The famed traveller took decades to explore the world but modern travel and social media can lead to destinations being quickly overrun
The greatest traveller the Arab world ever produced did things slowly. Although Ibn Battuta – born 719 years ago this week – journeyed from his home in Tangiers across North Africa, the Middle East, India and East Asia in his time, he took 28 years to do it.
The same cannot be said of the modern traveller. Although Covid-19 and the resulting global economic downturn put a halt to the gallop of 21st-century mass tourism, it is back with a bang as people take advantage of technology and transport the likes of which the Moroccan scholar, author and explorer could hardly have imagined.
According to data from the UN World Tourism Organisation released last month, international tourist arrivals could reach 80 to 95 per cent of pre-pandemic levels this year.
In all of human history it has never been easier to see so many countries in a short time. More than 900 million tourists travelled internationally last year, the UN says – double the number recorded in 2021. Every region recorded notable increases, with the Middle East experiencing the strongest relative rise as arrivals climbed to 83 per cent of pre-Covid numbers.
While tour guides, hotel owners, drivers and restaurateurs – not to mention the dozens of other professions that depend on tourism – will welcome this return, it should come with a caveat about the potential downside of mass travel.
Ask a resident of Venice, for example. The Floating City – a Unesco World Heritage Site – has been mobbed by visitors in recent years, with combined arrivals by domestic and international tourists reaching 2.1 million in 2021. Many would spill off the hulking cruise liners moored in the Venice lagoon until the Italian government eventually banned ships weighing more than 25,000 tonnes from docking.
Barcelona was another European destination to succumb. Its own population of just 1.6 million people was dwarfed in 2019 by a colossal 8.5 million international tourists, according to data from the city council. Irate residents and local leftists eventually resorted to hanging banners and daubing graffiti that bluntly told their thousands of unwanted guests to go home.
Many of Greece’s islands have suffered similar pressures. Among some of the most beautiful places in the world, these magnets for international visitors often have to endure crowded streets and overrun beaches. Many operate largely on a seasonal economy that is vulnerable to the whims of the tourist market or a global travel crisis, such as that caused by Covid.
Last year, the regional authority of Crete closed an entire island to tourists. Chrissi, an uninhabited outpost about 15km south of the Cretan mainland, once had 200,000 visitors a year until it became clear that its golden beaches and natural environment – including a 300-year-old cedar forest – needed a time out.
The ubiquity of social media plays a role here. We can, and do, post photos, videos and accounts of our travels in real time. Ibn Battuta’s travelogue – The Rihla (formal title: A Masterpiece to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling) was not completed until 1355, three decades after he began his first journey.
Even Ibn Battuta was confronted by the challenges presented by crowds of people gathered in the same place
Today, our travelogues are beamed directly and instantaneously to the phones of friends, family, colleagues and even complete strangers. That bucolic sunset on Santorini becomes a siren song, encouraging others to book their own flight. A more realistic picture would be to turn the phone 180 degrees around and capture the dozens of other visitors waiting and jostling for their turn to document and share a “unique” experience.
This is not an attack on people who want a holiday. Travel is the spice of life. Arriving in a favourite destination or exploring a new part of the world is a visceral experience that fixes our attention in the present as the sights, sounds and tastes of something out of the ordinary awaken our senses. That we often do so in the company of a loved one heightens the experience and builds shared memories.
Tourism is also an economic lifeline for millions of people. The World Travel and Tourism Council last year estimated that before the pandemic more than one in 10 jobs worldwide and more than 10 per cent of global gross domestic product were connected to the industry.
But any commodity that is too much in demand can distort the market. In the case of overtourism, it can have a negative effect on host communities and change the character of destinations. According to the Responsible Tourism Partnership, an advisory service, “local people are displaced by increasingly unregulated holiday lets, lawns are trampled to bare earth and beaches littered. Shops which used to meet the needs of residents are displaced by outlets selling expensive goods or tat to tourists”.
Thankfully, it seems that there is an awareness that tourism needs to be managed. This month, the UN declared February 17 as Global Tourism Resilience Day in an effort to make travel more sustainable. More than 90 countries backed the initiative, with Jamaica hosting the first Global Tourism Resilience Conference last week.
And, Zurab Pololikashvili, the UNWTO’s secretary general, has said that “tourism will only be sustainable if developed and managed considering both visitors and local communities”.
Even Ibn Battuta was confronted by the challenges presented by crowds of people gathered in the same place. Upon arrival in Cairo – “the mother of cities” – he was amazed at how “throngs surge as the waves of the sea, and can scarce be contained in her for all her size and capacity”.
Beautiful and historic locations will always be alluring but for them to remain enjoyable will require a careful management of our modern-day throngs of tourists.
Published: February 23, 2023, 8:00 AMDeclan McVeigh
Working in Belfast, London, Athens, Istanbul and the Gulf, Declan specialises in foreign affairs and security stories, but also writes for The National about music, sport, travel and culture. Originally from Northern Ireland, Declan has been a journalist for nearly 20 years.
Categories: Africa, Asia, China, Europe, Europe and Australia, European Union, India, Italy, Italy, Middle East, Morocco, Morocco, North Africa, Spain