Glacier Tours and Pizza: Tourism's Booming, Pity About the Planet

Sick in Dubrovnik as tourists throng, irked in Iceland, bleak in Barcelona: 'Why call it tourism season if we can’t shoot them?'

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People form a human chain during a protest against tourism in Barcelona, Spain, Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017.
People form a human chain during a protest against tourism in Barcelona, Spain, Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017.Credit: Manu Fernandez, AP
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

It’s those final lazy, hazy days of August and if you're Israeli, the odds are good that you’re reading this in some other country, or on a plane. In the first seven months of the year, the number of Israelis traveling abroad grew 12% to 4.1 million.

As Israelis fly out, a flood of tourists flies in: More than 2 million arrived in the first seven months of 2017, a 24% increase from the year before.

Tourism to and from Israel has been growing for reasons unique to this nation, one being the 2013 Open Skies reforms that lowered airfares and encouraged more airlines to fly more routes. Meanwhile, foreign tourists seem to have put the Protective Edge campaign in Gaza and the rockets attacks in 2014 behind them.

But the fact is tourism is booming all over the world.

In the first half of the year, the number of people taking vacations outside their home countries rose 6% to 369 million, according to the World Tourism Organization. Except for the most remote and/or war-torn areas, it seems like nothing will deter determined travelers. Even as North Korea is threatening to launch nuclear warheads at Guam, The New York Times reports that the Pacific Island’s beaches and hotels are crowded with Japanese and (South) Korean tourists. Arrivals are up 3% from a year ago this month.

Can't shoot 'em

In fact, tourism has grown so big that this summer that backlash has developed in many of the favorite places.

Barcelona featured Gaudi architecture and angry protests against the tourists overwhelming the city, including graffiti asking, “Why call it tourism season if we can’t shoot them?” Last week’s terror attack changed the agenda, but in response to the public pressure, Barcelona is weighing a tourism tax.

Rome is considering restricting entry to top attractions like the Trevi Fountain. Meanwhile, the beautiful town of Dubrovnik in Croatia, and its population of something over 42,000, want to put a cap on the cruise ships that dock and , disgorge thousands of visitors at one time.

These visitors take over the streets, beaches, cafes and bars. In Dubrovnik, a walk through the old town's 300-meter-long pedestrian zone can take 40 minutes in peak season, Reuters reports. Its residents flee to escape the crowds, traffic jams and noise.

DubrovnikCredit: Moshe Gilad

The protestors are upset about crowding and nuisance, but they should be just as angry over what tourism does to their cities and countryside – injecting a sameness and sterility to across the globe. You can shop at the same stores, buy the same brands and eat the same food whether you’re in Bangkok, Paris, Buenos Aires and Seattle.

You can also find local produced knickknacks and sample local cuisine, but it’s all tamed and adjusted to meet the needs of visitors who don’t want things to be too different than they are at home. Sure, we’ll spend a few hours visiting the temples at Angkor Wat, but then we want pizza for lunch.

The fast plane from China

In any case, the protests are in vain. The WTO says the answer does not lie in shooing tourists away but in sustainable tourism. Also, travelers should respect local culture, it says.

The business of tourism, however, is far too big for nice ideas like this to have much of an impact. The number of global travelers is going to grow relentlessly, if for no other reason than giant countries like China and India are growing wealthier, and as they do, their people want to see the world just like European and Americans, who were once the only ones who could afford travel.

The number of outbound tourists from China grew 6% in in 2016. That’s about the same rate as worldwide growth, but for China, 6% in absolute terms is massive. The country has been the No. 1 source of outbound tourism since 2012, and accounted for 135 million of the world’s 1.2 billion tourist arrivals last year. India is following the same trajectory.

It not only means that places like Paris and Venice will become even more crowded, but that tourism will have to spread out to new destinations once off the beaten track. The homogenizing effect of tourism will steamroll over everything in its way. The environment will suffer more as more planes, buses and cruise ships assault nature itself.

In that context, The New York Times merrily reported this week about the development of tourism in western Iceland’s once neglected Husafell region. Iceland has seen the number of tourists swell from 308,000 in 2003 to 1.8 million last year. To sustain that level of growth the industry has to provide visitors with things to do and places to stay.

In Husafell, the big draw is an Into the Glacier tour that starts with a trek across the snow in eight-wheel-drive trucks followed by a descent by foot into a network in tunnels carved out of the Langjokull glacier. They spend the night at the luxury Hotel Husafell, and dine on reindeer and hamburger. A spa is being planned.

Langjokull is doomed to extinction due to climate change, but one can’t help imagine that hordes of tourists scurrying about inside are hastening the melting process, even if back at home they shop at Whole Foods and make an annual contribution to Friends of the Earth. But just try and stop them.