Earlier this week, protestors in Majorca stepped up their opposition to mass tourism by vandalising rented cars.
They sprayed them with graffiti describing tourism as unsustainable. The Balearic Island has a population of less than 900,000, yet it is visited by almost 10m sun-seeking tourists each year. Some Majorcans, like their compatriots in Barcelona, have run out of patience with the relentless tide of tourists and the destructive impact they — we — have on their world.
Rome moved in a more orthodox way to manage tourism this week when police gave tourists who sat on the Spanish Steps on-the-spot fines of up to €400. This is the latest skirmish in Europe’s escalating opposition to mass tourism, a business that brings 52.4m tourists to Italy each year. Venice — population 50,000, visitors 20m — Florence, and Rome are over-run with selfie-stick sightseers despite imposing limits or charges on visitors.
Italy is beginning to regret its Faustian pact with tourism’s cash cow. They are not alone.
Selfie-stick sightseers — us again — are also blamed for the ever-growing crowds overwhelming many of America’s magnificent national parks. Ever since an image of a sunrise at Mesa Arch, once an occasionally-visited jewel in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, was used by Microsoft as a background for Windows 7 crowds gather at the site at dawn every day to try to capture their own image.
That park, according to America’s National Park Service, is just one of many trying to cope with a 37% increase in visitor numbers since Instagram, founded less than a decade ago in 2010, became a platform for look-where-I-was tourist gloating.
In a country that welcomed around 11.2m visitors and the €6bn they spent here in 2018, it might be prudent to wonder if those lessons have cautionary relevance. It may be a tad blinkered to imagine they do not — especially as Killarney tourism interests this week bemoaned a fall in tourist numbers.
Those interests pointed the finger at predictable targets. Brexit was blamed, even though that seems entirely premature. The accommodation sector regretted the passing of their monopoly and blamed Airbnb for diverting traditional customers. The sector, with one voice, called for a return to a lower, preferential Vat rate.
Those issues may be real but there are others as the protests in Europe suggest. Killarney, Kenmare, and Dingle, like all of Ireland’s blue riband destinations, have changed utterly since what might be called the romantic period of Ireland’s tourism development; the days when The Quiet Man or Ryan’s Daughter augmented the Auld Sod’s tourist appeal.
Our destinations are no longer a refuge from the modern world. They no longer offer the golden-goose charm of an intimate embrace. They are heavily commercialised, often over-crowded and expensive. Could these hard realities be behind falling tourist numbers? Is Ireland offering a ubiquitous package for prospective visitors, one pretty much like Majorca but more expensive and without guaranteed sunshine?
Could it be that the answer to the sector’s concerns lies in those questions rather than in Brexit, Airbnb, or Vat rates?
Answers on a John Hinde postcard please.