To tackle peak tourism, we need collective solutions

An anti-tourism protester in Barcelona. Image: Getty.

Foreign travel was once largely reserved for the well off. But in the latter half of the 20th century, improvements in communication and transport opened up international tourism to the masses, and led to the growth of the self-proclaimed ‘traveller’. Travellers ventured off the beaten track, eschewing packaged organisation in favour of edgier spots and ‘authentic’ culture.

In the 1970s, travel writer Paul Theroux wrote of the snobbery around travel, dating this attitude back to Evelyn Waugh's When The Going Was Good in 1946, and to the writings of American botanist and geologist William T. Brigham. Brigham wrote in 1886 that: “Old travellers know how soon the individuality of a country is lost when once the tide of foreign travel is turned through its towns and by-ways.”

At its peak, mass tourism can be extremely damaging, eroding landscapes and driving out locals. But to typecast all tourists – and to draw a distinction between tourists and ‘travellers’ – is short sighted and laced with class prejudice.

This attitude is evident in articles about ‘overtourism’. Cruise ships, emblematic of peak tourism, are described as ‘huge’ monsters, with ‘tides’ of passengers. There are some genuine environmental issues around large ships. But I remain unconvinced that one large cruise ship, with thousands of passengers, is any more environmentally damaging than a dozen medium sized jetliners moving the same number of people to a suburban airport.

European cities such as Amsterdam have struggled with tourist numbers. Writer Joost de Vries describes how his home city is becoming “like Venice”; shorthand for a city so flooded by tourists that it no longer feels like a functioning city at all. Yet de Vries also admits that he too becomes a tourist when he leaves Amsterdam:

“Someone in the South of France will be writing the exact same article I’m writing now”, he notes. Indeed, many people people living in major metropolitan centers who complain about tourists will soon be booking flights to take holidays elsewhere.

Some of the angst that people feel about tourism arises from how it can change a place. Yet such critiques ignore how cultural exchange has always prompted change, especially in urban areas. Cities have always copied popular tropes from one another: witness the glaring similarity of Victorian town halls across the UK, for example. With the arrival of the 21st century, it was inevitable that such changes would speed up.

Tourism can also bring economic benefits, often in areas with few other employment options ​. While Venice may now be suffering from peak tourism, its traditional sources of economic revenue have long been in decline (the last of its port and shipbuilding industries moved away in the 1950s). Without tourism, the city would have struggled to sustain itself.


City breaks to Venice and Amsterdam were once the preserve of the middle classes. The emergence of low cost airlines, expansion of hostels, and growth of the internet, allowed an industry of alternative travel guides to flourish. Rough Guides and Lonely Planets are now both owned by global corporations, but they initially allowed such city breaks to become common place.

Self-proclaimed travellers who criticise overtourism are hypocrites. They helped popularise the disruptive businesses and technologies that made such tourism increasingly possible. Take Airbnb, for example. Once discussed as a radical alternative to corporate hotel chains and a means of engaging with local people and cultures, it has since become a ubiquitous platform, criticised for pricing out locals.

That’s the thing with capitalism in general. No matter how individual or authentic you believe something is, that thing will soon be co-opted by mainstream culture. The solutions are not to bemoan tourists themselves, but to take hold of democratic structures to tackle problems. Regulating Airbnb, imposing tourist and environmental taxes, limiting visitor numbers at fragile sites and ensuring that local businesses gain from tourism as well as big chains, are all ways that we can reduce tourism’s negative impacts.

That more people want to see more of the world is a good thing.  As Mark Twain put it, “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts”. Even if you see yourself as a traveller, accept that, in the end, you're still just another bloody tourist.

 
 
 
 

Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.