Henry Wismayer is a writer based in London.
The announcement appeared in the Journal Officiel de la République Française in the spring of 1886. To mark the forthcoming Universal Exposition of 1889, the burghers of Paris were holding a competition to design a colossal centerpiece, something bold and eye-catching to occupy the riverine end of the Champ De Mars.
In the northwestern suburb of Lavallois-Perret, the advertisement caught the eye of an entrepreneurial engineer with a taste for the grandiose. Now in his 50s, he had already secured a place in history. He’d overseen capital projects from Portugal to Peru, designed the metal substructure for the Statue of Liberty. But Gustave Eiffel was not one to turn down an opportunity to create what he instantly understood could be “the tallest edifice ever raised by man.”
A few years earlier, two of Eiffel’s engineers, Maurice Koechlin and Émile Nouguier, had drafted plans for a tapering wrought-iron tower constructed from latticework girders. At first skeptical of the design, it now struck Eiffel as the perfect candidate. When he submitted it to the competition, the panel of judges, reviewing more than a hundred proposals, agreed. (A 1,000-foot guillotine, conceived in commemoration of the French Revolution’s centenary, was discarded as a little gauche.)
The construction team broke ground for the foundations in January 1887. Over the next two years, teams of perspiring riveters worked to assemble the 18,038 pieces, each prefabricated to within a hundredth of an inch in Eiffel’s factory across town. Visiting the site, the journalist Émile Goudeau described being “deafened by the din of metal screaming beneath the hammer.”
As the giant structure grew beside the Seine, public reactions were mixed. Few could deny it was a miracle of engineering, but to some its monumental presence begged a question: What was the point of it? Eiffel’s justification — that it could be used as a laboratory for various scientific and meteorological experiments — seemed inadequate to the scale of this expensive boondoggle, which would eventually loom 984 feet above the Paris skyline. In an open letter, a coalition of writers and artists, among them Guy de Maupassant and Sully Prudhomme, protested “against the erection in the very heart of our capital, of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower.” The poet Paul Verlaine slammed it as a “belfry skeleton.”
Upon its inauguration, however, the tower defied the cynics. No sooner had the final hot rivet cooled than the great and the good of Paris convened at the tower’s summit to present Eiffel with the Legion of Honor. Almost two million visitors paid the five-franc fee to climb it during the Exposition alone.
Afterward, people kept coming. Parisians frequented the four large restaurants on the first floor. Boutiques offered souvenirs, refreshments and rental binoculars on the upper levels. Originally intended to stand for 20 years, the “Iron Lady” had, by the middle of the 20th century, become indelible. Its scientific pretexts forgotten, it existed now merely as an object to gaze upon, and to gaze from. It was a monument to a new raison d’etre: tourism.
The question of utility receded because the object itself became hallowed, a secular icon transported into the homes of people around the world in the form of tourist photos and a million die-cast replicas. “Glance, object, symbol,” wrote the semiotician Roland Barthes. “Such is the infinite circuit of functions which permits it to be something other and something much more than the Eiffel Tower.” It remains today the most visited paid monument in the world.
The question of what motivates so many journeys to see the Eiffel Tower is more nuanced than it may first appear. Certainly, no one ought to begrudge a visitor for thrilling at its architectural charisma or for coveting the sprawling views of Paris from its balconies. But something about being drawn moth-like to a foreign object speaks to a deeper, more metaphysical yearning of a sort that propelled human movement long before the word tourism entered the lexicon. This is the traveler as pilgrim, who lights out not just to look upon beautiful and interesting things, but to glimpse some essence, to be enriched.
How strange, then, that prevailing ideas of travel are also contemptuous. While tourism is often romanticized, it is equally reviled and disparaged as shallow — or, worse, rapacious. Sometimes it seems as if the “tourist gaze” cannot help but despoil whatever it fixes on. Perhaps this, too, echoes a more ancient incarnation: the traveler as colonizer, a vector of destruction.
From the beginning, recreational travel has been Janus-faced, straddling this dichotomy between the profound and the profane, the ennobling and the transgressive. But it is the dark shadow that is now ascendant amid a gathering sense that tourism’s drawbacks are starting to outweigh its rewards.
Inessential by definition, responsible for 8% of global carbon emissions, tourism has become bound up with all manner of anxieties about human behavior and the damage we wreak on the world around us. In places that have been overwhelmed or remolded in ways its inhabitants regret, there is growing resistance; taxes, prohibitions and no end of local antipathy are now as much an inconvenient feature of the holiday season as sunburn and gastroenteritis.
This past summer, as holidaymakers flocked back to Europe in their tens of millions, heatwaves and wildfires interrupted hallowed periods of rest with pressing temporal dread. Two contradictory statements felt simultaneously true. Tourism has never been more integral to society — but neither has it ever felt so problematic.
“[T]he cognitive dissonance of summer travel in a warming world is catching up to us,” conceded an article in The New York Times. “Tragic headlines and statistics are prompting hard looks at the nature of tourism: who benefits and who gets to participate.”
An inveterate traveler myself, I felt a need to learn how we got here, but to also probe the more consequential question: Where the hell are we all going?
For the great span of history, innate curiosity has always drawn people toward the unknown. Prior to the industrial age, most human movement was compelled, whether by disaster, scarcity or enslavement. During interludes in the wars of empires, however, travel could also mean seeking respite, spiritual enrichment and intellectual stimulation — at least for the wealthy. Contemporary chroniclers describe rich Romans sating their curiositas with forays to Egypt. Before it was engulfed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79, Herculaneum was renowned for its littoral pleasure palaces.
The genesis of “tourism” as we have come to understand it can be traced to a series of social phenomena that emerged in the United Kingdom in tandem with its precocious modernity. It began with the practice that became known as “the Grand Tour.” For moneyed young gentlemen in the 17th-19th centuries, travel was a rite of passage — and a finishing school. By journeying overland, ordinarily to Italy via France, Britain’s aristos would set out callow and come home urbane.
The contemporaneous ideal of the traveler is often said to be embodied by the “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.” In the painting, composed by Caspar David Friedrich in 1818, a lank figure stands on an outcropping before a pastel sea of mist-wreathed mountains. In this image, we get a sense of travel’s post-Enlightenment values. Undaunted by terra incognita, the wanderer looks outward at the inscrutable horizon. However, it is also possible to discern a duality that would characterize the traveler’s motivations until the present day. The cocked leg. The jaunty walking cane. This figure is somehow both intrepid and effete, curious and self-absorbed. The focal point is not the landscape, but the individual, hero of his own story.
This hint of travel as a fount of vanity illuminates another of its enduring facets: the preoccupation with surface. From the outset, tourism was enmeshed with the image — both the object of the tourist’s gaze and the forms by which they chose to project their experience to others.
For a time during the 18th century, it became fashionable among travelers to carry upon their person a “Claude Glass,” a small convex mirror darkened with a smoky grey patina. Turning their back to any given view, the viewer could look at the reflection in the glass and see the scenery’s edges magically smoothed, its texture gauzy, the sky deepened to reflect the picturesque ideal of the landscapes of the French painter Claude Lorrain, for whom the device was named. The glass, according to Arnaud Maillet, “allowed tourists — those quickly passing visitors — to discover in an instant the luminous effects produced by nature, for which they would otherwise have to wait.”
In the age of the Grand Tour, which later spread among the upper classes of continental Europe and America, participants often commissioned paintings of themselves. The sitters were portrayed in postures of intellectual contemplation or in heroic repose, emulating the swagger of Friedrich’s wanderer against backdrops of unfurling scrolls and Greco-Roman ruins. But if travel was outwardly expressed in the iconography of classical education, its inner life was often one of solipsism and the indulgence of illicit appetites. To cynical eyes, there was always ample cause to interpret the Grand Tour as something vacuous: a foppish performance undertaken primarily in pursuit of cultural cachet. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, observing the Tourers’ peccadilloes from her vantage among the overseas aristocracy, wrote acidly that their main pursuit was “to buy new cloaths, in which they shine in some obscure coffee-house, where they are sure of meeting only one another. … I look on them as the greatest blockheads in nature.”
It was therefore in a spirit of repudiation as much as emulation that the early architects of mass travel would set out their stall. In mid-19th century England, as coastal resorts in places like Blackpool and Morecambe sprang up to cater to a new industrial working class, the upwardly mobile set their sights further afield. Innovations in mass transit, notably the railway and ocean liner, opened the continent to new classes of traveler.
Many of these tourists, or “excursionists” in the parlance of the time, followed the contours laid down by their affluent predecessors. The kind of trips organized by pioneers like Thomas Cook sought out the classic sites of antiquity and the Renaissance, but also wild places like the Swiss Alps and the Mediterranean coastline, liminal zones that appealed to those seeking temporary escape from a bewildering modernity.
“People saw before their very eyes pastoral Britain being covered by urbanization, by smokestacks, by a new way of living,” Lucy Lethbridge, the author of “Tourists” (2022), told me. “Nineteenth-century writers often describe people at the time feeling like the cogs and wheels of a vast machine. But there remained some collective memory of the pre-industrial life, which made us seek the unspoiled. That memory is with us still.”
For Cook, the temperance campaigner turned travel magnate who is widely credited with inventing the package tour, taking tourism to the masses was a project both capitalist and egalitarian. “God’s earth, with all its fullness and beauty, is for the people,” he wrote, responding to the elitist sneers that so often pursued his tour groups. Over the coming decades, a consensus grew that the holiday should be a universal right, due recompense for a life of labor. Our very concept of mass movement was assuming a new, voluntary impetus driven not by conquest or coercion but by free will and the pursuit of leisure.
By the 1930s, progressive legislators across the developed world began to introduce statutory paid holiday leave. Léon Blum’s socialist government in France authorized two weeks of paid vacation in 1936. Britain passed the Holidays with Pay Act two years later. After the Second World War, America committed billions of dollars to rebuild the economic capacity of a ravaged Europe, and Marshall Planners plowed investment into hotel building, holiday advertising and subsidized airfares. But any vestige of Thomas Cook abstinence — of the holiday as a vehicle for sobriety and self-improvement — soon evaporated. Henceforward, pleasure and indulgence came to the fore in what would prove to be an eternal cycle: After the tide of upheaval recedes, the wave of hedonism crashes in.
Tourism’s new sybaritic spirit found expression in sun worship. In South Florida and the Mediterranean rivieras, a proliferation of new resorts would become loci for bacchanals, offering the covetable combination of sun, sand, sea and sex. The preferred skin tone was no longer porcelain, connoting the delicacy of sheltered privilege, but “the tan,” a signal of vigor and eroticism. Increasingly, wrote Simon Carter in “Rise and Shine” (2007), sun-browned skin became part of the bourgeoisie’s “cultural repertoire,” a means of showing themselves “distinct from either the ‘debauched’ aristocracy or the ‘disease-ridden’ working classes.”
In turn, an onus on fun and abandon meant lax moral standards and opportunities for the unscrupulous. In 1946, the opening of the Flamingo on an underdeveloped highway in Las Vegas kickstarted the era of the luxury casino. Its bankrollers? A consortium of East Coast gangsters led by Bugsy Siegel. This would prefigure a common pattern in resort development. No matter its provenance, capital was always welcome at the tourism frontier, where eager, transient punters seeking fun and frolics were willing to look the other way.
Throughout the decades, tourism continued to provoke the disdain of jaundiced commentators. D. H. Lawrence, writing to his friend Mary Cannon after an unhappy spell in Lombardy, described travel as “a splendid lesson in disillusion.” Vladimir Nabokov channeled a similar ennui through his character Humbert Humbert’s summary of a yearlong American road trip in “Lolita”: “We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing.” Evelyn Waugh pinioned the traveler’s habitual self-regard in six words: “The tourist is the other fellow.”
As the acceleration of mass travel started to irrevocably alter landscapes both social and geographical, these anxieties redoubled. In “The Image” (1962), his critique about the rise of artificiality in America, Daniel J. Boorstin portrayed tourism as an arena increasingly pervaded by “pseudo-events,” the reductive illusions that now plagued a consumerist society. Hotels were homogenizing, becoming “models of American modernity and antisepsis.” The purpose-built tourist attraction was “an artificial product to be consumed in the very places where the real thing is free as air.” What was left, he claimed, was merely a soulless residue of reality: “The American tourist in Japan looks less for what is Japanese than for what is Japanesey.”
To Boorstin, whose thesis prefigured the intellectual despair of late-century Postmodernists, the innovations and changes that were making travel cheaper and more widely available were simultaneously anesthetizing people to the challenge and happenstance that made it all worthwhile. In “Come Fly with Me,” released in 1958, Frank Sinatra’s velvet voice ushered in the jet age, depicting the quickening process of transcontinental flight as a dream space in which travelers could simply “float down to Peru” and “beat the birds down to Acapulco Bay.” Long-distance movement, once the work of weeks and months by land and sea, had become stupefying in its speed and ease.
The mobsters’ Vegas would soon evolve into the apotheosis of this surreality. Mega-casinos themed around historical treasures — Venetian canals, Egyptian pyramids, of course the Eiffel Tower — appeared as little more than backdrops to hermetic gambling halls. In bringing the world to their customers, the casinos reduced it to a vulgar caricature.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the east’s tilt towards consumer capitalism, the whole world opened up to the tourist. The number of people taking foreign vacations every year continued to climb rapidly — from 69 million in 1960 to 286 million in 1980 to almost 1.5 billion in 2019.
Amidst it all, a growing nag: a suspicion that all this going and seeing was devouring the very diversity it professed to covet, a snake eating its own tail. “International tourism is like King Midas in reverse,” wrote Louis Turner and John Ash in “The Golden Hordes” (1975), “a device for the systematic destruction of everything that is beautiful in the world.”
In “Overbooked” (2013), the journalist Elizabeth Becker traced the first true realization of tourism’s vast economic consequence to the founding of the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), a business forum for some of the industry’s biggest players, which held its first annual meeting in 1991. Previously, there had been a reluctance to acknowledge the industry’s importance, as if travel, with its inherent carefree and escapist overtones, was beneath sober assessment.
Soon after its inauguration, the WTTC commissioned the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School to develop a means of substantiating tourism’s economic contribution as a whole. By the turn of the millennium, the statisticians had refined a formula known as the Tourism Satellite Account system (TSA), which could consolidate the economic value of multifarious tourist-dependent industries — hotels, airlines, agents, vendors and more, all operating in different currencies and across borders — into an aggregate dollar amount. “Its calculations were nothing short of a revelation,” Becker wrote.
By 2019, as the TSA revealed, tourism accounted for 10.4% of global GDP and 334 million jobs worldwide. A combination of individualism, technological advancement and a hardening ethical consensus built around the pursuit of happiness had transformed the tourist gaze into one of the most valuable commodities on Earth. What many tended to dismiss as a frivolous sideshow in fact ranked among the biggest industries in the world.
Today, the comforting bromide we tell ourselves to counteract any unease about the burgeoning scale of travel remains unchanged. At its heart, any celebration of it is founded on an ethical ideal that a global human heritage should be open to everyone, exempt from the private marketplace. As the anthropologist Dean MacCannell has written: “The inclusiveness and openness of the modern tourist compact is twinborn with the modern project of democracy.”
Why, then, does the modern figure of the tourist find themselves forever anathematized? “Animal imagery seems their inevitable lot,” wrote the cultural critic Jonathan Culler. “They are said to move in droves, herds, swarms or flocks; they are as mindless and docile as sheep but as annoying as a plague of insects.”
In “The Tourist Gaze” (1990), among the most seminal modern works on the social theory of tourism, John Urry explained how the democratic ideal of tourism was subject to multiple complicating factors. Chief among them was space. The view might be free, but the context for its appreciation, and often the very survival of the environment, is indivisible from its finite geography. (Three decades later, it is notable that many of the places most synonymous with “overtourism” are definitively circumscribed: Venice by its canals, Dubrovnik by its medieval walls.)
In this analysis, much of the problem with modern travel is spatial and aesthetic — a tragedy of appearances. Behold Angkor, built by generations of master stonemasons as a seat of gods and kings, the divine metropole of an empire that dominated Southeast Asia for 600 years. And here, centuries later, is a 50-strong tour group in matching baseball caps, murmurating at the behest of a tannoy-wielding guide, jostling to take their identikit photos of the sunset over the moat while their very presence threatens to precipitate the temples’ subsidence into the mud.
Here is tourism’s intractable contemporary paradox — that the democratization of our geographical and cultural riches too often precipitates their ruination. Again and again, tourism sacralizes the objects of its gaze, then desecrates them with footprints.
A crowd’s contaminating tendency does not necessarily correspond to weight of numbers, but how those numbers behave. People abroad are people at play, and the anonymity of being far from home invites disinhibition. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, so the maxim goes, and this inevitably means that holidays often provoke our most gluttonous, selfish and ignorant impulses. Camera phones have turned every tourist into a potential chronicler of the profane, meaning that each instance of touristic barbarism is now caught on film. Hence, in a video of a man scratching his initials into the nearly 2,000-year-old masonry of the Colosseum or a woman’s smiling selfie at Auschwitz, we see all of human perfidy distilled.
Age-old observations about the narcissistic tendencies of travel — of tourism as a means of self-actualization and a marker of status — have only been amplified by digital phenomena as more layers of mediation pile on top of those that came before. Each revolution designed to make travel more accessible and convenient seems, in time, to exact lamentable collateral costs. Airbnb-style rentals hollow out the very neighborhoods their users profess to cherish. Google Maps, online translators and internet reviews diminish host-visitor interaction and nullify the process of getting lost that is a non-negotiable precondition of serendipitous discovery.
The appetite for self-delusion foreshadowed by the Claude Glass — for manipulating the object of the tourist gaze until it subscribes to preconceived desires — has become universalized. People converge on celebrated sites, taking turns to have their photo taken at the viewpoint, while out of shot a queue of other aspiring influencers await their turn. What is this if not travel as pure aesthetic performance? The poser knows that the romantic communion with the view — the golden-hour light, the sibilant surf — was fatally marred by the impatient multitude off-stage. Only the Instagram follower, seeing the soft-filtered image, is fooled.
“Travel turns us into the worst version of ourselves while convincing us that we’re at our best,” the philosopher Agnes Callard wrote in an essay titled “A Case Against Travel” in The New Yorker last June. Citing misanthropic antecedents from Emerson to Pessoa, Callard portrayed travel as an exercise in mimesis and banal one-upmanship. Whatever a traveler’s professed motives, she argued, they are more truthfully engaged in the most egocentric pursuit imaginable: escaping (or at least postponing) the “certainty of annihilation.” By removing us from the routine of domestic life, travel disguises the ineluctable fact of mortality “in a narrative about how you are doing many exciting and edifying things: you are experiencing, you are connecting, you are being transformed, and you have the trinkets and photos to prove it.”
Meanwhile, the closed environments decried by Boorstin continue to multiply. In recent decades, the fastest growing sector in tourism has been arguably its most mediated, the cruise, where customers can enjoy Italian food with a Jamaican sunset, then go ice-skating in the morning. It’s a floating pseudo-event that does nothing so much as echo Humbert Humbert: You have been to the Caribbean. You have been nowhere at all.
“None of the folderol about finding oneself,” Becker wrote about the burgeoning desert playground of Dubai, “or disappearing from the troubled world to discover anew the beauty of Mother Nature or the wisdom of an exotic culture.” Here is travel completely detached from the “tourism compact” of democratic ideals and curiosity, characterized as much by labor exploitation and offshored profits as the visitors’ incuriosity about where they are. And people are becoming desensitized to the fakery the more it becomes the norm. According to Google Ngram, use of the phrase “tourist trap,” which grew in lockstep with the explosion of tourism between the 1960s and 2004, has since dropped by about a third.
Out in the real world, there persists a sense that every tourist cheapens the objects they light upon. The more the crowd swells, the more value is placed on bypassing it. Each stride in travel’s democratization persuades some people, keen to advertise their discernment, to seek yet more esoteric, “bespoke,” brag-worthy experiences. The wreckage of a century-old travel disaster like the Titanic latterly becomes yet another diversion for multimillionaires to seek out, sometimes with catastrophic consequences. War, genocide, poverty, industrial decline, nuclear fallout: all become valid objects for the tourist’s gaze in its thirst for originality and “authenticity.”
As MacCannell wrote: “Tourism, leisure and travel are the fastest growing and most profitable sectors of the global economy because of their easy adaptability to neoliberal economic schemes that seek to transform every aspect of human existence into a commodity.”
The contradictions pile up. The traveler is a paragon of curiosity and generosity of spirit; the tourist is a facile automaton, a constituent of a witless herd. Travel is an expression of democratic freedom and the economic lifeblood for millions; tourism is an instrument of capitalist expropriation, an engine of inequality. The act of travel opens the heart and the mind to the lives of others, but it can equally be regarded as an exercise in selfishness, pursued for the accrual of personal gratification and cultural capital. Travel was better when there were fewer people doing it, but saying so out loud is nothing but snobbery.
It is impossible to count how many communities worldwide are caught on the horns of these dilemmas. Last summer’s terrible wildfires on the Hawaiian island of Maui, to take one stark example, exposed tourism as a Faustian bargain in which local calls for tourists to stay away were quickly followed by petitions for them to return.
Today, we are witnessing this endless tug-of-war between selfish desire and moral doubt culminate in the whispered sentiment, at once covetous and perverse, of tourists in an age of collapse: See it now before it’s gone.
One morning in early November, I walked into the west entrance of the ExCel Centre, a giant hangar in east London. A Mexican band in traditional dress was playing in the atrium, serenading a crescent of onlookers with their phones out, filming. It was day one of the World Travel Market, an annual expo where travel agents, vendors and marketers congregate to glad-hand and cut deals, and where, I hoped, some indication of tourism’s future might be divined.
This year, the country with the glitziest stand, and one of the event’s major sponsors, was Saudi Arabia. The kingdom’s section of the cavernous exhibition space was wrapped in 20-foot-high video screens showing footage of desert scenery and Red Sea fauna. Functionaries in pristine thobes served aromatic tea from golden ewers to passersby.
My eye was drawn to an elevated section of the display. A tanned man in outdoor gear, holding a pair of skiing poles, stood beside an architectural mock-up of a gigantic multi-level resort capped with a tapering white dome. This was the ski village Trojena, currently under development in Saudi Arabia’s mountainous northwest corner. It forms one part of Neom, the much-vaunted “giga project” that is central to the country’s ambition to attract 70 million international visitors a year by 2030. Like Vegas and Dubai before it, a stretch of desert has become a blank slate for a Promethean enterprise, the realization of a lurid fantasy. Much of the region, including the ski village, is due to start welcoming guests in 2026. Upon that sweeping white roof, a network of pistes will operate year-round.
“It’ll use a mixture of real and fake snow,” the man with the poles explained. “Most ski resorts use some fake snow nowadays,” he added, with a shrug.
“So you’re a ski instructor?” I asked.
“Oh, no, I’ve never been,” he said, sheepishly. “I just look the part.”
Nearby, a tall screen previewed another component of Neom’s purpose-built paradise. The video toggled between jungled coastlines, some Greco-Roman ruins and a row of Moai on Easter Island. “Islands … home to advanced civilizations,” a caption announced. Then the screen faded to black, and a landscape erupted from the picture in a matrix of fiery lines — “a new world is unveiled” — like a continent being born from lava. Out of this primordial cauldron sprang the outline of Sindalah, Neom’s island development, with futuristic lodgings surrounding a nine-hole golf course. Cut to a superyacht gliding through a calm sea. A snorkeler chased a turtle, fireworks exploded, a chef garnished a plate of haute cuisine with a purple flower. The caption read: “An island where you can be the hero of your own story,” and I imagined Boorstin turning in his grave.
A few days earlier I’d spoken to Ian Yeoman, a futurist at the Dutch university NHL Stenden who has spent two decades writing and teaching about tourism futures and scenario-planning for national tourist boards. The future of travel, he believes, is likely to be shaped by two perennial but now accelerating forces: “the culture of fear,” an anxiety that foreign places are becoming scarier, less enticing, which is exacerbated by the invasive tenor of digital culture; and “the assault on pleasure,” the idea that, in an era of growing panic about overconsumption, leisure travel — unnecessary, conspicuous — is destined to become increasingly stigmatized.
Yeoman foresaw that these social forces had the capacity to steer tourism toward several divergent pathways. The potential future that had haunted me since I began researching this story, and which seemed to be embodied by the kind of purpose-built luxury monoculture gestating at Neom, represented “the path to exclusivity.” This would be “a very volatile world, where wealth in the middle class has fundamentally eroded,” Yeoman told me. “Tourism will continue in clusters of gated communities, but it’s basically tourism for the rich — apartheid tourism.”
A rosier forecast was embodied in what Yeoman called “adaptive masses,” a future in which the tourism marketplace responds wholesale to customers’ growing demands for ethicality. Maybe the incipient forces of degrowth and mandated sustainability that are taking hold in some over-touristed destinations become mainstream. Yeoman was optimistically adamant that this would be the eventual trajectory. After all, if tourism’s defining characteristic is its shape-shifting versatility, surely the right confluence of consumer demand and sage policy could twist the kaleidoscope until it settles on something better.
I explained my bleaker intuition that tourism’s history suggested a gathering momentum toward meaninglessness, in which the incurious and self-indulgent side of travel was given free rein, but then the professor interjected: “Can you imagine if we stopped going on holiday?”
Yeoman is an avowed science-fiction fan; he proposed another possible future. As artificial intelligence evolves, it could reach a point of “technological singularity,” wherein experiences within a digital metaverse are sensorially indistinguishable from reality. “It would be like the Holodeck in Star Trek,” he said.
Such a scenario would yield some obvious benefits, he went on. All of the environmental degradation wrought by tourism? Reset to zero. Perfect conditions wherever and whenever you want? Yours at the press of a button. “Go to Amsterdam and have sex with a prostitute in the red-light district,” said Yeoman, highlighting sex tourism as one of the industry’s most abject symptoms. “But there’s no human trafficking, no H.I.V. There’s no issues of morality.”
In the meantime, though, the costs would be unconscionable. What the thought experiment served to underscore was the extent to which tourism has become more than just one of several economic options for places with little else to sell. Oftentimes, it is the only option. For every hermetic purpose-built playground there are a thousand older and more precious communities that, having lost whatever economic purpose might have led to their original establishment and growth, had bet the house on foreign visitors. Shorn of those visitors’ gaze, there was a chance that such places — our most prized natural and cultural treasures among them — would simply atrophy.
Endless quandaries surfaced in my mind. Without tourists, there would be no more safari vehicles bundling across the savannah to rubberneck at animals, it’s true. But would the national park still exist? And what is worse: the tourist with a telephoto lens or the poacher with a gun? For somewhere to matter, it had to be beheld, Yeoman insisted. “If you want people to genuinely care about a place, they need to make the physical effort to go there,” he said. Would anyone bother to repaint the Eiffel Tower, or would it be left to rust?
Drifting among the stalls at the ExCel Centre, I was at a loss to predict where the circus was heading. I only knew that it would continue, in one form or another, for as long as people have agency and borders stay open — and that it will always be fraught, for one person’s respite would forever be another’s bane.
In the afternoon, I entered one of the side stages, cordoned off from the main exhibition space by a black curtain. Up on the dais, travel company executives and thought leaders were holding forth on tourism’s sustainability problem. Over and again, speakers stepped up to vaunt exemplars of best practice from around the world, but I couldn’t help but notice that all of these laudable case studies were niche, with customers in the dozens and none of the terraforming heft of the Saudi destination-builders out on the floor.
A spokesperson from California laid out the stakes. No one in the Golden State could be in any doubt about the shelf-life of the current tourism model, he explained. With each passing season, California’s glorious landscapes, not to mention its very habitability, were coming under greater threat from wildfires, drought, floods, rising sea levels. “Next year, California is bringing in a ban on hotels using plastic toiletry bottles,” he said.
Somewhere at the back of the auditorium, someone stifled a laugh.