Tourists, Travellers and Changing Landscapes

By Kenn Taylor

Foreign travel was once something largely reserved for the well off. Improvements in transportation and communications in the latter half of the 20th century though, saw the opening up of international tourism for the masses. In tandem with this came the growth of the self-proclaimed ‘traveller’. Those who distinguished themselves from tourists by aiming to go variously; off the beaten track, to the edgier spot, in search of ‘authentic’ culture, while avoiding the popular or things that smacked of package style organisation.

Being such a traveller in the late 20th century usually required having surplus money and, perhaps even more so, surplus time. However, with those ever-advancing improvements in transport and communications and other factors such as borders being relaxed and increasing global economic development, the goals of the traveller became more accessible. Thus, with the world continuing to get ever smaller, ever faster, those who place personal satisfaction in self-consciously being travellers find themselves having ever less options. At the same time as this and deeply linked, we have seen growing critiques of tourism in parts of the press that, ironically, did very well for years from advertising selling foreign dreams to its readers.

Of course, this isn’t entirely new. In the 1970s, travel writer Paul Theroux talked of the typical curmudgeonly snobbery about travel, finding it going back to at least Evelyn Waugh’s When The Going Was Good of 1946 and even further to William T. Brigham writing in 1886: “Old travellers know how soon the individuality of a country is lost when once the tide of foreign travel is turned through its towns and by-ways.” Nothing new under the sun.

Even if going solo, off beaten tracks or engaging positively with locals, by definition you, I, are still tourists. There is of course deeply damaging tourism; landscapes destroyed by over development or over visitation, hooliganism, exploitation, local residents driven out. However to blame all tourists for this or to try and entirely distance yourself from all the issues tourism can create when you go on foreign trips by defining yourself as a traveller and ‘them’ tourists, is, frankly, silly. It’s also laced with class prejudice which can be seen in some of the articles emerging about ‘over tourism’.

Talk about the growing cruise industry is an example of this. Seen as a big symbol of over tourism, ships are inevitably described as ‘huge’, ‘monsters’ with their ‘tides’ of passengers, and usually more subtle references to the undesirable class status and habits of those passengers. There are some genuine environmental issues about large ships in certain, specific water bodies and big engines pumping out fumes close to urban centres. Nevertheless, I remain unconvinced that one large cruise ship with thousands of passengers is any more environmentally damaging overall than a dozen medium sized jetliners moving the same number of people to an airport in a suburb, out of sight, out of mind. With those passengers then needing various often individualistic forms of transport to get to the place they actually want to be. Not to mention the impact of the half dozen hotels they then occupy. But as cruising is generally more of a working class and lower middle class dream, it’s easier to single it out for blame than acknowledging the role that anyone who goes on holiday abroad plays in the damage that tourism can indeed cause.

Amsterdam is one key European city struggling with tourist numbers. Dutch writer Joost de Vries noted in his article in The Guardian his angst at it becoming “like Venice”, as he describes, shorthand for a city so flooded by tourists that it no longer feels like a city at all. Yet he is also self-aware enough to admit that, he too becomes someone else’s tourist problem when he leaves Amsterdam: “Someone in the south of France will be writing the exact same article I’m writing now (bonjour!). That’s the whole point of complaining about tourism. Are you staying home this summer? If not, you are someone else’s tourist.” Indeed, how many writers in major metropolitan centres even as they complain of the damage done to their city by visitors, are soon booking their next flight elsewhere? Most people want to go on holiday and for the majority, going somewhere abroad is the ambition. As the world has got generally richer, tourism has become the world’s biggest industry. I remain an optimist that this demonstrates our common interest in each other and the world. Which in the present political climate, now more than ever is a good thing. To quote Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”

Some of the angst around tourism is about how it changes a place, becoming less ‘authentic’. It is true a certain kind of hipster aesthetic has proliferated in urban areas, washing outwards from London, New York and Berlin with diminishing returns. That however ignores that cultural exchange has always prompted change, especially in urban areas and that as the world got smaller, this was always going to speed up. Cities have always copied popular things from each other – witness the glaring similarity of most Victorian town halls and museums across the UK, long before people started shouting about clone towns. Not to mention that seeking ‘the authentic’ while deeply human, is also in itself, pretty inauthentic. A chimera given that, like in physics, as soon as you observe something, you change it.

The reason many people who live in areas popular with tourists work in the industry, especially in developing countries, is that it frequently has better pay and security than the traditional jobs that were available to them. Travellers may bemoan somewhere they once saw as authentic see its people move from say, farming, to running a hotel, but then I doubt many travellers ever had to experience the precarious life of being a sustenance farmer. Tourism also offers opportunities for areas with few other options for a sustainable economy. Venice may now indeed be over visited and needs to manage that, but its traditional economic powers (for all its beauty, much to do with slavery and exploitation) have long been in decline, with the city largely relying on tourism now for well over 100 years. After the last of its port and shipbuilding moved away in the 1950s as it became impractical to use its quaysides, without tourism, the city, with its huge maintenance costs, would have struggled to sustain itself at all. With its own population in decline well before the age of mass cruising.

City breaks to the likes of Venice, Amsterdam or wherever, were once the solid preserve of the middle to upper class. However, with the emergence of low cost airlines, the expansion of hostels, the Internet in general, an industry of alternative travel guides that rose out of the grassroots Rough Guides and Lonely Planet (now both part of global corporations) not to mention the general opening up of Europe through the EU, such city breaks become common place. Thus, the traveller now sees them as problematic, now that everyone visits cities rather than just ‘people like them’.

The potential negative effects of increasing tourism on existing urban residents are true, from stag do drunkenness to people being priced out of apartments for Airbnbs. But the traveller critiquing this is a hypocrite. All the disruptive businesses and technologies that made such travel increasingly possible and affordable to more people, were originally popularised by such travellers from the tech-savvy middle class. Airbnb was once talked about as a radical alternative to corporate hotel chains and a way to engage with local people and culture. So much so that it proliferated. Now the same people who helped it catch on judge others for using it. Of course, there’s a long history of the middle and upper class making something popular then judging others for adopting them, from microwave meals to out of town supermarkets.

That’s the thing with capitalism in general, however punk and radical you convince yourself something is, if it works, it becomes mainstream, see everything from Starbucks to Uber. As ever with such problems, the solutions are to use the power of democratic structures to reign them in. Not bemoan and blame that more people can travel than ever, but take hold of these changing patterns and technology. Tourist taxes, to make sure visitors contribute to local services; regulating the likes of Airbnb to stop it destroying residential areas; limiting visitor numbers to fragile sites; imposing taxes and environmental controls on transportation providers; ensuring local small businesses gain from tourism not just big chains, are all ways that we can reduce some of tourism’s negative impacts.

That more people want to see more of the world is a good thing. Don’t blame the desire, but those who exploit that desire with no thought for what they’re doing to these places or the planet. And even if you see yourself as a traveller, however you behave, accept that, in the end, you’re still just another bloody tourist.

An abridged version of this piece was published by New Statesman CityMetric in January 2019.

Culture as a Commodity

By Kenn Taylor

On a preserved section of the Berlin Wall, specifically the East Side Gallery, now used as a canvas by various international graffiti artists, I once saw written:

“I am claiming this space. I am defacing the visual record of a history which is not my own. But why not? This is now a site which has been split from the continuity of Berlin culture. It is heritage which belongs to tourist culture. We are recording our own history, here, now, and I was here.”

Quite a statement, one that made me think of my home city of Liverpool’s biggest tourist draw: The Beatles. While they were a product at least partially of Liverpool culture and do remain part of the local collective memory, there is also an undoubted and growing Beatles industry in the city. A cultural experience created to be sold to visitors.

Football is also going the same way. As much as Liverpool Football Club is still part of the city’s culture, it is now an entity that exists outside of it. A brand followed from Brazil to Thailand that is far removed from the streets of Anfield itself, and another tourist draw to Merseyside for those worldwide fans. Even Liverpool’s history as a maritime centre is sold to visitors via the museums and the souvenir books of the old docks filled with liners, the remnants of something that was once an actual industry employing thousands, now largely a distant heritage.

Since Liverpool won its bid to be European Capital of Culture for 2008 there has been an increase in attempts to package various aspects of the city’s culture to attract more visitors and boost its fragile economy. This has been met with some resistance from those who are wary of the city’s culture becoming commodified to serve the tourist industry and who fear that this might detract from the new, raw creativity in the city.

These may be local examples, but the same thing goes worldwide; that which was once part of active, live, perhaps even dangerous culture, becomes popularised, accepted, sanitised and sellable. Many places that have had their landscape and way of life represented by famous artists now find themselves selling back that expedience to visitors; the Yorkshire moorland of the Brontës, the rural Welsh communities of Dylan Thomas, Thomas Hardy’s ‘Wessex’ version of Dorchester.

Even St Ives, the Cornish fishing community whose remoteness from the metropolitan art world attracted sculptor Barbara Hepworth and others, is now a favoured second-home location of those same metropolitan elite, happy to be somewhere remote and pretty but also reassuringly ‘cultured’.

What was once real culture and lived experience, once transformed into art, becomes something that can be appreciated by others far away. Something people will come seeking so that they too can experience it. To be in the place that bore the art that they love.

Pushed to extremes, these things can be distasteful. Those seeking Bob Marley’s Jamaica can apparently purchase skin care products, headphones and even a Marley-branded ‘calming beverage’ licensed by his estate. While the recent book Eat Pray Love by American journalist Elizabeth Gilbert, detailing how she found love in South East Asia, has apparently sent thousands of other women to Ubud in Bali, Indonesia in search of their dream guy, much to the despair of some locals.

Yet it is also naive to pretend that any artist or any artwork can stand entirely outside of mainstream culture and the wider economy. If any art is of value, interest and importance, even if it is initially rejected or dismissed, however underground and alternative it may seem in the first instance, it will almost always be absorbed into the mainstream eventually. Often to be used in ways the original artist may never have imagined.

James Joyce’s seminal Modernist novel Ulysses, was banned for obscenity in countries across the world, only for less than a hundred years later the Irish national ferry company to name its huge flagship after it. A critic meanwhile once dismissed Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise thus: “Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape.” I’m not sure about wallpaper, but Monet’s work is now certainly popular on everything from tote bags to place mats.

This phenomenon is especially strange when it happens in a short space of time. As I started university, the largely unknown graffiti artist Banksy painted a rat on an abandoned pub in a run-down part of Liverpool. Now less than ten years later, the city’s Walker Art Gallery has a sculpture of his alongside works by Rembrandt and Turner.

Such things may provoke aversion from those at the cutting-edge of culture, but we should acknowledge that today’s cult fanzine is the next decade’s collectors’ hardback edition, this year’s subversive underground film is the next decade’s National Film Theatre special screening. Culture may be at its rawest and purest at its beginnings, but it is constantly in flux, dying and reforming. One of the few ways to capture the fleeting, ephemeral nature of beauty in existence is to turn it into art and for ultimately it to become part of cultural history.

Attempts to preserve the spirit of any given place or way of life are often precisely at the point they are ending. Writer Rachel Lichtenstein even admitted that in creating the book On Brick Lane about that East London street’s raw culture, diversity and creativity she was unavoidably contributing to its gentrification as the latest hotspot for urban trendies.

There is almost an inevitability of locations with connections to great artists and artworks selling themselves on the back of their cultural links. Small places such as Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon, or Grasemere in Cumbria, former home of William Wordsworth, who in his lifetime was suspected as a spy by rural locals, are almost entirely reliant on such cultural tourism to sustain them.

However, it can also be important for bigger places too. Venice for example was once a great centre of power, trade, technology and innovation, now it is a museum. All it has left to sell is what it once was. Similarly in the UK, York and Chester were the centres of power in the north before the Industrial Revolution, but with the growth of neighbouring cities they are now mostly forced to trade on their heritage.

Even Liverpool and Manchester are now also to an extent places which sell their culture to survive, be it The Beatles or Manchester United. The once brash centres of industrial and social change have become places to be looked back upon now such growth and production is mostly elsewhere. Like Venice the culture that once grew out of their economy and industry is now a vital part of their economy and industry itself.

And why not sell what they have? The case often made against this is that the tourist industry is a weak base compared to an industrial or business one. This may be true, but for all those keen to point this out, few are able to suggest viable alternatives, and a weak economy is better than no economy, which is what many rural towns and post-industrial cities face. A city like Manchester or Liverpool cannot rely on cultural tourism alone in the way somewhere like Grasemere may do, but it can form an important part of the wider economy.

After all, the art and artists linked to such places often to a greater or lesser extent exploited these localities, with artwork frequently inspired by the poverty or rawness of a place. So why can’t these places do the same back, especially when they often have few other options?

I do find the carbon copy of The Cavern constituted to lure visitors here in Liverpool sad when compared with the new, exciting venues in the city, but don’t we all like to visit similar things when in towns and cities abroad? Liverpool would be mad not to have a Beatles museum, even Hamburg, a city with a much more tenuous connection to them, has one. The Beatles are the greatest thing this city is ever likely to produce and we should rightly celebrate and acknowledge that. Liverpool also really needs the visitors, and once they’re here, it’s a hell of a lot easier to engage them in the contemporary culture also.

As for the difference between raw culture and that which becomes absorbed into the mainstream, surely what ultimately those of us who make ‘art’ of one form or another hope, even secretly, is that we may produce something that one day will be considered good enough to last beyond our own existences. To be preserved, catalogued and commodified and to become part of cultural history, even if we know few of us will achieve it. Maybe there is no better tribute to a great artwork of transcendent humanity to end up on a tea towel or a postcard on a student’s wall. Better that at least than for it to be lost to obscurity.

This piece appeared on The Double Negative in February 2012.