Are We Ready for the Return of Mass Tourism?

Image: Collected
It took a global pandemic for many folks to realize that people are in what Italian journalist and social theorist Marco D’Eramo calls the “Age of Tourism.” As he writes in his new book, The World in a Selfie: An Inquiry In to the Tourist Age, tourism is the defining industry of the twenty-first century. Tourism was an $8.8 trillion business in 2018, or 10.4 percent of global gross domestic product. Additionally it is an industry after which, D’Eramo writes, “a galaxy of institutions and businesses” depend, from hotels and restaurants to “the mock Gladiators who charge for images in front of the Colosseum.” When the pandemic struck, flights were canceled and cities emptied, revealing precisely how reliant we all are on those strange creatures: tourists.

“Why hasn’t tourism’s importance fully registered before the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdowns?” he asks. “Because tourists themselves are hard to take seriously.” The tourist’s ill reputation stretches back centuries. “Of all noxious animals too the most noxious may be the tourist,” the Reverend Francis Kilvert wrote in his diary in 1870. “When there is a very important factor more hateful than another it really is being told what things to admire and having objects described to 1 with a stick.” The tourist’s harmful effect on the places they visited was also apparent in early stages. “The Playground of Europe has been swamped with sightseers and the sanctuaries where Chaos and Old Night once reigned supreme have already been desecrated and vulgarized,” wrote Alexander Innes Shand in 1903.

These complaints will certainly have already been made today. Even Kilvert’s characterization of tourists as “noxious animals” is echoed in the normal description of “herds” of tourists getting off buses and cruise ships. And yet, strangely, most of those that malign tourists tend to be tourists themselves. D’Eramo occupies this paradox and brings into clearer focus the countless confounding areas of tourism: why we hate tourists yet continue to travel, and just why we divvy our free time right into a structured regimen of sightseeing that resembles something like work.

D’Eramo is gentler on the figure of the tourist than a lot of his peers and predecessors. He locates the yearning to visit in a “positive alienation” that drives us to search out the world. He also notes the class-based prejudice and racism embedded in tourist-hating. American tourists reserve their worst prejudice for Japanese tourists, and the wealthy save most of their hatred for the low classes on package tours who aren’t sufficiently “off the beaten path.”

As we brace for a wave of postpandemic travel, D’Eramo refocuses our attention from the hateful tourist, who's almost all of us, toward tourism as a couple of industries, with tentacles that reach everywhere, which includes reshaped our cities and politics and nearly every facet of life on earth.

Consider the ski mountain. “To ski down a snow-covered mountain is to partake in just about the most graceful sports, and all it requires is the pure force of gravity and the utilization of the planet’s contours,” D’Eramo writes:

Yet so that you can achieve this almost immaterial elegance, additionally it is essential to build imposing ski lifts, chairlifts and cable cars. Snow cannons are needed because, despite having constant snowfall, skiing erodes the snow on the slopes-‘natural snow’ on its own would never suffice, and that’s even before we consider the consequences of climate change. Then there are the roads that cut across valleys to reach the ski resorts, and the buildings that spread like weeds across the countryside.

Once-deserted land becomes a “metropolitan hive” filled up with non permanent inhabitants who use electricity, public services, and water. “Walking through the mountains in summer, you can see for oneself the devastation made by these winter pursuits,” D’Eramo writes.

That's where D’Eramo reaches his best, dissecting the results of seemingly simple activities, and the impact of travel on the world at large. The World in a Selfie is digressive, the chapters like a series of meditations that touch on various aspects of travel and tourism. He considers NEVADA, and the city of Lijang in northwest China. He elaborates on the history of tourism, its colonial roots and its own early forms, as well as its contemporary relationship to multiculturalism. His work reaches times densely philosophical (start to see the chapter titled “Long Live Alienation! Peeling the Hegelian Onion”) but also whimsical (he writes briefly from the perspective of “an earthologist friend,” studying humans as we would study extraterrestrials). The World in a Selfie is occasionally disjointed, but this alternation between objects of inquiry is also part of its charm and us with a sense of tourism’s broad reach.                                

D’Eramo pays particular focus on how tourism has reshaped our cities during the period of the last century. He is not merely troubled by destructive acts, like tunneling through mountains to create ski resorts, but also by acts of “preservation.” A few of his sharpest words are reserved for Unesco, the world heritage organization. He lambasts Unesco’s give attention to conservation at the expense of contemporary life and its demarcation of “old cities” that become tourist traps and the backdrops for festivals. “Unesco’s ‘World Heritage’ listing may be the kiss of death,” D’Eramo writes. “After the label is affixed, the city’s life is snuffed out; it really is ready for taxidermy.” During the last 20 years, the quantity of sites designated by Unesco as worthy of conservation has exploded, making a lot more cities whose centers are artificially fixed with time.

All of this is related to among tourism’s great conundrums: the condition of authenticity. What does it even mean to see an “authentic place?” And what does it mean to preserve that authenticity? D’Eramo devotes a chapter to the case of Lijang. After a devastating earthquake in 1996, Unesco declared Lijang’s “Old Town” a World Heritage Site, despite the fact that “there is nothing to ‘conserve’ or ‘preserve’ in the standard sense, as almost everything was destroyed by the earthquake.” With World Bank funding, however, the damaged high-rises in Lijang’s center were razed and reconstructed to build modern homes that had antique exteriors. Monuments were restored that had not even existed before the earthquake; the Mu Fu Palace, a residence that may have been built as soon as the fourteenth century, became a primary attraction. Nonetheless it hadn’t been destroyed in the 1996 earthquake-it have been destroyed in a succession of earthquakes, to ensure that nothing was left of the initial by the nineteenth century. Its “restoration,” then, was a sort of imagining of a distant phantom, with modern-day tourism at heart. Railways and motorways were built that resulted in Lijang, and in the space of 15 years, the tiny mountain town came to attract more tourists annually than all of Greece. For this reason influx of tourism, it has grown into a bustling city, and skyscrapers surround the created old town. Meanwhile, the natural resources that surround Lijang have felt any risk of strain: The nearby glacier of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain has begun to melt.

Tourism’s environmental impact has turned into a point of concern even for the travel industry’s biggest boosters. “During the last year, the travel world woke up to the implications of climate change and its own contributions to global warming,” browse the introduction of the “52 Places to go in 2020” package in The New York Times, which dropped shortly prior to the pandemic was likely to bring the tourism industry to a halt. The consequence of this “getting up,” insofar as 52 Places was concerned, was a messy amalgamation of destinations seeking to market themselves as environmentally conscious (see: “Necker Island, the private island owned by Richard Branson, will finish rebuilding by April, and introduce uniforms created from recycled plastic within ocean”) and places that are themselves disappearing, at least partly due to the effects of travel (“With that mile-thick ice sheet melting fast, and two new airfields slated to open in 2023, enough time to explore an untrammeled, intact Greenland is currently”). These contortions are evidence that lots of have entered a fresh era of guilt about travel and its consequences, particularly harmful emissions from airplanes. Even those deeply enmeshed in the industry have an evergrowing sense that there surely is something inherently bad about tourism but have little intention to meaningfully change it. 

D’Eramo mocks the thought of “sustainable travel” as oxymoronic but writes less than he could about the ruination of the world at the hands of what he calls “the world’s most polluting industry.” The environmental fallout from tourism could very well be the pinnacle of the paradoxes he describes: the way in which individual yearning may become, in aggregate, one of the most destructive forces on earth. There are, certainly, better and worse methods to travel. There are methods to calculate individual impact, environmental and cultural, that are worthwhile. But there still must be considered a more radical shift in our considering travel, beyond the token Necker Islands of the world.

In his final chapter, D’Eramo envisions future generations looking back curiously at tourism. “The tourist will perhaps be considered a rather enigmatic figure from days gone by, like the haruspex, the almoner or the gleaner,” he writes. “Or simply it'll be considered a non permanent human illness, like this of the mad travelers of the nineteenth century.” What he means, he says, is not that humans will stop active, but that age of tourism, wherein society and politics are geared so heavily toward it, should come to an end.

This was, in the end, the year the planes were likely to stop but didn’t. It had been instead a year when many near-empty flights ran in order that airlines wouldn’t lose expensive runway slots at Heathrow. It had been a year when the coronavirus flared across Europe because of people’s insatiable need to travel. This year hasn't managed to get any clearer what the finish of the age of tourism would look like, but it has made clear precisely how tenacious tourism’s hold on society has been-and how it just can't go on such as this.