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.

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.