I had planned to write about something else today. I had planned to write about Jordan, a country I have recently visited, a country with one of the richest cultures on earth. A country whose tourism is suffering hugely because of how people wrongly associate it with the tragedies afflicting its neighbours – the likes of Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia. However much this peaceful Islamic country tries to tell the stories of its culture, it can’t get past a story of fear.
But I can’t. That will have to wait a week or two. Because there’s another story of fear that I can’t get past. I have to write something about Brexit. And yet the news is too new and events moving too fast for me to make any real sense of it.
Indeed, to write about tourism in this context can feel trite. To talk of holidays and hotels seems so far removed from what really matters. Then again I know that at 1am on Friday morning, when I realised it was going the way I didn’t want it to, my first act was to panic buy Euros, so my holiday to France this July would be OK.
Since then, I have read many articles about tourism and Brexit. Some say that now is a great time to go to London, because prices will be so cheap. Others worry about the impact on the capital city as a transport hub should visa controls return. Or claim the third runway at Heathrow is ‘dead in the water’.
A few talk of the potential human cost. Of the 70% of jobs in London hotels that are staffed by immigrants from the EU. Or the impact on the likes of Spain, where British tourists make up around 25% of the total number of visitors to the country each year.
All of these narratives will ebb and flow in the months and years to come. However, what really worries me is the impact on how we perceive and treat those foreigners whom we encounter, at home and abroad.
In the days since the referendum there have been stories about a rise in racial abuse of immigrants in the UK. Those dishing out the abuse on the street or in the queue at the newsagent don’t pause to differentiate between second generation resident, recently arrived refugee or holidaying foreigner. If someone looks or sounds ‘different’, they risk becoming a target. Whether England is a country you call home, or one you send your clients to, this should be the greatest cause for concern.
As George Orwell wrote back in 1941, in his essay England your England, “The insularity of the English, their refusal to take foreigners seriously, is a folly that has to be paid for very heavily from time to time. But it plays its part in the English mystique, and the intellectuals who have tried to break it down have generally done more harm than good. At bottom it is the same quality in the English character that repels the tourist and keeps out the invader.”
Our industry relies on openness to, interest in and respect for foreigners. There is much we can do – look for example at those travel companies working to support migrants and refugees that I have written about on this blog before – to promote these values. If responsible tourism ever had a time to be responsible – to live up to its mantra of making better places for people to live, better places for people to visit – it is now. The alternative is too grim to imagine.