The pandemic has devastated global tourism, and many will say ‘good riddance’ to overcrowded cities and rubbish-strewn natural wonders. Is there any way to reinvent an industry that does so much damage? By Christopher de Bellaigue
Of all the calamities that befell tourists as the coronavirus took hold, those involving cruise ships stood apart. Contagion at sea inspired a special horror, as pleasure palaces turned into prison hulks, and rumours of infection on board spread between fetid cabins via WhatsApp. Trapped in close proximity to their fellow passengers, holidaymakers experienced the distress of being both victims and agents of infection, as a succession of ports refused them entry.
When it began, the deadly situation at sea was seen as a freakish outgrowth of what many still thought of as a Chinese problem. The first ship to suffer a major outbreak was the Diamond Princess. By mid-February, 355 cases had been confirmed aboard, and the ship was held being in quarantine in the port of Yokohama. At the time, the ship accounted for more than half of reported cases outside China. Fourteen passengers on the Diamond Princess would die of the virus.
The nightmare at sea has not concluded. Even after passengers from more than 30 afflicted cruise ships were allowed to disembark, and flooded into hospitals, quarantine hotels or on to charter flights home, an estimated 100,000 crew and staff remained trapped at sea, some in quarantine, others blocked from disembarking until their employers could make onward travel arrangements. This second drama led to a mass hunger strike – by 15 Romanian crew in limbo off the coast of Florida – and a police intervention to quell disturbances on a ship quarantined in the German port of Cuxhaven. As recently as 1 June, crew and staff aboard 20-odd cruise ships marooned in Manila Bay were reportedly clamouring to be allowed ashore.
Cruises have become a symbol of the ravages that coronavirus has inflicted on tourism. A sector that until January was worth $150bn, by its own estimate, is shedding jobs, issuing debt and discounting furiously simply to survive. But even before the current crisis hit, cruising had become symptomatic of the damage that tourism wreaks on the world.
Tourism is an unusual industry in that the assets it monetises – a view, a reef, a cathedral – do not belong to it. The world’s dominant cruise companies – Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian – pay little towards the upkeep of the public goods they live off. By incorporating themselves in overseas tax havens with benign environmental and labour laws – respectively Panama, Liberia and Bermuda – cruising’s big three, which account for three-quarters of the industry, get to enjoy low taxes and avoid much irksome regulation, while polluting the air and sea, eroding coastlines and pouring tens of millions of people into picturesque ports of call that often cannot cope with them.
What goes for cruises goes for most of the travel industry. For decades, a small number of environmentally minded reformists in the sector have tried to develop sustainable tourism that creates enduring employment while minimising the damage it does. But most hotel groups, tour operators and national tourism authorities – whatever their stated commitment to sustainable tourism – continue to prioritise the economies of scale that inevitably lead to more tourists paying less money and heaping more pressure on those same assets. Before the pandemic, industry experts were forecasting that international arrivals would rise by between 3% and 4% in 2020. Chinese travellers, the largest and fastest-growing cohort in world tourism, were expected to make 160m trips abroad, a 27% increase on the 2015 figure.
The virus has given us a picture, at once frightening and beautiful, of a world without tourism. We see now what happens to our public goods when tourists aren’t clustering to exploit them. Shorelines enjoy a respite from the erosion caused by cruise ships the size of canyons. Walkers stuck at home cannot litter mountainsides. Intricate culinary cultures are no longer menaced by triangles of defrosted pizza. It is hard to imagine a better illustration of tourism’s effects than our current holiday away from it.
Coronavirus has also revealed the danger of overreliance on tourism, demonstrating in brutal fashion what happens when the industry supporting an entire community, at the expense of any other more sustainable activity, collapses. On 7 May, the UN World Tourism Organisation estimated that earnings from international tourism might be down 80% this year against last year’s figure of $1.7tn, and that 120m jobs could be lost. Since tourism relies on the same human mobility that spreads disease, and will be subject to the most stringent and lasting restrictions, it is likely to suffer more than almost any other economic activity.
As tourism’s impact on the world has deepened, so the global economy has come to depend on it. Now, after the freeze forced upon foreign travel – unimaginable even six months ago – we have a rare opportunity to extract ourselves from this destructive cycle, and do things differently.
To accusations that it is spoiling the planet, the tourism industry responds with an economic argument: one in 10 jobs in the world depend on it. Governments tend to like tourism, because it creates jobs in the time it takes a hotel to open and the hot water to come on – and it brings in plenty of foreign money.
One industry advocate I spoke to quoted Lelei Lelaulu, a development entrepreneur who, in 2007, described tourism as “the largest voluntary transfer of cash from the rich to the poor, the ‘haves’ to ‘have nots’, in history”. Even if one allows for considerable “leakage” – whereby much of tourists’ expenditure doesn’t go to the destination country but to foreign tour agencies, airlines and hotel chains whose services they use – it cannot be denied that Australians have spent liberally in Bali, Americans in Cancún and Chinese in Bangkok.
At the end of January, when the flow of Chinese tourists to Europe dried up, Melissa Biggs Bradley – the founder of Indagare, a high-end US travel company, and a board member of the Center for Responsible Travel – was called by Italian colleagues who warned her: “Rome is empty. You have no idea how devastating this is going to be.” In those early days of the crisis, industry analysts reached for reassuring precedents. In 2009, international tourist arrivals fell by 4% as a result of the global financial crisis. The following year the industry roared back with 6.7% growth. After a series of terrorist attacks in Turkey in 2016, tourists stayed away, but Turkey’s loss was Spain’s gain, and the Costa Blanca experienced a surge in arrivals.
It soon became clear that such comparisons were little help in understanding a global disease without a cure. In late March, Bernstein, a leading research firm, sent a note to investors that replaced an earlier, merely gloomy assessment of the hotel industry’s prospects with a properly cataclysmic one. “Just two weeks ago we considered 80% revenue declines ‘highly unlikely’, and now adopt it as our base case,” the note ran. “How naive we were!” And that was before room occupation in Spain and Italy bottomed out at 5%.
Tourism accounts for around 15% of Spain’s GDP and some 13% of Italy’s. But painful though its loss is for the most diversified economies in southern Europe, it is life-threatening for tourism’s dependencies, such as the Maldives, where tourism contributes around a third of GDP, or for emerging destinations like Georgia, where visitor numbers have more than quadrupled in the past decade.
In April, Edmund Bartlett, the tourism minister of Jamaica – where the industry brings in more than 50% of the island’s foreign currency – bemoaned the fact that there had been “zero arrivals for Montego Bay’s airport, zero arrivals for Kingston’s airport and zero guests in hotels … on top of the 300,000 people who are without jobs because all of the transportation systems that support tourism are at a halt, [because] the farmers who support tourism have nowhere to sell their crops, [because] the attractions … are closed.”
For all the money the industry usually brings in, one of the prices of allowing a place to be taken over by tourism is the way it distorts local development. Farmers sell their land to the hotel chain, only for the price of crops they once grew to inflate beyond their reach. Water is diverted to the golf course while the locals go short. The road is paved as far as the theme park, not the school. In its subordination of an economy to a powerful, capricious, external motor, tourism dependency has something in common with the aid dependency that I observed as a reporter in Afghanistan after the 2001 invasion. In both cases, the worst threat is the possibility of sudden withdrawal.
Biggs Bradley pointed to a number of “small, vulnerable” places that will be devastated, such as those islands in the Pacific that have recently become popular with diving tour operators. “They were opened up by the phenomenal rise in new air routes of recent years,” she said, only for the planes to stop arriving, leaving debt and unemployment behind.
Tsotne Japaridze, whose tour agency Traffic Travel organises adventure holidays in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, described the pain that the virus inflicted on his business and those who rely on it. Japaridze employs three people full-time, hires 15 guides and drivers during the summer season, and sends tour groups to 30-odd vineyards, guesthouses and private houses around the country. His company can be seen as a powerful core diffusing revenue that supports hundreds of people. At the start of the crisis, Japaridze put his employees on unpaid leave (“It was a difficult decision but I had no option,” he said). As tourism vanished, demand has exploded for services that do not require customers to leave their homes. One of Japaridze’s former guides, who used to take tour groups to the beautiful Svaneti region of Georgia, is now making ends meet by delivering food on his motorbike.
If one danger of tourism dependency is that the tourists might suddenly stop arriving, a more common problem is overtourism – the saturation of a destination by visitors in numbers it cannot sustain. Near the peak of the pandemic, I spoke by Zoom to Jane da Mosto, whose NGO, We Are Here Venice, fights valiantly to keep the most noxiously over-touristed place on earth a tolerable place to live.
While chopping vegetables for the family supper, Da Mosto confessed to a certain unease at the juxtaposition of apocalypse in Italian hospitals and the scenes of serenity and quiet observable from her window. The bridges were empty and seahorses cavorted in the Grand Canal, while peddlers of phallic-shaped pasta had been replaced by boatmen delivering homemade tortellini to the city’s residents.
When Da Mosto moved out of view to attend to her potatoes, her place was occupied by her 19-year-old son, Pierangelo. From the day he first slid behind the wheel of his father’s boat, Pierangelo has lived for the water, and he feels queasy if obliged to sit in a car. He works as a carpenter and a restorer of the city’s famous keel-less boats, while also beetling about on an electric launch and showing tourists “Venice from a Venetian perspective”.
A Venetian who acknowledges the importance of tourism but longs to relax its grip, Pierangelo and his friends – designers, students, fellow carpenters – had been discussing life after the virus, when, with fewer visitors, they would be faced with a steep drop in income, and would be obliged to make up the shortfall by drumming up business from local residents.
And how, I asked, does he feel when he’s bobbing on the Giudecca Canal and turns to see a cruise ship bearing down on him?
“Small,” Pierangelo smiled. “Very small.”
Were it not for tourism, much of Venice’s Gothic fabric would have crumbled or been redeveloped years ago. But while the tourism industry provided much of the economic rationale for the preservation of the city’s architecture provided the economic rationale for visitors, power was handed to investors in hotels, restaurants and boats, many of them outsiders for whom Venice was simply a business opportunity. On 15 July 1989, the global music industry commandeered the city for a free concert, the memory of which vexes Venetians even now. As many as 200,000 people from all over Europe converged that day on the Piazza San Marco, the city’s spiritual and aesthetic core, some of them packed on to boats offshore, to see Pink Floyd on the final leg of their world tour.
Panicky city councillors argued almost until the opening note of Shine on You Crazy Diamond about whether the concert should go ahead. In the end, the band agreed to lower the decibels and shorten their playlist to fit global TV schedules (Italian national broadcaster Rai did very nicely), while shopkeepers around the square sold warm beer at triple the price to fans who discovered too late that the authorities hadn’t laid on a single toilet. The following morning, the famous old flagstones were covered by cans, cigarette butts and puddles of urine.
As an example of tourism squatting on the public good, an invasion of a medieval city centre by 200,000 people who pay no entry fee and leave the city to clear up their mess is hard to beat. One Italian TV report described the concert as a violation of human rights, “those of the invaders and those of the invaded”. So virulent was criticism of the city council that its members resigned en masse.
Long before the invasion by rock fans, residents had been deserting the city. Between 1950 and 2019, Venice’s population dropped from about 180,000 to nearer 50,000, while the number of annual visitors rose from 1 million to 30 million. According to Jan van der Borg, a tourism specialist who teaches at Venice’s Ca’ Foscari University, and advises tourism authorities across Europe, this exceeds the city’s “carrying capacity”, the number it can accommodate without permanently damaging its infrastructure and way of life, by at least 10 million.
Whether it is a gondola owner who lives far away and deputes someone else to row tourists through the packed canals, or the budget airlines that deposit thousands of tourists every day in an area barely one and a half times the size of New York’s Central Park, in Da Mosto’s words, “a huge number of people live off Venice without living in it”.
And, says Van der Borg, the tourists are the wrong kind. Some 70% are day-trippers, who after being “spat from their tour buses, cruise ships and airplanes”, spend a few hours congesting the historic heart of Venice “but without contributing to its maintenance”. After parting with perhaps €15, enough to buy them a souvenir manufactured thousands of miles away, they are hurried by their guide on to their next destination.
According to the unapologetic elitism that informs the thinking of Van der Borg and other industry strategists, “high-impact, low-value” excursionists should be made less welcome than the affluent independent travellers who stay in a hotel, eat at neighbourhood restaurants and perhaps round off a day in the city’s lesser-known churches with a bellini at Harry’s Bar – like Truman Capote before them. At every step, runs this line of reasoning, “quality” tourists contribute to the city’s wellbeing through taxes, tips and human interaction.
So is the package holiday on the way out? According to a UK trend report by Abta in 2019, people considering their next holiday abroad were looking, above all, to spend less. If the budget holidaymaker is to be given a lukewarm welcome, British tourists have not got the hint.
In the past 10 years, the curse of “Venetianisation” – the hollowing out of a place, as it fills with tourist-termites – has beset city after city, as budget airlines and Airbnb have brought a weekend somewhere cobbled within reach of millions. That hasn’t just meant long-established destinations such as Venice or Paris, but sleepy coastal towns such as Porto, on Portugal’s Atlantic coast, that were completely unprepared for the numbers of tourists unleashed on them.
The fightback can be dated to July 2015, when the city council in Barcelona – whose famous promenade, La Rambla, had been rendered all but impassable by the sheer number of tourists – introduced a moratorium on new hotels. The following year Airbnb was served a €600,000 fine for listing unlicensed properties – small beer for a company whose revenues from a single quarter have been known to exceed $1bn, but a sign of growing hostility towards an industry that could make a city unrecognisable to its residents in a short space of time.
Last year, the mayor of Dubrovnik – whose perfectly preserved old town was overrun by visitors after it featured in the TV adaptation of Game of Thrones – shut 80% of the souvenir stalls clogging up the city centre and imposed a quota on bus and cruise tourists. The Belgian canal city of Bruges recently moved to limit the number of cruise ships docking at any one time and halted all advertising aimed at daytrippers.
There is, of course, a financial cost to limiting tourism. As Fermín Villar, the president of the Friends of La Rambla, which represents the street’s residential and commercial interests, told the Guardian two years ago, “La Rambla is above all a business … every year more than 100 million people walk along this street. Imagine,” he enthused, “if each person spends only €1.” But mass tourism displaces other businesses, while the exodus of many creative and productive residents, as well as the stress placed on local infrastructure by visitors in such numbers, carry a cost of their own. Da Mosto told me that, in purely economic terms, Venice is a net loser from an industry that has set up shop on its premises and remits much of its revenues elsewhere.
Behind the recent campaigns against over-tourism lies a growing appreciation that public goods that were assumed to be endlessly exploitable are, in fact, both finite and have a value that the price of visiting them should reflect. “Polluter pays” is an economic principle that is gradually being introduced to farming, manufacturing and energy. The idea is that if your business produces harmful side effects, then you should be the one who picks up the tab for the cleanup operation. Something similar, incorporating not only environmental harm but also wider cultural degradation or damage to way of life, might become the guiding principle of a properly sustainable tourism industry. At present the focus is centred narrowly on tourism taxes, which aim to reduce the number of tourists while also bringing in more revenue. Modest though they remain – Amsterdam adds 7% to your room bill in addition to a flat €3 per person per night – they are the tentative beginnings of a trend towards controlling tourism and turning it to the locals’ advantage, rather than the other way around.
A certain nimbleness is required of companies that make money out of tourism but do not want to be seen as blind to its effects. The guide book publisher Fodor’s issues an annual “no list” of destinations that people should altruistically abstain from visiting. This year’s list features Easter Island and the Cambodian temple complex of Angkor Wat. Meanwhile Fodor’s also promotes “twenty-five places to see in the US before you die”. That list includes Big Sur, a stretch of Californian coastline that was recently festooned with a banner reading “Overtourism is killing Big Sur”.
Gazing at the distant profile of Mount Kenya from lightly chlorinated water in the African bush might seem like a bearable way to sit out the crisis, but the infinity pool at the Loisaba tented camp, one of three safari lodges in a 23,000-hectare reserve of the same name, hasn’t seen a swimmer in months. Less than a month after flights into the country were suspended on 25 March, Loisaba’s CEO, a Kenyan veteran of bush tourism called Tom Silvester, told me that he had laid off 90 employees, “and with each job around here carrying up to 10 dependents, that’s a big impact”.
The damage done by the collapse of Kenya’s tourism industry, which is worth $1.6bn and employs 1.6 million people, is fearsome. After shuttering 24 properties across east Africa, Elewana, the hotel company that operates Loisaba’s three lodges, is drawing on cash reserves to support its 2,000-odd employees and their families. The website of another reserve, the Nashulai, is emblazoned with a plea for donations to combat starvation among the communities that rely on it.
While in many places getting rid of tourists may be the only way to restore a healthy natural world, in countries where the tourist industry focuses on the environment, the opposite may be true. When I suggested to Karim Wissanji, Elewana’s CEO, that the best way to conserve Africa’s wildlife might be for human beings to migrate to the cities and leave them in peace, he retorted: “The future of our wildlife and their habitats are intrinsically linked to the future of the safari adventure industry.”
Three-quarters of the 2 million foreign tourists who came to Kenya last year came for the wildlife. Were it not for tourism, many of the 160 private reserves that provide vital corridors for migrating animals and excess grazing capacity for the country’s national parks would revert to being hunting grounds or be turned over for agriculture, threatening one of the greatest concentrations of animal life in the world. Competition for grazing land, especially during times of drought, has intensified long-standing conflict between the needs of local communities and the region’s unique wildlife. As Paula Kahumbu, the CEO of conservation organisation Wildlife Direct, wrote in the Guardian, “most Kenyan youth see wildlife as irrelevant, something that benefits a few, rich visitors or white landowners”. In the wake of violent incursions on ranches and wildlife parks over the years, safari outfits have looked for ways to make tourism directly support the local population.
The loss of incomes caused by the pandemic might yet precipitate disaster. On 21 April, Conservation International, a US charity that protects areas of exceptional biodiversity, reported that there has been an “alarming rise in bushmeat and ivory poaching in Kenya”. Loisaba has only been able to maintain its anti-poaching patrols thanks to a donation from The Nature Conservancy, another charity that funds and gives scientific advice for conservation projects around the world.
Habitually operating at less than 40% occupancy, with just 48 beds to all those acres, you might think of Loisaba as a high-value, positive-impact answer to the daily disgorging of thousands of cruise passengers into Venice’s city centre. By paying $700 per day to enjoy the company of elephants, reticulated giraffes and an ark’s worth of other birds and mammals, Loisaba’s visitors are effectively paying to protect the wildlife from more intrusive human interventions. As Matthew Brown, The Nature Conservancy’s Africa director, put it, tourism that “tangibly contributes to conservation outcomes” is “the best way to finance biodiversity. Without it, the idea that one can protect animals and help local people quickly falls apart.”
For all the money that foreigners bring to Loisaba, the reserve lacks the diversity of clientele that is an ingredient of the most resilient tourist businesses. Bush tourism in general is attracting too few of Kenya’s growing middle class – while the high cost of living keeps many at home, those who do travel for holidays tend to head for the coast.
Being able to call on local customers would allow the country’s game reserves to recover faster once the current travel restrictions lapse – which will happen for African tourists sooner than for those coming from further afield. In April, Kenya’s tourism minister, Najib Balala, called for a “paradigm shift” in favour of the domestic and pan-African market. “It is no longer about waiting for international visitors to come in,” he said. “If we start now, in five years we will be resilient [in the face of] any shocks whatsoever, even travel advisories imposed by the western countries.”
Such a swift recovery is unlikely for the traditional stars of conservation tourism, the gorillas that are spread across national parks in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. After coming close to extinction in the 1980s, their numbers recovered thanks to an international rescue effort funded in part by blue-chip tourism. (Americans visitors to Rwanda spend an average of around $12,000 per trip.) In 2016, the Rwandan government doubled to $1,500 the fee that tourists must pay for a single hour with the coveted primates. This had the miraculous effect of upping revenues from $15m to $19m – some of this money goes to pay rangers and fund local welfare schemes – while also reducing the number of visitors who tramp through their habitat in the Volcanoes National Park, from 22,000 to 15,000.
Now that the country’s borders are shut and rich foreign tourists won’t be back for months, a new conservation strategy will be needed. From an environmental point of view, the immediate peril is that the great apes catch coronavirus. The longer-term challenge is to protect them from a rise in poaching for gorilla meat, and from getting caught in snares laid for antelopes.
In June, Sheba Hanyurwa, who runs a tourism business across Uganda and Rwanda, told me that over recent years tourism revenues have allowed a certain economic diversification to take place. The relatively high salaries commanded by rangers and guides have enabled their communities to keep cows and chickens for their own needs. During the crisis, the governments of Uganda and Rwanda have maintained frequent patrols in their national parks – with greater success than the DRC, where 12 rangers were recently killed in the perennially unstable Virunga National Park. But, Hanyurwa told me, “hotel workers and porters have been laid off and people are hungry. The only livelihood here is from tourism and there won’t be any international tourists at least until next year.”
Covid-19 has exposed the flaw in the model of elite tourism with a conscience. There is no plan B.
Not all nature-based tourism is good for the nature it is based on. As environmental awareness has grown, many businesses have adopted feel-good terms like “eco-friendly” and “green” – even though, in the words of one body that assesses tourism sustainability, “the experiences they sell are neither of these things”. Some travellers fail to notice that flying across the world to sit in a cabin sourced from illegally logged trees isn’t as eco-friendly as their Instagram feed makes out. Others balk at the cost of being good. According to a survey conducted by travel company Tui in 2017, while 84% of European holidaymakers consider it important to reduce their carbon footprint, only 11% are willing to shoulder the additional costs of a sustainable holiday over an ordinary one.
Among the nations that have, in recent years, tried to build up wildlife tourism is Indonesia, home to the world’s largest lizard, the Komodo dragon. Last year, the government announced a plan to make the town of Labuan Bajo, which is currently the access point for Komodo national park’s numerous islands, into one of 10 major tourism destinations. Ominously, the government scheme is called “10 new Balis”.
The idea isn’t to ease pressure on the over-touristed island of Bali, for which a major new airport is planned, but to emulate its success at attracting millions of tourists on cut-price holidays every year. In the process, Bali’s combination of heaving beaches, growing water shortages and mountains of rubbish may also be replicated at the 10 other destinations. “What was once a small fishing village is now supercharged with boom-town zeal and non-stop construction of restaurants and hotels,” reported a CNBC correspondent visiting Labuan Bajo in January.
Between 2008 and 2018, the annual number of visitors to Komodo national park increased from 44,000 to 176,000. One big attraction, apart from the nature itself, is the price. After your $50 flight from Bali lands at Labuan Bajo’s new airport, I was told by Glenn Wappett, a former British serviceman who skippers yachts around eastern Indonesia, “you can stay in a hostel and take a day boat to see the dragons and still get change from $100”. That includes the roughly $12 park entry fee. Lonely Planet named the island chain that includes Komodo its “best-value destination” for 2020. (That was before the guidebook publisher was hit by the global lockdown and suspended most of its commercial activities in April.)
Indonesia’s preference for mass over elite tourism has been guided by the addition of 2 million young people to the labour market each year. More tourists means more jobs. After all, even if their per-capita outlay is low, large numbers of visitors need more waiters, taxi drivers and marine guides than a handful of extravagant ones.
But as visitor numbers to the islands have risen, the dragon population has fallen. Mating practices were disrupted by tourists, while deer poaching depleted their main food source and logging destroyed their habitat. In 2018, Viktor Bungtilu Laiskodat, the governor of the province of East Nusa Tenggara, in which the park lies, advocated increasing the entrance fee to $500 with the aim of attracting richer tourists, reducing visitor numbers and protecting the lizards. In March 2019, after smugglers stole more than 40 Komodo dragons, his administration went a step further and announced that the island of Komodo, home to around 1,700 giant lizards, would close for the whole of 2020 to allow the reptiles, the deer they feed on and their shared habitat, to recuperate.
But the governor’s attempts at conserving the region’s main attraction went down badly with many of the locals who make a living from tourism. “There was a huge backlash from dive companies, hotels and restaurants,” recalled Wappett. They demanded that tourists be allowed on Komodo, and in October, the national government overruled the governor and the plan was scrapped.
The virus is succeeding where the governor of East Nusa Tenggara failed. Entry to the Komodo National Park has been barred to all but the fishing communities that inhabit it. The dragons sup on venison and fish, which, according to Wappett’s friends in the area, have returned in spectacular numbers to these overvisited waters.
Still, it’s not hard to imagine what will happen once tourism becomes feasible again. On 14 April, Indonesia’s finance minister predicted that coronavirus, by freezing the tourist trade, could leave as many as 5.2 million Indonesians unemployed. Unless some alternative path for job creation can be found in the future, as soon as flights resume, tourists will be encouraged to return en masse and the dragons will once again come under threat.
On 7 May, the UN World Tourism Organisation suggested that the coronavirus crisis would squeeze the industry so hard that progress towards making tourism sustainable – principally by reducing overcrowding and addressing climate change – would be not just halted but reversed. Indeed, since the start of the crisis, airlines and cruise companies have been lobbying hard for tax breaks and the lifting of environmental measures.
From the petrol and particulates that spew from jetskis to pesticides drenching the putting green, the holidaymaker’s every innocent pleasure seems like another blow to the poor old planet. Then there is the food left in the fridge and the chemicals used to launder the sheets after each single-night occupancy in one of Airbnb’s 7 million rental properties, and the carcinogenic fuel that is burned by cruise ships. And then there are the carbon emissions. “Tourism is significantly more carbon-intensive than other potential areas of economic development,” reported a recent study in the journal Nature Climate Change. Between 2009 and 2013, the industry’s global carbon footprint grew to about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the majority generated by air travel. “The rapid increase in tourism demand,” the study went on, “is effectively outstripping the decarbonisation of tourism-related technology”.
Destructive though it is, the virus has offered us the opportunity to imagine a different world – one in which we start decarbonising, and staying local. The absence of tourism has forced us to consider ways in which the industry can diversify, indigenise and reduce its dependency on the all-singing, all-dancing carbon disaster that is global aviation.
For Komodo in Indonesia the alternative ending involves fewer visitors paying more to visit the national park while the surrounding communities develop the fishing and textile industries that have kept them going for centuries. In Georgia’s Svaneti region, where the lure of tourist dollars has drawn people to abandon animal husbandry in favour of opening guesthouses and cafes, Tsotne Japaridze told me the crisis could be a “lesson not to forget their traditional means of making a living”.
More broadly, tourism must be valued not as a quickfire source of foreign exchange, but as an integrated part of a nation’s economy, subject to the same forward planning and cost-benefit analysis as any other sector. In places where tourism is too dominant, it needs to shrink. All this needs to happen in tandem with wider efforts to decarbonise society.
As an international industry, tourism means nothing less than the aggregate of activities that range from building airline engines at Rolls-Royce’s plant in Derbyshire to pulling pints in the Irish pub in Montego Bay. From this global perspective, it cannot easily be planned or controlled. Its natural bosses are municipal, provincial and national governments, and it is to these institutions that responsibility for reform now falls. Some have already begun. The council in Barcelona, for example, reclaimed parts of town that had been lost to holiday lets; the governor of East Nusa Tenggara tried to price the Komodo Dragon out of danger. Such instincts to tame tourism’s excesses through taxes and pricing need to be adopted everywhere. Tourism isn’t the right that many holidaymakers, whatever their budgets, seem to think it is. It’s a luxury that needs to pay its way.