Fifty times more visitors

We may think we are travellers and other people are tourists but the truth is that we are all part of a huge surge in people who travel abroad. A quick look at the figures tells the story; as the cold war ended the worldwide figure for people who travelled was 25 million a year. By 1995 the figure had risen 20 fold, and the figure has since more than doubled. This year 1.2 Billion people crossed international boundaries. That means that nearly 50 times as many people travel today as did 30 years ago. FIFTY TIMES…

Much tourism seems to a few places: people continue to pile into the favourite cities. Barcelona, Berlin, and Paris come to mind, and Dubrovnik and Venice see too many cruise ships (the locals say). Some economies depend on the very thing that bites: tourism makes up 12 per cent of Spain's economy.  Biting the hand that feeds is not a recent tendency. Growing up in the Channel Island of Jersey in the 1960s, I was used to locals referring to tourists as ‘groccles’.

Since tourism employs more people than any other single industry in the world, decisions about limiting visitor numbers to Barcelona or Venice or Edinburgh need to be done thoughtfully. I have two concepts known as the 'Triangle' and ‘The other side of the river’. The Triangle is the idea that much tourism concentrates excessively on something like three sites in a country. Think of 'London, Oxford and Stonehenge'; or 'Delhi, Agra and Jaipur'. ‘The other side of the river’ is the observation that something over 6 million people visit the Taj Mahal every year. It is one of the great buildings in the world. But it is also lovely to see it from across the River Jumna. I have never known more than a handful of people on the opposite bank.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but certainly I increasingly aim to lead tours away from areas of mass tourism: we’ve just travelled in northern Russia where there were no crowds in May, where the museums have beautiful displays, and where we always felt safe.

The other answer may be that high pressure areas will need to levy a charge on each bed-night to pay for the services (litter collection and subsidised public transport?) that tourists demand, and discourage the very large numbers that are overwhelming the locals, and which is driving up rents through services such as Air B’n B.

Observers of Bhutan suggests that this lovely country got it right many years ago when they imposed on foreign tourists a minimum spend per day. It was said that they had seen what uncontrolled tourism had done to Nepal. Backpacking tourism from the 1960s onwards is said to have brought drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll to the Nepalese capital, threatening its fragile Buddhist and Hindu culture.  In Bhutan the high daily levy limits tourist numbers and a third of this levy goes towards the government’s budget for education and health care.

Here we are in the midst of the Edinburgh Festival, with pavements overflowing onto the streets, and the whole city energised by its very welcome visitors (both performers and audience). We mostly benefit from the street performers, the range of entertainment, thought provoking talks at the Book Festival and a boom month for those looking for a temporary job. Unlike tourism which concentrates everyone into a tight squeeze, the Edinburgh Festival/Fringe often crowds people into little used spaces, so the effect of so many people is dispersed through the city. The flip side must be the inflated rents, and those locals who cannot afford somewhere to live. A city without affordable rents will eventually get into a terrible mess…no teachers, no rubbish collectors, no skilled craft workers, no one to mend the fabric of the city…the list goes on. The onus is now on governments (local and national) to thoughtfully approach this hot potato and not get their fingers burnt.