If someone calls your town “touristic,” it should probably be taken as a compliment, as it means, “it is a place where a lot of people want to visit.” For example, I grew up in a town called Washington Township in New Jersey, and I had never seen any tourist there. In fact, people only pass through New Jersey to go to New York, and only do so if it proves to be substantially cheaper than flying into JFK directly. I was shocked as a new resident of one of the most touristic cities in the world: Barcelona.
In Barcelona, one of the world’s top vacation destinations, the subject of tourism inspires as much controversy as politics or religion. The stress of tourism imposed on local residents has been a topic of discussion and contention in Barcelona in recent years, as people can’t seem to get enough of this beautiful Mediterranean city. Some see tourism as a curse, some see it as a blessing, and others resign to accept it as an inescapable fate of a city that happens to be endowed with architectural wonders, top-notch Mediterranean cuisines, beach-friendly weather and over-the-top nightlife. Of the 57.7 million visitors Spain received in 2012, Catalonia hosted a whopping 14.4 million, making it the most visited province. Barcelona in particular is a popular destination for bachelor parties and long weekend escape for visitors from other parts of Spain, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France. The city is densely packed with hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, and wandering pedestrians. Locals often feel overwhelmed by tourists and laments that their city is no longer suitable for living. On the other hand, many discussions tend to omit the upside of tourism, which is why it exists in the first place. Just how important is tourism to Spain?
Compared to France, the most visited country in the world, Spain is considerably more reliant on tourism for its contribution both to its GDP (15.7% for Spain, 9.5% for France) and to its employment (15.8% for Spain, 10.5% for France). These numbers are more similar with countries of weaker economies in the region, such as Greece and Portugal. That is to say, it is easy to vent about the disadvantages of the influx of tourists, but it is difficult to argue against profit for two reasons. The first is that benefits are easily quantifiable, whereas the downside or damages are less quantifiable. Would one halt a 53 billion dollars a year industry just because some people feel that their culture has become obscured and the routes around the Sagrada Familia have gotten too congested? The second is that one does not discuss cultural ideals, ethics, and the standard of living before securing sufficient resources for survival. In other words, if tourism is not the answer, what is the alternative? As few critics of tourism have better economic alternatives for Spain, we need to focus the discussion on developing a strategy of sustainable tourism with minimal disturbances to the daily lives of the local residents. This dialogue involves action from the governing bodies, and from individual travelers.
The grand promise of building a mega-tourism empire is that it will bring jobs and prosperity to the city. What tourism actually attracts are multinational tourist corporations which bring their own executives from abroad and hire locals for low-skilled positions, while reaping the benefits from consumerism at the social and environmental expense of the host country. Locally, these corporations are hiring receptionists and bellboys, but not public relations coordinators and marketing managers. Foreigners who purchase vacation properties also drive up housing prices, leading to constraints on accessibility and affordability for locals. Moreover, local residents may find important infrastructural developments pushed to the back burner as the government prioritizes tourism-related projects. Flat screen TV’s have been installed in all airport terminals, but the broken swing in your park will have to wait. Where nature is involved, unsustainable tourism also threatens the ecosystem if pollution and traffic are not properly managed.
The government needs to consider that although cheap thrills generate quick cash, authenticity is also highly valued. To maintain the integrity of one’s city and to invest in environmental protection is to directly promote its value as a destination. Generating minimum wage jobs is a quick fix to economic woes, but ensuring that high-skilled jobs are available to those who qualify is what prevents a brain drain, which has long-term economic and development implications. Whenever possible, locals should directly benefit from tourist facilities such as free museum admissions or discounted entrance tickets to compensate for the inconveniences caused to local residents in a place like Barcelona, where earnings from its attractions and benefits received in return from the Spanish central government is disproportional.
But at the end of the day, be a traveler, not a tourist.
On an individual level, I would like to draw some distinctions between a tourist and a traveler. A tourist arrives to a country to be catered to. A traveler arrives to adapt. Consumer centric tourism is what many often find off-putting, whereas even the most narrow-minded, xenophobic people can probably empathize with those who travel thousands of miles to learn about their country and culture in a respectful manner. Part of the problem is, we live in a world of hyper consumption that a vacation feels incomplete without a shopping spree, without getting completely plastered at the hottest spots (it’s not a party until someone pees in the courtyard), and without some other forms of self-pampering like taking a Rickshaw or Central Park Carriage for five blocks. Traveling ceases to have meaning when one pays no attention to, let alone observe, the locale’s culture, customs, and norms. The observations should then affect one’s internal workings as he or she questions or challenges his or her own way of life and beliefs.
As an avid traveler who is a major fan of local activities, I highly recommend taking the morning commuter bus or metro on a weekday in every city you visit. You will see people who look like zombies in the morning in every country. The look like zombies in Washington DC, and they look like zombies in Rome. No matter how “exotic” you think your destination is, humans have the tendency to move in circular motions in a 10 mile radius throughout their lifetimes, repeating mundane routines and gestures, then die. Nothing is exotic. People are remarkably similar on the grand scheme of things. You are on vacation and at a new place, but there is no need to treat it like a fantasy land. People want to live their lives, in Cleveland or in Paris. Tourism will not close shop anytime soon, and co-existence is key that both the governments hold as policymakers and individuals hold as consumers.
(Feature photo of newspaper stand full of foreign titles in Mallorca, with sign “local papers inquire within.” By author)