Mass tourism increasingly unwanted, whether in European cities, sporting events, or remote islands heavily dependent on tourism

That mass tourism is not only unsustainable but unwanted despite the profits it can bring is hardly a new idea. Many have seen for themselves here in Tenerife that the supposed income that cheap mass travel brings can all too often just go straight into the pockets of international chains of restaurants or all-inclusive hotels that actively prevent their guests from supporting the local economy with free food and entertainment. The same economic bypass applies too, sadly, to many smaller businesses which, however we dress it up, often disadvantage their staff with contracts that fail to represent the hours worked and thus reduce employee rights to benefits and pensions. 

It is also no secret that the established employment model for many, not all, estate agencies here is to tout tourists to buy property to “own their own bit of paradise” with agents required to work for no-one else, attend an office in which they don’t even have a dedicated desk, and are contracted as self-employed who pay over €300 a month as social security contributions but have no basic wage, simply the chance of commission if they sell a property. Given the furore over Uber contracts I do wonder how this model of business would hold up if challenged but it is widespread. The root problem is Spanish employment legislation because that creates systemic problems for employers but let’s not delude ourselves that pure greed doesn’t also play a large part. Big tourism has benefited some, perhaps many, but let’s not run away with the idea that everyone is delighted with it, or that they benefit from it and are desperate to see its return.

As a result, several parts of the world are now looking seriously into niche or focused tourism. Others have readjusted their economy entirely to ensure that they never again need mass tourism, and can do with far less now that they’ve returned to older ways that are not just sustainable but where the supposed disadvantages are now seen through more experienced eyes, and appreciated for the unrecognized boons they actually always were. Some examples from recent press reports about the phenomenon in cultural tourism, for example, concern European cities like Amsterdam, Florence, and here in Spain, Barcelona. As THIS report explains, “Cities across the continent want to mold visits into shapes less onerous for residents, and perhaps more lucrative for business. Optimally, a virtuous circle can be created where loud partiers are supplanted by museum-goers with more money to spend—or so the thinking goes. Call it curated tourism.”

Many travel for major sporting competitions but it’s not necessarily a market that could be described as niche given the obvious and vast involvement of big money. The Japanese public has already been railroaded over the Olympics, and many voices opposed to Paris2024 have already been dismissed. I suspect the French who oppose big sport’s takeover of their city in three years will not suffer in silence! Some aren’t waiting until the torch is handed over, however, with activists in California already engaged in their mission to stop LA2028 in its tracks before Paris even starts. As with hospitality and real estate, sport produces tourists that are not necessarily wanted, at least not in the numbers that put big money into the deep pockets of some while impoverishing far more. As THIS article explains, “Cities bidding to host the Olympics often see them as boons to urban development, worldwide exposure and increased tourism revenue, a view endorsed by the IOC. That has proven not to be the case. In fact, costs tend to outweigh tangible benefits”. It’s not just the Olympics though. Even with the UK only hosting the semi-finals and final of the EURO2020 competition, some 9,000 covid cases directly attributed to it and only it have been confirmed. Clearly that will be a base figure rather than the final one, and many are now calling for big sport as a whole, not just the IOC, to change tack entirely so that millions along with their diseases aren’t required to move around the planet for what are now, effectively, back to back international competitions. 

The greatest part, however, of tourism is not culture- or sports-centred, but sun and beach-focused, and one location that shares obvious similarities with the Canaries is the Cook Islands where exactly the same thoughts are occurring. They found that the covid pandemic required them to “shut the doors on an industry that contributes two-thirds of the remote island country’s GDP. Lives were upended, hotels were shut down and the government was forced to borrow tens of millions dollars to keep the economy afloat.” And yet the public are now questioning the return to an economy that also destroys their environment and culture along with their community life. As THIS report explains, ”The effects of tourism running rampant are perhaps most evident in Rarotonga’s Muri lagoon – often described as the island’s crown jewel. Hotels and posh holiday homes dot this stretch of golden sand, but sewerage systems have failed to cope under the strain of increasing visitor numbers. Once pristine, Muri lagoon’s turquoise waters are frequently tarnished with overgrowths of algae.” Have we not seen exactly this in Tenerife? Only recently the beautiful and much garlanded beach at Playa la Arena lost its blue flag because of an apparently insoluble sewage problem originating in Puerto Santiago’s overdevelopment, and that’s just perhaps the most egregious example of such problems in the Canaries.

The situation has become much worse over recent decades, inevitably, as numbers have kept rising with that unsustainable greed that requires everyone to believe the lie that permanent growth is essential for … for what? Do we believe that as a species we can only survive or thrive if we have constant increase, or that it is imperative for our very existence at any cost? In the Cook Islands, as local activist and journalist Florence Syme-Buchanan says, “We do get it that tourism brings in the much-needed dollars. But at what price?”. Now, it is clear, the movement for sustainability in tourism is itself growing, with increasing numbers in the wide and varied range of niche sectors and even tourism hotspots saying increasingly loudly that “any cost” is not a cost that they or the planet can or are prepared to tolerate, and that there must be considerably fewer holidaymakers, whether they’re in a museum in Barcelona, a sports arena in LA, or on a sun-lounger in Crete.