were happy to communicate with us despite not sharing a word of the same language. Or there was the time when, on a whim, we turned off the road in Puglia to follow a battered signpost to the Grotta di San Michele, a fascinating church in a cave that doesn’t seem to feature in any guidebook.
Fortunately, there seems to be a trend towards non-conventional destinations. This is reflected in the growing importance of the sharing economy, with people choosing AirBNB, home exchanges or even house sitting for their holidays. These choices don’t just make travelling cheaper; they help travellers to have a more authentic experience, spending time in a local community rather than a tourist resort.
The travel hot spots will always be there for those who don’t mind queues, crowds and exorbitant prices. But it’s time for the tourist industry to address the growing problem of overcrowding and to realise that there are plenty of alternatives for people who want to do things differently.