Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

The democratisation of travel has made it possible for millions of people to explore Europe at modest cost. But in some premier league tourist destinations, local residents are beginning to see that hosting too many visitors has a downside.

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Tourists have not always been well received. That’s no surprise, as visitors don’t always behave. Gustave Flaubert condemned the behaviour of English visitors to Egypt. He railed against the foolish travellers who altered the places they visited. “Tous les imbéciles sont plus ou moins des Thompson de Sunderland,” he wrote. Harsh on Sunderland, perhaps, but Flaubert made his point.

Two decades later the French engraver and artist Gustave Doré published sketches of a visitor to the Alhambra in Granada chipping off intricate Mudéjar carvings to take home as a souvenir. Doré did not record the nationality of the villain, but we have a hunch he might well have came from Sunderland.

Worries about how mass tourism undermines the integrity of places are far from new. There was a strong anti-tourist movement in the 19th century, often underpinned by a vein of Romanticism, but given popular impetus by a wider group of travellers who feared the erosion of upper-class privilege. The Rhine, the Swiss Alps and the great cultural treasures of Florence might properly be reserved for the more discerning traveller. So ran the argument promoted by well-educated men of influence who had in their youth enjoyed the luxury of a Grand Tour.

By the 1860s, the words ‘traveller’ and ‘tourist’ had begun to acquire two quite different meanings in the English language. The one was full of lofty ideals, the other just a base and hollow form of consumption. John Ruskin, although committed to the cultural emancipation of the working classes, saw the developing mass tourism as a form of exploitation which would undermine the very qualities which make a place distinctive. Writing of the English Lakeland, Ruskin observed that “Grasmere will soon be nothing but a pool of drainage with a beach of broken ginger beer bottles.” Ginger beer, we might note, was then very much a working-class beverage, very different from its market position today as a boutique drink with a high price tag.

Although informed by a measure of self-interest — let’s keep the best spots for ourselves — the anti-tourism agitators in Victorian England were quick to point out that mass tourism fuelled the miserable greed of capitalists.

Roll forward to the early 21st century, and the anti-tourism movement has experienced a great renaissance.

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About the authors

hidden europe

and manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.

This article was published in hidden europe 53.