When low-cost air travel was taking off in Europe in the early 1990s, the German and the British ambassadors to Greece used to call each other at the end of each week during the summer, to compare notes on the bad behaviour of the visitors from their countries. No clear winner emerged. Sunburnt Brits and Germans would both get blind drunk, lose their money and passports, wind up in a fight at a beach bar and end the night in one of the Greek islands’ police cells.
Tourism in Europe’s Mediterranean countries is a big business, but it is not loved. It is blamed for polluting the landscape, spoiling the beaches and corrupting the locals’ morals. This is partly the countries’ own doing. In the 1960s the governments of Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece encouraged the building of hotels and other tourist infrastructure, which seemed the fastest way to catch up with the wealthier north. During the 40 years of breakneck development that followed, vast stretches of the Spanish coast were concreted over, transforming the Costa del Sol into the Costa del Concrete and attracting hordes of tourists in search of sun, sea and sand. Some Greek islands have come to resemble a Hellenic Hong Kong, with high-rise hotels and traffic jams.
Some people in tourism made good money, but in recent years even they have started to notice how the ugliness and the noise is keeping visitors away. The government in Madrid grew so concerned that it bought tracts of seaside land itself, to stop developers from getting their hands on it.
THE PACKAGE AND THE BILL
As tourism is about to explode in the developing world, governments should heed such lessons. During the next two decades the growth of tourism in emerging economies will be two or three times that of the developed world (see article). That is something to celebrate. Mass travel is a path to development and one of the fruits of increasing wealth—travel for experience, for food and culture, and for sheer pleasure. Yet it also contains the danger that development will destroy the very thing people have come to enjoy.
Emerging economies are suspicious about the developed world telling them to act responsibly. Why shouldn’t they exploit their natural resources? A pristine hard-to-reach beach with a small exclusive hotel may be just what rich Westerners want; local fishermen would prefer new schools for their children. But with tourism, it is not so clear that rapid development really is in the locals’ economic interest. If their government trashes their natural habitat, it is like an investment manager who pays you big dividends out of your capital. The money is good for a while, but you lose in the long term.
TAKE CARE OF YOUR CAPITAL
That is worth remembering because the lesson from tourism in the West is that nobody keeps an eye on the capital. The bay, the ancient site, the coral reef and the fresh water have no single owner to protect them. The hotelier who raises a 1,000-room monstrosity will pay for the bricks and mortar, but not for scarring the view or wrecking an historic monument.
The question planners in these new markets should ask themselves is where they want tourism in their country to be in 20 years. At the moment tourists from emerging markets have their own tastes. Russians like two weeks on a sunny beach, wild parties and lots of retail therapy. The Chinese prefer urban travel to sea and sand. People from the Gulf states travel in big families and require halal food. Yet, with the progress of economic prosperity they will probably become more like Europeans and Americans, who want scenery, a decent environment and a smattering of history and culture. If you destroy your heritage and scenery, you will come to regret it.
From Mexico comes a cautionary tale. The country’s Caribbean coast was once a natural paradise. Then data were fed into a government computer program. It digested the statistics and spat out the name of a potential touristic gold mine: a spit of sand called Cancún. Today Cancún has nearly 24,000 hotel rooms, roughly 4m visitors a year and an average of 190 flights daily. Mass tourism needs mass development, but don’t pave paradise to put up a parking lot.