Crowded out: is there too much tourism?

Sunday 14 October, 12:0013:00, Cinema 2Contemporary Controversies

Ever since Thomas Cook ran his first-ever rail excursion from Leicester to Loughborough in 1841, tourism has grown remarkably. Since the 1950s, the jet engine has revolutionised overseas travel, and the number of international tourists has grown from around 50 million to well over one billion. The trajectory continues upwards, with millions from growing economies, notably China and India, joining the ranks of the ‘leisure mobile’. A success story, surely?

In recent years, however, there have been unprecedented criticisms made of tourism and tourists. In particular, it has been claimed that iconic cultural cities such as Venice, Barcelona and Amsterdam are suffering from ‘overtourism’. This blanket term has been applied not only to the excesses of youth on holiday, but to the reshaping of cities to cater for tourists, too. Journalists have written of ‘limits to tolerance’ of tourism and protesters have accused AirBnB of pushing up rents and crowding out local culture.

It is not just Europe’s cultural cities that are deemed at risk from overtourism. The Isle of Skye, the growing cruise ship market and volunteer tourism have all been in the news as examples of tourism’s capacity to diminish cultures and ride roughshod over the ways of life of others.

Protests against tourism have been one result of this. ‘Anti-tourism’, according to some press reports, is strong, with campaigns such as #touristsgohome accusing holidaymakers of making life worse for their hosts. But is this just the latest example of the same old criticisms that Cook’s tourists faced 170 years ago? Perhaps travel has finally surpassed cultural and environmental limits, and we should rein in our desire to travel for leisure. Or can cultures and economies adapt to meet the growing aspiration to see the world, be it for cultural enlightenment or just for fun?