When I first left Europe to travel overland across Asia in the mid-seventies, I proudly classed myself as a ‘traveller’ rather than a ‘tourist’. There was a kind of snobbery in this, I have to confess. Travelling involved more contact with local communities, it avoided resorts and holiday destinations; it meant seeing and experiencing ‘real life’ in distant parts of the world, discovering the culture at first hand, preferably through personal interactions. We travellers were aware, respectful, anxious not to exploit the inhabitants of countries we visited. Or so we liked to think. We did not stay in luxurious hotels or travel in air-conditioned buses or relax on beaches prohibited to the inhabitants. Instead we camped or slept in cheap, neighbourhood accommodation, sometimes situated in red-light districts. We mostly used ordinary buses and trains, squashed together with local travellers and their bedrolls and produce and chickens. And yes, we felt superior to mere tourists.
About twenty-five years ago, the morality of tourism began to be questioned. Flying harmed the environment; cultures were corrupted by the intrusion of curious westerners. I had experienced trips that promised contact with Kalahari bushmen or other ‘native’ tribes, ‘contact’ that turned out to involve a humiliating show of customs no longer observed, costumes no longer worn but displayed purely for our benefit, and had felt acutely uncomfortable with them. When I returned to India in the 90s, ‘responsible’ travel was catching on. I wrote to Ranjit Henry, an ebullient socialist from Chennai who believed passionately in ‘soft tourism’. He offered an ethical way of travelling in small groups (4 in our case), often staying in the houses of friends of his, living almost as part of the family (though of course we were paying). We would have long conversations over meals, get invited to weddings, learn the secrets of Indian cooking. Travelling independently and alone, I again stayed with families, some of whom became friends. On my most recent visit five years ago, I was hosted by Villageways, a cooperative that involves local communities, benefitting them as much as their guests. Travelling in this manner, I felt more like a guest than a tourist.
Tourism has been receiving a bad press recently. Cities like my own adopted home-town of Granada are changing, turning into ‘theme parks’ according to some residents. The number of tourists has increased with every passing year. Whereas once it was visited – in relatively small numbers – by those interested in its Moorish culture and architecture, now the availability of low-cost flights and unofficial cheap accommodation has led to a massive influx that threatens to overwhelm the resident population. The vast majority are respectful but sadly it is not that uncommon to see a camera pointed into someone’s home as if the inhabitants were part of a tourist spectacle. There are also the stag and hen parties (a custom that has now spread to Spanish couples) interested only in the city’s bars and restaurants, where prices have risen steeply while quality has generally fallen. The small traditional shops that served residents have gone out of business one after another and been replaced by shops geared to tourists.
The same is happening in Barcelona, in Venice and in many small and picturesque cities throughout Europe and beyond. It is happening in Amsterdam, where residents are beginning to protest (as they have in Barcelona). In a few weeks I plan to visit Amsterdam and my conscience is pricking. Instead of observing the effects of tourism from a resident’s point of view as I do in Granada, I will be one of them, part of the ‘problem’. It is 27 years since I last visited Amsterdam and I expect to see changes similar to those I have observed in Granada over the last 20 years.
So should tourism be controlled? Whose rights should predominate: residents’ or visitors’? Can it promote a mutual appreciation and understanding of other cultures, other ways of living, or is it a selfish activity, its only benefit to bring money and employment to certain sectors, a minority of the population? Does it broaden the mind or turn the world into a theme park?
As a former travel writer and journalist, I bear some responsibility. We are the greatest promoters of tourism, singing the glories of the places we know and love, sharing their secrets, encouraging visitors with glowing descriptions and captivating photos. Those enticed by the publicity are hardly to blame.
It will do me good to be a tourist myself. It will remind me that away from where we live, we are all tourists (even if we prefer to think of ourselves as travellers or explorers). It will also remind me that travel is a privilege, one that demands sensitivity, humility and respect.