In an age where more people are able to travel than ever before, radical ways to protect sensitive sites must be found.
Describing the Venetian Carnival of 1687, the French traveller Maximilien Misson marvelled at how ‘Seven Sovereign Princes and Thirty Thousand other Foreigners’ came to the city each year for the celebration, an almost unimaginable number in age where foreign travel was a great rarity. Today a mere thirty thousand foreigners represents a slow day for Venice: with over 20 million visitors a year, three times as many people routinely inch their way through the city’s crowded streets, jostle for space in St Mark’s Cathedral, and line the pockets of the café owners and trinkets sellers who charge rip off prices to their victims. Faced with daily pandemonium of this sort, many Venetians have packed up their bags and chosen to trade the beauty of La Serenissima for a quieter life on the mainland. The decline has been severe, with the city’s population now less than half of what it was thirty years ago, a decline that shows no sign of abating. Without a native population to sustain it, Venice is at peril of becoming a lifeless husk, clouding the city’s prospects for survival.
Venice is only one of many famous locations suffering the consequences of playing host to far too many tourists. Macchu Picchu, Florence and The Valley of the Kings all show signs of serious stress; whether that stress takes the form of fleeing locals or the inevitable wear and tear that comes when rivers of people gush through them. Even major cities like Paris and London, capable by their very nature of accommodating millions, can feel frustratingly crowded in the summer months as they play host to visitors from far and wide. The growing pressure felt by tourist hotspots across the world reflects one of the most astonishing developments of the modern age: the triumph of travel. In 1950, international tourism was a rarity: a mere 25 million could be counted as such. Today that figure has soared to a staggering 1.2 billion, a trend that will only continue as more and more people across the world make the all important journey to prosperity, and are able to start making journeys elsewhere.
Little of this may be news to you. Journalists and politicians have rightly been worrying about the damaging impact of tourism for some time, frequently descending into fear mongering and xenophobia as they do so. What has been much less forthcoming in these discussions are what is actually most needed: solutions. It almost goes without saying that few are willing to turn their back on tourists all together (no matter what protestors may say on their placards), for millions of tourists are seldom a curse alone. Instead they inject billions in to local economies and support huge numbers of jobs, frequently in locations where other work is scarce. Moreover tourism is not intrinsically harmful, but rather it is undoubtedly one of the great pleasures that life has to offer and helps build a more civilised world (or at least so I thought before being required to submit an article on it each week). Few are therefore willing to be known as the ones who closed the drawbridges.
Where possible, the most obvious solutions involve transforming the sites themselves. Improved infrastructure, managed access, and banning some of tourism’s more egregious forms (e.g. cruise ships, and irritating people trains led by flag waving guides) can reduce the strain in many sites and allay local frustrations. Better site conservation reduces the risk of tourists damaging precious artefacts (of which the decision by a 15 year old Chinese visitor to carve his name on a relief in the Temple of Luxor has become a symbolic example). That more of the world’s great treasures will find themselves trapped behind glass and surrounded by stanchions is a price that must be paid for their survival.
There is a limit to how much all of this can do, however. The gateways to the Forbidden city can no more be demolished to allow for easier access than the Sistine chapel can be widened to allow for greater capacity. Banning cruise ships will not change the fact that tourists will find other ways to arrive. Pompeii cannot be placed behind glass entirely. Intelligent conversations on the issue therefore have to come back to the notion of limiting tourist numbers. Any absolute cap on the number of tourists that can visit a given location comes with numerous complications attached.
For a start, caps are often difficult to enforce. Whilst ticket booths can be placed around a building or monument, there is no practical way to control the entry or exit of tourists into a city or region, especially in the EU where loose borders make internal travel singularly easy. Should restrictions nonetheless be possible (as they are in Venice due to its tenuous links to the mainland), the authorities are faced with the difficulties of deciding who should be allowed to visit and who cannot make the cut. Allocating spaces solely to those most able to pay for them would have the obvious effect of making tourism once more the exclusive preserve of the rich, especially at a time when the world is experiencing an inordinate rise in the number of super rich individuals willing to pay however much it takes to secure what they want. If such a system were to come the norm, cheap city breaks would become a thing of the past.
First come, first serve policies would almost certainly go the same way, with people trading on their allocations at greatly inflated prices in much the same way as tickets to concerts. Even if improvements in the sorts of technology employed by ticketing agencies designed to prevent such behaviour, coupled with strenuous passport control, meant that the effects could be controlled, such a solution is still imperfect. Should people only be able to book a holiday on certain days of the year (as would be the case with ticket releases)? Is it fair that holidays should be the reward of those with the faster internet connections? Why shouldn’t people be free to travel on the spur of the moment? There is something intensely restrictive about this approach that doesn’t sit well with modern attitudes to travel.
A lottery system would potentially reduce some of the inequities of purchasing travel allocations, but it is almost deeply imperfect in every other way. What is to stop individuals entering multiple lotteries and selling their tickets on? Would not some people inevitably lose the lotteries every time, missing out on the opportunity to travel to these places altogether? Would people be willing to make travel plans on the basis of luck? Very possibly not.
It is clear, therefore, that there are no easy ways to fairly limit tourist numbers. But this represents only half the problem. Equally serious are the economic ramifications. Whilst many locals chafe at large numbers of tourists, and conservators wish they could do away with them all together, the fact remains that limiting tourists numbers would inevitably reduce the amount that tourists spend, damaging local economies dependent on tourism. In many cases (e.g. Italy or Egypt), it would damage national economies as well. Limiting tourist numbers will always produce winners and losers, with losers often coming from the retail and hospitality sectors, sectors that often host those already unable to find work elsewhere.
No solution will therefore ever likely be fully successful or absolute in its form: compromise is the best that can be hoped for. Viable long term models will have to be of a sophistication beyond that of any that have been attempted. Most likely to succeed are models that seek to combine elements of luck and price at the same time. Selling some tickets at high prices in the conventional manner whilst releasing cheaper versions through a lottery could ensure that access remains relatively open. Charging increasingly more for prolonged stays would also help ease overcrowding pressures in urban sites such as Venice or Florence. Investing the proceeds collected by the state into local economies could reduce their dependence on tourism, helping to mitigate the impact of decreased visitor numbers.
In the very long run, however, it is unlikely that even this will be enough. What is needed is a drastic transformation in global attitudes to travel. The current focus on authenticity, on obsessively seeing the original thing with one’s own eyes, must give way to a realisation that it is almost as fulfilling to see a plaster cast or wander through a site using a virtual headset. Indeed the same technological revolution that has enabled more people to travel than ever also makes it easier than ever to explore the world from the comfort of your own bedroom. Such a transformation would not only ease the pressures on threatened sites, it would also make it far easier for people to expand their cultural horizons, detaching cultural stimulation from the burdens of travel. This is not to say that tourism must stop all together: after all nothing can replicate the experience of immersing oneself in a different culture, with cultural contact being vital to the health of humanity. But in the case of humanity’s greatest treasures, a lighter diet of travel is needed.