Every week it seems, there are more stories about communities around the world banning or limiting tourism in order to protect that which they hold dear. Most recently, it has been the news that three Thai islands have been shut to tourism, with beach umbrellas, shops and restaurants all slated to be removed.
I’d never heard of the islands of Koh Khai Nok, Koh Khai Nui and Koh Khai Nai until this week. When I visited Thailand as a backpacker 25 years ago, it was Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Samui where those of us seeking escape and a good party went. We spoiled them; so we moved on to the next palm-fringed islands in our self-defeating quest for the undiscovered and pristine.
In Iceland, it was reported last week, the government is moving to restrict Airbnb rentals to protect the integrity of its communities. So fast is tourism growing that the country is expected to receive 1.6 million visitors this year, a 29 per cent increase on 2015. Bear in mind that Iceland’s population is just 332,529.
While overall tourism to the country is likely to grow by 29 per cent this year, Airbnb rentals in Iceland were estimated to have increased by 124 per cent in just 12 months. Much of that growth is itself a form of backlash against mainstream tourism, with greater numbers of tourists seeking a more authentic experience and a deeper connection to local culture. Indeed Airbnb’s latest global campaign – known as “Live there” – capitalises on this urge, addressing “the growing dissatisfaction and disappointment which has become increasingly associated with modern day standardised tourist offerings.”
The trouble is, that which began as a backlash against the mainstream is fast becoming the mainstream. The increasingly ubiquitous coffee shops and quirky cafes become filled with international hipsters. The museums and galleries teem with foreign visitors seeking a selfie, with the Botticelli now serving as little more than a backdrop.
And the people that live there? They are vacating their properties and renting them to us instead. As they do the very authenticity we seek becomes hollowed out.
In Greek tragedy this is called Hamartia. It is the fatal flaw in the hero’s personality that sows the seed of his own downfall. Creon was obstinate. Hamlet indecisive. For tourism it is the lure of the authentic place, of somewhere untouched by tourism.
Almost every destination markets itself according to this model, using some form of generic, catch-all appeal to perfection. Everywhere is presented as pure, natural and waiting-to-be-discovered. Even when so-called responsible tourism seeks to present itself as distinct from the mainstream, it mostly does so by reinforcing the same dominant story theme – by accentuating the authentic, and lingering over the local.
It is getting tired. “Brands flogging good taste, with their authentic and artisanal crafts, often use fabricated heritage and falsified narratives to sell their products, and people – when wise to it – just don’t like it,” writes Henrietta Thompson, Editor at Large of the magazine wallpaper*, adding: “It is no longer possible to be all things to all people and as soon as it looks like you might be, rest assured the backlash is already coiled, waiting to strike.
From Iceland to Thailand, Berlin to the Balearics, the latest cycle in this backlash has very much begun. A new narrative is urgently needed if the industry is to avoid turning in on itself and destroying the very resources on which it relies.
Otherwise our story risks ending the same way that tragedies always do.