by Joe Rutter
Appellations can sometimes be crucial. To say that the UK is a democracy is to forget that it is a liberal democracy. In just the same way, it is lacking to say that the Costa del Sol profits from tourism, when really it profits from mass tourism. The mass changes everything, indicating a mass influx of tourists and a corresponding frenzy of mass consumption in the destination. In fact the ‘mass’ is a fairly recent styling, whereas the word ‘tourism’ has a lineage travelling back to the Ancients. It comes from the Greek ‘tornos’ which denoted the lathe used to inscribe a circumference, the same root as ‘turn’, and indeed the first recorded tourists seem to have been medieval noblemen setting off on treks before eventually turning back to the estate.
The subject has a wide circle of opinion. In any mass tourist hotspot, you’ll find the investor, typically of globalist bent, who ploughs their money into airlines, hotels, eateries, infrastructure, shopping centres, aqua parks and zoos. Then there is the localist, who wishes to protect local culture, and is by the same token either resentful of mass tourism as a threat to heritage, or optimistic for the opportunities it brings, to showcase local cuisine, for example, and to employ local people. By no means finally, there is the fatalist, who throws their hands up and laments an inevitable descent into a grey, mass tourist world, where the postcards all look the same and everyone eats pizza or chips.
“On the one hand, locals see an economic paradise… On the other, they see a city with an identity crisis…”
One rebuttal to the fatalist is that the dystopia they foresee is actually impossible, given that mass tourism operates on an unsustainable model. The process eats away at the city in question, until there is no longer a city to visit. A case in point might be Barcelona, where tourism accounts for 18% of the city’s revenues and on which 26,000 jobs rely. It’s the ‘jewel in the Spanish economy’, according to one pot-stirrer, but even local experts see a city living in bad faith. Like Sartre’s overzealous waiter in Essays in Existentialism, the city becomes its role when it serves on such a scale. Behind the shimmering beaches, meanwhile, a cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, locals see an economic paradise, a project which started with the 1992 Olympics and has brought increasing prosperity ever since. On the other, they see a city with an identity crisis, its people fleeing from the cost of housing, its streets saturated and apportioned to commercial interests, in a phenomenon described by a new word – parquetematización, meaning ‘theme-park-ization’.
The city’s mayor, Ada Colau, who won her mayoralty on the banner of ‘winning back Barcelona’, speaks for the latter. Under the municipal government of Barcelona en Comú, Colau’s nascent Left-wing party, there is reason to hope Barcelona will avoid the fatalist outcome. The council tries to stem the flow, banning new hotels and steering tourists to less-visited parts of the city. ‘Tourists go home, migrants welcome’ a protest famously declared in 2017, ‘Barcelona is not for sale’. Like a fatal fag packet, the words ‘mass tourism kills’ are written all over Barcelona, and yet the product continues to sell in the tens of millions every year.
On the other side of Catalonia, tourism has a new appellation. Well, prefix. Fruitourism at first sounds like a desperate bran-based cereal, but it’s not. As a name it is undeniably gawky, but there’s a refreshing idea behind it. Every spring, the peach fields of Lleida, Catalonia, blossom into a remarkable sea of pink fluffiness. To capitalise on its beauty, locals are now offering tours of the grounds; you stay in an apartment, taste the produce, and generally exalt in a Dr. Seussian dream.
“It’s bound to fail”, cries the fatalist, “wherever tourists go, they eventually degrade.”
The difference here is education. As fruitourists are guided around, they learn about the farming, the efforts to boost the local economy, and this breeds a respect for the environment. The same principle has proved successful in Slovenia and Iceland. In each case, there is an effort to redefine what it means to be a tourist.
And so, we come full circle. Who was it who said “the best thing about going away is coming home”? It may have been Mark Twain, equally Karl Pilkington. Whoever it was means to say that to learn about somewhere new is to appreciate where you’re from. The sedentary tourist learns little and wallows much. The new tourist may be characterised by being conscious, of their destination’s environment, it’s history, and it’s beauty.
Featured image credit: Peach fields in Catalonia, Angela Llop, Flickr (modified)
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