Wish you weren’t here: an end to mass tourism and the age of democratic travel?

Kenny Hodgart says with the rise of the middle-class traveller – as countries such as China become richer – authorities in tourist hot spots are struggling to cope with the hordes

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 May, 2016, 10:43am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 May, 2016, 10:43am

As someone who is susceptible to how things look in the movies, I felt a tug when I saw the comedy crime caper In Bruges. With its medieval squares, cobbled streets and neo-Gothic churches, it seemed clear that Bruges must be pretty cool. When I mentioned this hankering to a Flandrian friend in Hong Kong, however, no sooner had I begun to lay out my plan to commit some act of villainy that would occasion going into hiding in The Venice of the North – as happens in the film – than he scoffed at me.

“Mate,” he said, in his hang-tough Belgian way, “You’ve been duped. It’s a tourist hell-hole.”

One might refer to this as the TripAdvisor conundrum: the places we most desire to visit are attractive, and therefore attract other people too

I was reminded of this admonition when reading about the tiny island of Koh Tachai, in the Andaman Sea. Last week, Thai authorities decided to close it indefinitely due to “overcrowding and the degradation of natural resources and the environment”. Koh Tachai can cope with a few hundred tourists visiting each day, they said, but numbers were now regularly closer to 2,000.

Why do the wrong people travel ... When the right people stay back home, with television?” sang Noel Coward, in 1961. One might refer to this as the TripAdvisor conundrum: the places we most desire to visit are attractive, and therefore attract other people – wrong and right, alike – too.

The upshot is that there are now many destinations in the world where you can hardly move or breathe for other people, where there are queues for everything – and queues to join those queues – and where ducking out of the way of camera lenses is only really possible if you’re prepared to get in the way of road vehicles instead.

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According to UN figures, humans made 1.2 billion international trips in 2015, 50 million more than in 2014. And, inevitably, here’s where we stumble on the elephant in the room. A couple of years ago, China overtook the US and Germany as the country producing the most foreign tourists. That’s what happens when 500 million people, or so, suddenly become middle class and want to see for themselves all the honeypot places celebrated in movies and songs.

The first thing to say, of course, is why shouldn’t mainland Chinese enjoy this newfound freedom?However much their cultural sensibilities may clash with those of non-Chinese, it’s my own generation of first-world passport holders that edges it as the most spoilt and entitled in history. They came of age during the information revolution and an era of cheap air travel, and are typified by the self-styled “traveller” who behaves as though the world ought to thank him for collecting customs stamps. Moreover, while Hong Kong may not be the last place on earth where residents find that sheer force of numbers puts pressure on their quality of life, the reality is that governments the world over are now in competition for Chinese spending.

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Unfortunately, the problems posed by too many tourists, and travellers, are unlikely to fix themselves. Rather, we will see more official intervention, after the example of Koh Tachai. In Italy, the local government of the port of Cinque Terre, on the dramatic Ligurian coast, will limit summer visitors this year to 1.5 million, a million fewer than last year. As soon as the threshold is reached, roads and sea lanes will be closed to all but locals.

Elsewhere, Peru has plans to control numbers allowed on to the mountain ridge at Machu Picchu, and Iceland is considering some limits on numbers. Last year, the new mayor of Barcelona declared a moratorium on new hotel licences.

Since the 1980s, one country has gone some way further, imposing a hefty daily surcharge on tourists. Besides preserving Bhutan’s beauty, that means, in effect, that the only people who go there tend to be well-off. If other places were to follow that model, the end of the age of democratic travel could be nigh. Many of us would then have no choice but to stay at home – waiting, pace Noel Coward, for virtual reality television to get going.

Kenny Hodgart is a former staff journalist at the Post who has lived in Hong Kong since 2011