This past Monday and Tuesday, G2 (The Guardian features section) ran large pieces by Leo Hickman extracted from his forthcoming book The Final Call. Monday’s front-page splash read ‘Wish You Weren’t Here- The True Cost of Our Holidays’.
The gist, as I’m sure you can guess, is that something is rotten in the state of travel. I urge you to read both articles- here and here. If you can’t be bothered, here’s an extract from the extract in which he sums up his stance:
“The travel industry still clings to the convenient myth that the good ship Tourism brings economic bounty to all who sail in her. And it is still making some other extraordinary claims - that, for example, tourism nurtures world peace, love and understanding. Yet there seems to be little evidence that tourists and those who serve them engage with each other on a balanced, harmonious footing. Instead, the bounty is carved up between a select few, while far too many of the industry's workers, particularly in developing nations, are no more than wage-slaves scratching out a pitiful living. And there is plenty of evidence that many locals have been displaced to make way for tourists, often at considerable cost to the local environment.”
Compelling stuff. And his case studies? Wait for it…. Tallinn in Estonia, Ko Pha Ngan in Thailand, and Dubai, with lesser mentions for the Benidorm, Cancun, and Ibiza. Anyone spot anything?
What Hickman has done, albeit with honourable motives, is examine the grubby tip of a very large iceberg, ignoring the vast hulk beneath it. So Brits get drunk on stag parties in Estonia do they? Ko Pha Ngang is a horrible backpackers package resort, eh? Dubai is a vast, horrific homage to seedy uberwealth and superconstruction? Trigger a long, collective chorus of…. “no shit.”
There seems to be a bit of an anti-travel bandwagon growing. A few weeks ago Mark Ellingham, founder of Rough Guides even compared the industry to the tobacco industry. His words may have been coaxed by the interviewer, but the theme is clear…travel industry protagonists are starting to feel a bit uncomfortable.
At the root of this trend is a very important message- the industry needs to clean itself up. Offsetting must become obligatory, short-haul domestic flights need to be curtailed, tourist development must be as sustainable and green as possible, and the money needs to be fairly distributed. These are all no-brainers, and if this is the point of the bandwagon then I’m well and truly on it.
But to paint the whole industry with the same brush, as Hickman seems to be doing, is missing the point. This weekend in London thousands of members of the Couchsurfing community, a project instigated to encourage cross-cultural exchange, will be meeting up in London to wag chins and have fun. Some of them may have got there by plane. Unfortunately they haven’t yet worked out a way to measure cultural exchange in tonnes or footprints, but this particular element of the industry seems to be doing a very good thing indeed.
Then, of course, there is the burgeoning Green travel industry, on which the Guardian dedicates their leading regular travel page each week. Even companies ostensibly set up for profit are falling over themselves to be as green and sustainable as possible. I get scores of emails from travel PRs each week flogging some new hotel or destination…and what are the main selling points? Solar panels on the roof…money channelled to local communities…locally produced food etc. They know what we, the consumer, now want. And try getting your head around this project.
Eco-tourism, sustainable tourism, cultural tourism and independent tourism (this is the one that most of us do…no packages, no golf courses, no vast lucre-plated monoliths jutting out of the Gulf of Oman) are, as far as I’m aware, pretty good for the world. Let’s not forget the nasty stuff happening on the outskirts of Dubai, in the coral reefs in Thailand and down a back alley behind a MacDonalds in Tallinn- in fact let’s make sure these things are thoroughly exposed (and Hickman deserves credit for this)- but let’s not start morally carpet-bombing the ‘industry’ as a whole.