New York City is on pace to receive an astounding 50.2-million tourists this year, setting an all-time record.
While playing host to the world isn't new for us, the number of visitors we're welcoming in recent years is news, boasted Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
According to city officials, one-fifth of the total number, about 10.1 million people, came from overseas -- Great Britain alone accounted for 1-million visitors to the Big Apple. Bloomberg added that this massive glut of tourists is expected to contribute about $32-billion into the city’s economy, a handsome amount of cash for a city still reeling from the global financial crisis.
“It means more guests in our hotels, more shoppers in our stores, larger audiences in our museums and theater, more diners in our restaurants ... more economic growth and — what’s really important in the city — more tax revenues and more jobs,” Bloomberg said.
While Mayor Bloomberg (as well as restaurants and hotels and other businesses in the city) are quite happy about all this, I take a contrarian view.
Tourism is a plague that threatens to destroy culture and society.
The world is indeed becoming a smaller place as more and more people can now afford to travel to far-flung countries. This phenomenon is relatively new -- at one time, travelling to foreign lands was primarily restricted to the idle wealthy, diplomats, scholars, students, as well as artists, soldiers and adventurers.
With the advent of new middle classes around the world (and the democratization of transport), international travel became widely available to the masses.
Before, say, the 1950s, it was quite normal for people all around the world to never stray far from their birthplace their whole lives -- with the exception of such events as military service.
Those days have vanished forever.
The United Nations’ World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) recently stated last year there were 940 million international tourist arrivals -- this does not mean that that many people travelled to other countries, since many tourists go to multiple destinations in any given year, or even in one holiday. The figure likely includes people who make short jaunts over neighboring borders (like Frenchmen crossing to Belgium and back the same day, for example).
Still, it’s an extraordinary number.
And it will continue to escalate.
In the first half of 2011, international tourism grew by nearly 5 percent to a new record of 440 million arrivals.
UNWTO forecasts that over the next twenty years, the number of international tourists will rise by 3.3 percent every year -- by the year 2030, there will be 1.8 billion international tourists.
This means that, on average, an additional 43 million additional international tourists will fly the friendly skies each year.
“The next 20 years will be of continued growth for the sector,” said UNWTO Secretary-General, Taleb Rifai, in a statement. “This growth offers immense possibilities as these can also be years of leadership, with tourism leading economic growth, social progress and environmental sustainability.”
Much of this growth in tourism will involve the emerging markets, especially China and India.
UNWTO estimates that by 2030, the emerging economies will receive 58 percent of all global travelers. Fewer people will go to the “traditional” tourist destinations like Europe and North America.
Moreover, in terms of cold hard cash, international tourism receipts reached $919 billion last year -- which suggests this will become a trillion-dollar business very soon.
The fact is, tourism is a huge moneymaking enterprise that virtually all countries want more of.
While I concede that tourism generates tremendous revenues (and much needed jobs), I feel that it has become a vulgar, tacky and somewhat pointless endeavor that does nothing whatsoever to benefit of either the traveler or the people in target countries.
I am making a strong distinction between “travelers and “tourists” – travelers voyage to foreign lands in order to immerse themselves in native cultures and experience something truly different and unique. Visiting other countries can be a profoundly life-altering or life-enriching experience.
I have been lucky enough to travel extensively in my life and I have treasured every journey I have made.
But “tourists”? Well, they’re only interested in spending money, having their passports stamped, and boasting to their friends back home that they’ve been to other places.
I have seen Americans in Europe who refuse to learn even the rudiments of the local language, refuse to communicate with the local people (unless they are fluent in English) and do little or nothing to explore the local culture. They go from hotel-to-tourist site-back-to-hotel, all the while taking photographs and writing inane post cards home.
I have seen Americans in Paris (Paris!) go for lunch at McDonalds, and then go to an American-style sports bar to watch NFL football games.
But I am not limiting my criticism to the Americans.
I have seen waves and waves of British holidaymakers invade Spanish beaches like Benidorm or Corfu in Greece, solely for the purpose of drink, sex and sun (which are fine, but completely bypassing the incredibly rich cultural treasures the rest of those countries have to offer). They may as well be in Miami or Atlantic City or Blackpool.
I have seen masses of Japanese and Chinese tourists in Paris and Rome who move in groups of up to forty people, led around by a tourist guide who speaks their language, and visit tourists traps (while staying at hotels very close to said tourist traps) and never ever have any meaningful discourse with the local people.
I have seen English-speaking foreigners in France refuse to utter a single world of French; spend their time in bars or the hotel restaurant watching BBC (or CNN) and they go on shopping expeditions to stores that the hotelier steers them to.
I have even seen Americans in England who are so baffled by some of the local accents that they looked like there were in a “foreign country” (despite the shared language and culture of the U.S. and UK).
I have to wonder -- why on earth do these people take the time and trouble (and money) to make a trip overseas if all they’re going to do is the exact same things they do at home? Why do they bother?
I think part of the answer is that travel has become viewed as a “normal” and “routine” thing to do -- almost “de rigueur” in the modern world. There is also a kind of a snobbish attitude against people who have not travelled overseas (at least in New York from what I have witnessed).
But, as I see it, most travelers have no business (nor a compelling reason) to go to foreign countries, because they are completely unwilling to learn anything about the host nation’s culture (or are wholly unprepared to make the necessary adjustments and compromises required to delve into a foreign culture).
Tourism, at least from the American point of view, is all about “re-creating” the comforts of home in distance places, so that tourists will feel comfortable – and, of course, spend money.
This is why there are now western-style resorts/bars/hotels in such (otherwise “exotic”) places like Bali and Phuket, Thailand.
And this very act of excessive commercialization is defeating the very purpose of travelling.
Related to this subject, of course, is how rapid globalization is gradually making the world more homogeneous. London and New York are increasingly becoming like mirror images of each other – even cities further afield like Tokyo and Seoul are gradually imitating the Anglo-American styles in fashion, culture and lifestyle.
Mass global communications has started the process of destroying regional accents (a course that is irreversible). Too many tourists have also permanently destroyed some of the priceless ancient monuments of Greece and Cambodia, for example – although those nations desperately need the tourist dollars and euros.
Eventually (perhaps in less than fifty years?), every major city in the globe will be similar, if not identical. At that point, the very notion of travelling will become utterly moot – flying from New York to Rio de Janeiro will have all the charm and excitement of taking a bus to Poughkeepsie.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.