Does tourism ruin everything that it touches?
At the entrance to one of the ruined temples of Petra in Jordan, there is an inscription chiselled into the soft red rock. It looks as if it has been there for centuries. It could have been carved by one of King Herod’s soldiers, when they were imprisoned in the town in 40 BC. But closer inspection reveals that it is not so ancient after all. It reads: Shane and Wendy from Sydney were here. April 16th 1996.
The ruins of Petra were discovered in 1810 by a Swiss explorer, and a recent report has just concluded that ‘they are in grave danger of being destroyed by the unstoppable march of tourism’. More than 4,000 tourists a day tramp through Petra’s rocky tombs. They wear away the soft red sandstone to powder and (occasionally!) scratch their names into the rock.
It is not just Petra that is under threat of destruction. More than 600 million tourists a year now travel the globe, and vast numbers of them
want to visit the world’s most treasured sites: the Parthenon, the Taj Mahal, Stonehenge, the national parks of Kenya. The tourist industry will soon be the largest industry in the world, and it has barely reached its 50th birthday. Many places that once were remote are now part of package tours. Will nothing put a stop to the growth of tourism?
A brief history of tourism
The Romans probably started it with their holiday villas in the Bay of Naples.
In the 19th century, the education of the rich and privileged few was not complete without a Grand Tour of Europe’s cultural sites.
Things started to change for ordinary people in 1845 when Thomas Cook, of Leicester, England, organized the first package tour.
By 1939, an estimated one million people were travelling abroad for holidays each year.
It is in the last three decades of the 20th century that tourism has really taken off. Tourism has been industrialized: landscapes, cultures, cuisines, and religions are consumer goods displayed in travel brochures.
The effects of tourism since the 1960s have been incredible. To take just a few examples:
– The Mediterranean shores have a resident population of 130 million, but this swells to 230 million each summer because of the tourists. This is nothing. The United Nations projects that visitors to the region could number 760 million by the year 2025. In Spain, France, Italy, and most of Greece, there is no undeveloped coastline left, and the Mediterranean is the dirtiest sea in the whole world.
– In the Alps, the cable cars have climbed ever higher. More and more peaks have been conquered. It is now an old Swiss joke that the government will have to build new mountains because they have wired up all the old ones. There are 15,000 cable car systems and 40,000 kilometres of ski-runs.
– American national parks have been operating permit systems for years. But even this is not enough for the most popular sites. By 1981, there was an eight-year waiting list to go rafting down the Grand Canyon’s Colorado River, so now there is a lottery once a year to select the lucky travellers.
– In Notre Dame in Paris, 108 visitors enter each minute during opening hours. Thirty-five buses, having put down their passengers, wait outside, their fumes eating away at the stonework of the cathedral.
– Poor Venice with its unique, exquisite beauty. On one hot, historic day in 1987, the crowds were so great that the city had to be closed to all visitors.
– In Barbados and Hawaii, each tourist uses ten times as much water and electricity as a local inhabitant.