The end of tourism as we know it?

Now that we’ve had immobility forced upon us, do we need to reimagine tourism?

Let us go back to the year 1921. Three years earlier, as WW1 was ending, so three years previously, a devastating influenza pandemic – the “Spanish Flu” – had broken out. It went on to kill fifty million people, many more than the war itself. Field hospitals, face masks, quarantine. In addition to the years of suffering caused by the war, people experienced an extended period of immobility. All the way back then, in 1921, nobody remembered what it meant to travel. For that, you’d have to look back to the summer of 1914, to a different time, a different world.

But it was precisely this time that ushered in an extraordinary age of travel. Innovations came thick and fast over a period of just two decades. Just think of all the possible ways of getting around: the Ford Model T turned the automobile into an everyday means of transport, trains snaked across the continent, huge cruise ships plied the seas, Imperial Airways opened the door to the first international flights with its seaplanes, and there were even serious plans to allow massive Zeppelin airships to land on top of the Empire State Building. The very place where cinema – like radio, another expression of this new modernity – had directed the out-of-control King Kong to climb in 1933.

In their Villa America in Antibes, Gerald and Sara Murphy invented the summer. Through her influence, fashion designer Coco Chanel made tanned skin acceptable in the salons. And the young American couple did the rest, together with their famous guests: Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Of course, it was also Fitzgerald who described that never-ending summer in Tender is the Night (1934): long afternoons on the beach, cocktails, jazz playing on the gramophone, dinners on the terrace, summer flings, racing the cabriolet down the Corniche … Denied its summer by the profligate artists from America, Switzerland turned its attention to winter: skiing came into fashion, and St. Moritz welcomed the Winter Olympic in 1928.

The story of these momentous years could go on and on. You will undoubtedly have spotted where I am going with this some time ago. Will we also see something similar after this pandemic? Will we, after two years of physical and psychological lockdown, calmly and lazily pick up our old habits again, or will we invent a new future, as happened in the “Roaring Twenties”?

A fair few people have long been fed up with this fast, banal, consumer-driven idea of tourism at any and all costs. Tourism that is dictated by Ryanair and Airbnb algorithms and churns out an unhealthy deluge of Instagram posts. How about some examples?

In Venice over the past few years, various associations have campaigned for a ban on the massive cruise ships – representing a particularly aggressive form of tourism – entering the Lagoon. And, during the pandemic, locals joyfully took control of their city once again, promenading through their calli and campi.

After the number of tourists had increased from two to thirty million in the space of twenty-five years, in 2015 – at the peak of this success – Barcelona elected a mayor, Ada Colau, with a decidedly anti-tourist agenda: No more noise on Las Ramblas, no new hotels in the Old Town and a halt on short-term lets via online platforms.

Femke Halsema – the first female mayor of Amsterdam – recently followed suit: despite steady growth in tourist numbers and an associated rise in earnings, the biggest city in the Netherlands stopped advertising trips there. Tourists will soon be banned from the infamous cannabis cafés, and even the lights in the windows of the notorious De Wallen red-light district will be switched off.

In other words: “Do Something New”, as the latest campaign from New Zealand’s tourist board recommends. This campaign shows fictitious rangers patrolling the country’s most famous sights to persuade tourists to stop taking the customary selfies in identical poses.

In fact, the future might end up being even more radical. As part of its three-year development plan, Copenhagen has decided to drop the term “tourism” (something that I will also do for the next few lines), as these antiquated concepts convey outdated ideas and result in repetition and a vicious circle. It’s time to change the rules of the game. Why should somewhere especially beautiful be the preserve of people who come from somewhere else? What would happen if we were to simply see visitors as “temporary locals”? With corresponding rights and obligations, of course, but not completely different to everyone else? If we were to stop being obsessed by growth, figures and calculations? Ultimately, Copenhagen regularly comes toward the top in the list of the world’s happiest cities… So let’s give society the freedom to choose, to innovate, to create free and open spaces.

Author: Claudio Visentin is an author and journalist and teaches history of tourism at Università della Svizzera Italiana.