I remember the first time that tourism left an indelible imprint on me. It was 2004, and I was but a young South African architecture student who had followed her wanderlust to dive the famous Straits of Tiran. An experience not to be missed for those who love blowing bubbles underwater. But as amazing as the underwater world was, I distinctly recall the dissonance that rolled around my stomach as I stood on deck. Surveying how alien and inhospitable the megalith hotel shoreline looked amidst the exquisite beauty of desert melding into crystalline sea. This feeling of discord grew when I travelled back to shore with my Bedouin friend and got to experience not the glossy frontend of the travel product sold to tourists, but the messy backend life of those who live to service it.
The complete disparity between the manufactured tourism experience on the one hand, and the environment and its people on the other, struck a deep and resonating chord in me. One that resulted in a colourful journey from architecture and urban design into the realm of sustainable tourism development. And one that sparked an infatuated curiosity with how we can better design for the impacts that we do, and do not want.
I cannot help but reflect on this memory as the #buildbackbetter wave starts to gather momentum, because the nagging disquiet that I felt that day in Sharm el Sheik has not disappeared. In fact, if I am to be completely honest with you, the more I have worked in the field of sustainable tourism the more this unease has grown.
Why you ask?
Because this singular focus on sustainability as the answer, presupposes that unsustainability is the problem. And that is where it all starts to unravel. Don't get me wrong I am not saying that sustainability is not incredibly important in how we manage the resources that tourism is dependent on for its survival. What I am saying is that no amount of greening operations is going to fix an underlying fault.
If it could surely we would have succeeded by now?
So what is the problem with tourism?
The problem is that tourism is not plugged in to its environment. It is developed as if it exists as a separate entity in a silo of its own. It is developed with little regard of the multi-layered ecosystem that it inhabits. And I am not just talking about the natural ecosystem. That is just one element. Our built environment is a complex organism comprised of a host of inter-woven and inter-related elements. No single element can exist in isolation. Change in one has repercussions on the next, just like a natural ecosystem. What happens when tourism is not integrated into this complex organism, and is instead developed as if it was just a cosmetic addition, is that we end up with a malfunctioning system.
What does this mean? Let’s take Amsterdam for example. A city that has attracted tourists in droves to get high at “coffee shops” and excited in the red light district. According to the textbook Amsterdam suffers from “overtourism,” which presupposes that the cure is less tourists. However, if one looks deeper at the problem one can see that the real problem is not that Amsterdam has exceeded its carrying capacity for tourists.
The problem is that tourism has been approached as if it has no impact on the lived experience of the city. And over the years as tourism has grown, more and more streets, shops and buildings have been taken away from locals and set aside to cater purely to tourists. One can understand the frustration of locals who have essentially witnessed their city being hijacked right from underneath their feet. The repercussions have impacted daily life, service delivery, infrastructure, transport, the urban environment, real estate, property prices, local business economics, community, culture, identity, politics, the list goes on and on.
The issue here is not overtourism, and the cure is not sustainability. That's like sticking a band-aid on a broken leg. The issue is that tourism has been developed as if it exists in a silo, and the cure is to integrate tourism into the ecosystem of the city so that it contributes to the lived experience of place rather than destroying it.
3 key ways this can be achieved is by:
Bringing multi-disciplinary teams to together to plan and design tourism so that all aspects of the ecosystem can be considered and designed for.
Investigating how tourism can service the city rather than tourists so that it creates better places for us to live, not just visit.
Injecting localism into the DNA of tourism, not just adding it as a product "flavour of the month."