As the Easter holiday season lurches into view, it’s time to defend tourists. They need it. They’ve been under attack for generations.
“Of all noxious animals... the most noxious is a tourist,” wrote the clergyman-diarist Francis Kilvert in the 19th century. Scarcely anyone has had a good word before or since. The tourist, reckoned Evelyn Waugh, was “a comic figure, always inapt in his comments [and] incongruous in his appearance”.
I sense heads nodding. This is the received wisdom among the cultivated. Tourists are those who arrive in hordes or, better yet, “teeming hordes”. They overrun places, ruining them. They may favour those little in-town sightseeing trains, water parks and restaurants with menus bearing photographs. They may even go for a full English in foreign parts.
Such considerations evoke shudders at dinner parties, where no one admits to being a tourist. They are all travellers. They don’t do pedalos, the Costa del Sol or, Lord help us, coach tours. They are forever off the beaten track, seeking the authentic – on the assumption, I suppose, that it’s hidden. “Benidorm?” screeched one (now distant) friend, when I mentioned what a smashing time I’d had there. “Why not Morecambe, or Sodom and Gomorrah?” She was a socialist, so one might have thought her to be on the side of happy masses.
But no. Disdaining tourists is the last permitted snobbery, a coded way of distancing oneself from the uncultured classes. And it drives me beyond bonkers to incoherence – so I shall try to settle down.
Examined calmly, there is no conflict between tourism and travelling. Just as one may eat one day at McDonald’s and the next beneath Michelin stars, so one may both romp about the beaches of Lloret de Mar and trek through the Sarawak rainforest (or visit the Hermitage Museum). These experiences are not mutually exclusive.
But the shudders remain, and the scorn pours forth, resolving into phrases such as “tourist trap”, “tourist tat” and, daftest of all, “touristy”, as if the term itself signified a conspiracy against good taste. As if we weren’t all tourists most of the time. So, well, the case for the defence:
Tourists are renowned for fouling up places in their teeming hordes. Almost by definition, however, travellers are the alien presence that gets there first. If they didn’t wander off to unexplored spots, writing and talking on their return, the rest of us would be in ignorance, and tribesmen worldwide remain in primitive purity. But, thank heavens, that’s not going to happen. Colin Thubron opened up the Silk Road brilliantly, Eric Newby went through the Hindu Kush and Bruce Chatwin did an entrancing job on Patagonia. Some readers were inspired to follow. (What did the writers expect?) This is OK, as long as numbers remain limited, wear boots and may be termed “travellers”. But, at some stage – generally around the opening of the first Holiday Inn franchise – volume transforms travellers into tourists.
Then people get very upset. (Hear them moaning about throngs at Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat.) But why would, or should, travellers – authors or otherwise – deny such obviously enriching experiences to others? There is no evidence – merely the arrogance of travellers – to suggest that the quality of appreciation is any the less because tourists arrive mob-handed. A tarmac road and a souvenir shack are small prices to pay for widespread pleasure.
And if they don’t like it, travellers have, anyway, only themselves to blame: they were the trailblazers. One final point: certain destinations positively benefit from hordes. I’m thinking of, say, Carcassonne or the Colosseum in Rome. In their heydays, such places throbbed with people and commerce. That was their point. Today’s abundance of tourists and traders isn’t denaturing the surroundings; it’s quite in line with original conditions. And it’s also financing the maintenance.
In Norman Lewis’s Voices Of The Old Sea, he recounts a stay in a remote Costa Brava village in the postwar years. It is on the hinge between a fishing past and tourism future. Superbly non-didactic though he is, Lewis can’t disguise his regret at this turn of events, at the loss of isolation, of ancient ways and village values. It has to be said, however, that isolation, old ways and values had led the villagers pretty miserable lives – overcome with superstition, uncertainty, poverty and cats.
No surprise, then, that, with some residual reluctance, villagers embraced the tourism development – going to work in the new hotel, opening guest rooms of their own and running pleasure trips in their fishing boats. Obviously, they lost something in the process, but they were going to lose it anyway. They gained financial security and a foot in the world. Their descendants doubtless have health insurance and flat-screen TVs, just like you and me.
It is easy to romanticise herdsmen and the haulers-in of nets when you’re only passing through – even if, like Lewis, for quite long periods. Then you go home, and they’re still trading single goats and lugging fresh water from five miles away. By wishing to leave the world thus untouched, travellers do sweet FA for economic development. By contrast, tourists – with all their varying needs – bring cash in buckets.
According to the UN’s World Tourism Organisation, international tourism accounts for five per cent of world GDP and one in 12 of all jobs. More pertinently, it’s the primary source of foreign earnings for dozens of the globe’s least developed nations. And it’s a business with a heavy need for labour.
Of course, there are complications to the economic equation, but none of these is resolved by keeping tourists away. Quite the contrary. The traveller may well say he preferred the locals when they were colourful and genuine. They may well reply that the traveller can cast off seeking scarce sardines whenever he damned well wants.
A few years ago, French television (I live in France) ran a documentary following a group sledding around Mongolia, eating yak. This looked to me like the worst holiday ever. They maintained, though, that they were having a wonderful time. I was thrilled for them – until, as people invariably will in such circumstances, one started blathering about how this was a real experience, far better than the second-hand superficiality of the tourist holiday. Now, as far as I’m aware, there’s no moral or qualitative hierarchy of holiday pleasures. Flying to Alicante is in no way inferior to flying to Ulaanbaatar. It’s just a different departure gate.
If people wish to go sledding in Mongolia or, as an acquaintance of mine once did, motorcycling to China (he annoyed me plenty, too), that’s fine, dandy and a matter of personal taste. Just don’t let them look down on my holiday activities, which have included playing brandy-fuelled, midnight crazy golf in Benidorm, frolicking with the children on the sand at La Grande-Motte and launching myself at Blackpool’s Pleasure Beach. The sledders and biker enjoyed themselves; I, too, had a ball; none of us was a better person for it, just happier – and that’s all there is to say.
I have a suspicion, though, that my cultured friends – indeed, cultured people in general – have a hankering for popular pleasures. Just listen to them speaking, or writing, about visiting Disneyland. They do so reluctantly, for Mickey and other “manufactured fun” are clearly not for them. Then they are astonished that people as clever as they are should enjoy themselves so prodigiously. It’s guilty pleasure, of course, because they really should be in the Louvre. Well, now, – and here’s a scoop – you can do both! I’ve done it! Granted, I did the Louvre first. Even The Raft of the Medusa might disappoint after the rush of Big Thunder Mountain.
Tourists like one another. Travellers apparently don’t like anybody. They appreciate their genuine experiences so much that they resent sharing them. The presence of other visitors at the temple, mountaintop or jungle clearing compromises the authenticity. Their own presence, curiously, does not.
And they grow especially huffy if the other visitors are fellow Britons. How often have you heard people saying: “I avoid Brits like the plague on holiday”? The sentiment has a long pedigree. The clergyman-diarist Kilvert, quoted in the opening paragraph, went on to write: “And, of all tourists, the most vulgar, ill-bred, offensive and loathsome is the British tourist.” (He must have been a riot to go away with.)
I’ve never understood this national self-loathing. I’m generally delighted to run into other Britons, especially in spots where I don’t master the language (in other words, almost everywhere). They represent the possibility of conversation, a considerable relief from pointing at stuff and smiling stupidly.
Nor do other nations usually hate us. Granted, folk get fed up in some of the Mediterranean clubbing HQs, but that accounts for very few of us. In an anecdotal poll of tourism professionals I did across the south of France a year or two back, the British emerged as the clearly preferred foreigners (“So polite! Enthusiastic! Uncomplaining!”). I hear similar sentiments almost everywhere I go.
And, while travellers are busy standing off from humanity, tourists are having a high old time together. The purest expression of the tourist experience is, perhaps, the coach trip – reviled by all, except anyone who has ever been on one.
I have had the best of times on trips throughout Europe. There’s no room here to detail the benefits, except one – and that’s built-in good company. I’ve lost count of the occasions I’ve been in a hotel bar after a fine day, sharing most convivial moments with fellow passengers. Across the bar, lone-travelling couples have looked on, as jealous as hell.
We coach-trippers have been moved by the Alhambra or Delphi or Les Baux-de-Provence. We’re doing our bit for the hotel trade, quite a lot for the bar trade and generally are an economic good. So, of course, are the lone couples. The difference is that now we’re having a jolly tourist evening, and they evidently aren’t.
“The tourist is the other fellow,” concluded Evelyn Waugh, nicely undermining his previous diatribe. Then again, no. The tourist is me. I feel no shame.