Travel is no longer a luxury good. Airlines like Ryanair and EasyJet have contributed to a form of mass tourism that has made local residents feel like foreigners in cities like Barcelona and Rome. The infrastructure is buckling under the pressure.
It doesn’t take long before the woman at the hotel reception pulls out a city map of Porto. Look, she says, there’s the Old Town and the Douro, there’s the harbor and here, by the way, the pride evident in her voice, is the world’s most beautiful bookshop: Livraria Lello.
It sounds fantastic and the place looks even more amazing in the photos. It’s located in a two-story, neo-Gothic building with lots of dark wood, an abundance of old books, ornamentation and stained glass, and a curved staircase right in the middle. It was opened in 1906, a cathedral of books, a dream for voracious bookworms from all over the world. When traveling, we often look more for the beauty of the past than that of the present. We may even buy a book for vacation reading, to while away evenings on the Atlantic coast. It has been said that J.K. Rowling often visited the Livraria when she lived in Porto at the beginning of the 1990s, a time when she taught English and began dreaming up the Harry Potter series.
Porto is not a big city — with just over 200,000 inhabitants, the Old Town is easily manageable. The first thing you notice when approaching the Livraria Lello is the long line in front of it. Young Japanese travelers, Scandinavian backpackers, families from France, couples from China, Americans and Germans.
An imposing bouncer stands at the door of the bookshop. To get in, you must first purchase a five-euro ticket bearing the visage of Fernando Pessoa, Portugal’s most famous poet, in the shop next door. There, too, visitors must wait in line, with crowd-control barriers set up just like at the airport check-in desk. Those waiting in line are guided past shelves full of souvenirs, postcards and keychains. The standard tourist bric-à-brac.
The bookstore is every bit is as beautiful as the one in the photos, even if it’s not much of a bookstore these days. No one browses through the merchandise here. They all seem to be taking pictures with their smartphones — photos that look exactly like the more than 7,000 images already posted on TripAdvisor, the world’s largest travel website, where Livraria is listed as one of the city’s top sightseeing attractions.
Just like the rest of the country, Livraria Lello stood on the verge of bankruptcy four years ago as a result of the financial crisis. But even then, the bookshop had no lack of visitors. The problem was that people were buying fewer and fewer books. Someone suggested the store ought to start charging an admission fee of five euros. It may have sounded crazy at the time, but 4,000 people now visit Livraria each day while during the summer, the number of daily visitors swells to 5,000. The store had 1.2 million visitors in 2017 and revenues of over 7 million euros.
If the thought of buying a book does cross a visitor’s mind, and there are many tomes to be found here — from translations of classics of Portuguese literature to, of course, the Harry Potter series — the ticket serves as a credit toward that purchase. It is rumoured that Livraria Lello served as the inspiration for Flourish & Blotts, the bookstore where Harry Potter buys his magic books. But Livraria ultimately feels more like a museum or a theater backdrop than a real place.
Predatory Modern Tourism
More than anything, in fact, it has become a symbol for the predatory nature of modern-day tourism — a style of travel that is devouring all the beautiful places which drives it.
For residents of Porto, however, the bookstore has a different story to tell. It is one of economic upswing in a country that was in the throes of crisis not all that long ago. Indeed, Portugal owes its recovery in part to double-digit growth in tourism, including in the areas in the once impoverished north around Porto. Ryanair and EasyJet have been flying to the city for years, and it has long been regarded as the new in-spot for city-escape tourism. Last year, around 2.5 million foreign tourists visited the region, and half of them visited Livraria Lello. Porto still hasn’t become as overrun as places like Barcelona or Amsterdam, cities where locals have begun defending themselves against the hordes of tourists who seem to be taking over. But a divide has developed in Porto — between the tourist city and the city for locals. One can’t help but wonder when a local last visited Livraria Lello. Do Porto residents also have to stand in line and pay five euros?
There were times when the hotels lining the beaches in Benidorm, in Arenal on Mallorca and along the Adriatic Sea in Italy, were symbols of the ugliness of modern mass tourism. In retrospect, though, that era seems almost quiet. Benidorm and Arenal are cities that were created so that Europeans would have a place lie on the beach in summer. They are artificial resorts and not very nice, but they do serve a purpose: as factories for mass tourism that could just as easily be removed should the need arise.
Today, these tourist reserves no longer fill the demand. The crowds of sun-seekers have grown so large on the beaches of Southern Europe, that some small bays on Mallorca should actually be closed due to overcrowding. Even along the North and Baltic seas in Germany, hotels and pensions are fully booked out in places like Sylt and Rügen.
Graphic: Europe’s most popular cities.
Yet beach holidaymakers now comprise just under half of modern tourism in Europe, while the other half are cruise and city-escape travelers. For years, it’s been tourists rather than local residents who have been shaping the image of some of Europe’s most beautiful and unique cities. They are being transformed into museums and theme parks and are developing special zones for tourists where locals may work, but certainly don’t live. Tourists sit in traditional restaurants devoid of locals as they watch other tourists. They are no longer places where people come together, but where divides seem to deepen. At times, it really does feel like a tourist invasion. They come, they stay briefly and then they are gone again, but they act as though they own the cities they visit.
The virtue of hospitality “which one wants to invoke is destroyed by making use of it,” German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger wrote back in 1958 in his widely cited treatise on mass tourism. At the time, mass tourism as we know it today hadn’t even been invented yet, and traveling was still the privilege of the well-to-do. At most, those who could afford it would drive their modest VW Beetles from Germany over the Brenner Pass to Italy. For most people, a visit to Venice or Rome was something they could only dream about.
Modern-day tourism has very little in common with that dream. An ever-growing fleet of budget airlines transports millions of people to the world’s beaches and sights, long-distance buses offer trips at ridiculously low prices, and cruise ships dump thousands of passengers into the ports, with as many as five vessels a day docking in Palma de Mallorca, Barcelona and Dubrovnik, pumping additional hordes into city centers that are already hopelessly overcrowded. Once there, they eternalize their memories of the sights they see in the form of selfies. After that, it’s on to the next hot spot.
Travel has gone from being a luxury product to an everyday good, with the boom in discount travel and the internet opening an increasing number of new markets. If you want to spend a few days in Palma, Barcelona or on the beach, it only takes a few clicks to find the right flight and accommodation. Often at a bargain-basement price.
Graphic: Air passengers per year.
But the infrastructure is no longer up to the task of handling the onslaught of travelers — and this is true in Germany as it is elsewhere. During this hot summer, chaos descended on Germany’s airports, with crowds of people jostling in front of monitors as flight cancellations rose by 146 percent in the first half of the year and the number of delays by 31 percent. In Munich and Frankfurt, air traffic even collapsed entirely within a few days of each other after passengers walked through security without being properly screened. And the situation at Berlin’s airports has become a national embarrassment.
‘Tourist Go Home’
With overloaded infrastructure and overcrowded cities and beaches, the travel industry seems to be choking on its own success. An estimated 670 million people traveled in Europe last year and it is likely that this summer alone, the Continent hosted 200 million tourists.
It’s not just Europeans exploring each others’ countries. The boom is also fueled by people from countries that have benefited handsomely from globalization. Much of the responsibility for the growth in global tourism lies with members of the newly emerging middle classes in Russia and with people from the Far East and Arab countries.
They also bear a significant share of the responsibility for the growing problems. The boom, after all, is also producing losers, and many of them have begun revolting, as recently seen in the pilot strikes at European budget carrier Ryanair, whose poor working conditions and low wages are what make the airline’s low-cost strategy possible in the first place.
But residents of the cities and regions affected are perhaps the biggest losers. When, for example, it becomes more lucrative for property owners to rent their apartments out to tourists on a daily or weekly basis than to locals who need an affordable place to live. Or when commuters have to squeeze into overcrowded public transportation because local buses and trains have been filled to capacity by tourists. Or when people no longer feel comfortable in their neighborhood because they have become a minority in the cafés and restaurants they traditionally frequented. That is, assuming they can get in at all or afford the new prices.
The tourism industry suddenly finds itself confronted by a group that it hadn’t previously paid much attention to. Having always focused on the guests, it tended to overlook the hosts. “Tourism is a phenomenon that creates many private profits but also many socialized losses,” says Christian Laesser, a tourism professor at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland.
Often, the profits benefit very few — the landlords and hotel owners primarily, but also, to a much lesser extent, the often poorly paid employees working in the travel sector. The rest are stuck with the noise and the mess, the high rents and the feeling of being a stranger in their own country, like being an extra in some Disney World for tourists.
In many places, that feeling has begun manifesting itself in expressions of open hostility. Activists spray paint “tourists go home” on the walls in many places overflowing with tourists, and in Mallorca, they even proclaimed a “summer of action,” with protests against travelers at the airport and in hotels. In Palma, activists have thrown horse droppings at tourists. In Barcelona they have pushed people from bicycles and harassed them in cafés. In Venice, self-proclaimed pirates have taken the dramatic step of blocking cruise ships from entering the port.
Graphic: Number of tourists worldwide.
The notion that tourists are foreign invaders who represent some kind of threat to the local population’s cultural identity broadly echoes the way refugees are viewed in large parts of Europe. But whereas hardship has driven the refugees from their homelands, the tourists are seeking to escape the boredom of everyday life.
Barcelona has experience with both of these globalization-driven migratory movements, but the protests there have only been directed at the tourists and not refugees. Last year, 150,000 protesters even called on the government to allow more refugees into the country. “Immigration has changed the city, but tourism is destabilizing it,” Britain’s Guardian newspaper wrote in June, describing the mood in the city.
The travel industry has begun recognizing that its own success is increasingly undermining the foundation of its business model. “Overtourism” is the buzzword currently dominating industry conferences. Discussions are taking place about how tourist flows can be directed such that they will no longer be perceived as a threat.
But is that possible wiht the numbers of tourists continuing to rise? In the emerging countries of Asia, umpteen millions of people are ascending into the new middle class each year, meaning they can suddenly afford to travel to exotic destinations. And they do. According to industry estimates, the number of tourists globally is expected to increase by 500 million by 2030, with the Chinese making up roughly half of that growth. And many of them will want to visit Europe and its sights — events like the lavender blossom in Provence.
It must have been during the summer of 2008, Jean-Paul Angelvin recalls. That’s when a film team from China rang and asked if they could take a few shots in his lavender fields. “They filmed a young couple, and, after a few hours, they were finished. I didn’t think much about it at the time,” says Angelvin, an elderly gentleman wearing gray shorts and beige compression stockings. Angelvin and his family have been cultivating lavender in Provence for close to 40 years, at an elevation of 580 meters on a plateau in Valensole.
Angelvin has gone through some hard times, like when prices hit rock bottom during the 1990s. But demand picked up again, and during the lavender blossom in June and July, the small boutique the family established also managed to produce a bit of profit.
Then summer 2012 arrived and Angelvin’s shop turned into a gold mine. A growing number of tour buses began stopping in front of his boutique — buses filled with Chinese tourists. They wanted to perform exact recreations of the scenes they knew from the popular (and cheesy) Chinese TV series “Dreams Behind a Crystal Curtain.” They were the shots that had been filmed four years earlier in Angelvin’s lavender fields. “Never in my life did I think this shoot would have triggered such a wave,” the lavender farmer says. Jean-Frédéric Gonthier of the regional tourism association estimates that 3,000 Chinese visitors came the first summer after the start of series production. Today, he estimates, there are around 60,000 Chinese visitors each season.
“To create something out of the boom other than just suffering, we have to understand the Chinese,” says Gonthier. To address the need, he trained Chinese-speaking guides and also hired two people to answer questions about the region on the Chinese messaging service WeChat. Gonthier is hoping these efforts can help to change the vacationing patterns of the Chinese and motivate them to stay longer in the region rather than just rushing through.
Lavender farmer Angelvin also grasped what was happening and was quick to react. During the lavender season, he hires temporary Chinese-speaking staff. One kilometer further down the road, Pauline Jaubert expanded her lavender boutique Terraroma for the second time this spring. “We have adapted,” says Jaubert, who now offers T-shirts, cookies and aprons in addition to lavender oil and soap. The Jauberts have a small restaurant on the top floor that offers Asian noodle dishes during the high season.
The farmers have become tourism professionals. Revenues at the larger lavender boutiques on the plateau are estimated to be several hundred thousand euros a year. Indeed, Angelvin’s shop generates more income in good years than the lavender harvest itself.
Not everyone, though, views the guests from China as a “classic win-win situation,” as Gonthier from the tourist office calls it. Jean-Jacques Valone says that a photo in the field does little in terms of cultural exchange. Valone is also a lavender farmer, but he doesn’t have a boutique. “They are mostly just a bother to me,” he says. “They litter the fields with paper and cut stems of lavender.” Besides, the region doesn’t really benefit financially when people just rush through and, at most, order a pizza and split it among four people, he says.
As might be expected, Gonthier takes a more positive view. He points out that the Chinese approach to tourism is also changing and that an increasing number of younger travelers from China are avoiding mass tourism and are instead traveling on their own and sometimes even staying overnight. Such travelers, he says, “no longer hunt desperately for a Chinese restaurant. Instead they try Provençal dishes.” He sounds a bit like he’s just discovered a rich vein of gold he hopes to be able to mine for some time to come. A strategy paper notes that the manner in which the tourists are welcomed and treated is vital and must be done in a “Chinese-friendly” way.