The first popular tourism revolution began 200 years ago, in the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. At the end of two decades of war with Napoleon, the British were finally free to visit continental Europe.
“It is raining English,” wrote an astonished observer in Paris. Over the next two centuries, tourism shaped and reshaped not only the attitude of the British towards abroad, but also life in the countries they visited. In their wake they have brought hotels, campgrounds and caravan parks, new forms of food to suit foreign tastes, sports facilities, thriving souvenir industries, improved transportation systems and infrastructure. The economies of fishing villages, alpine communities and rural ponds suddenly became dependent on the seasonal influx of tourists from abroad. Tourism kept religious festivals and crafts alive, which without it would have long since died.
But over the years it has also brought about standardization and blandness. In the huge, hermetically sealed seaside resorts of the Costa Brava, for example, only the faintest traces of the original villages remain behind the high-rise hotels, Irish-themed pubs and fish and chip shops.
The problem with mass tourism is the numbers. Even in 1850, when Thomas Cook made the first tour packages around Europe, visitors complained that wherever they went, another crowd of tourists had arrived earlier. In response, to escape the crowds, tourists had to move away to avoid the crowds of people like themselves, thus taking their expectations and culture to ever more remote places.
It doesn’t take long for communities to learn how to commercialize lifestyles that have been developed over the millennia and then change them to accommodate visitors looking for modern sanitation, familiar food, and home comforts.
The prevailing paradox of tourism is that it ultimately kills the pastoral paradise it seeks. The journey expands the mind but the crowds of tourists narrow the view. The tourist trip can only be an elegy to lifestyles that then vanish under the onslaught of the number of visitors. Tourist destinations are artificially kept alive just to be looked at by visitors, a desirable backdrop for social media posts that say “I’ve been here”.
The volume of the mass is overwhelming. In 1953, in the postwar wave of the first cheap flights to the sun, two million Britons went on vacation abroad; in 2000, 30 million went abroad. Travel disruption during the pandemic made us reflect: according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization in 2021, tourist arrivals during the Covid pandemic fell by 85%. For two years, those Brits who took a vacation abroad for granted had to reimagine a break from work as if they were staying at home.
Maybe it’s time to rethink our holidays. Rather than exporting the globalized banality of tourism to even more boring and anonymous locations abroad, it is time to revitalize our seaside towns, to become properly involved tourists in our country.
We need to re-engage with our landscape rather than rushing through it on our way to the airport. Our magnificent seaside resorts, many by now faded, are ripe for regeneration; the last 30 years have seen an extraordinary awakening of local food: why not expand it further into local industries and leisure, monuments and architecture?
A renewed interest in being busy tourists in our country will give new life to hotels, piers, shops and local traditions. It will prevent decline. And if this summer is a harbinger of the future, we can also bask in the most vital ingredient of modern holidays: the sun.