Analysis: mass tourism is beginning to reach a stage where the costs to the location far outweigh the benefits

Tourism sells experiences distinct from our workaday life, fulfils dreams, creates long-lasting memories and allows us to discover our latent talents. We travel for pleasure, excitement and the opportunity to meet new people. We go away to learn, escape boredom and be challenged. Travel is about bucket lists as well as relaxation. Research shows we want to be entertained and kept safe.

At its best, tourism is about hospitality. It contributes to the well-being of tourists and provides economic dividends to destination communities, while promoting peace and intercultural understanding. Its antecedents are pilgrimages and town twinning.

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From RTÉ Archives, Tom MacSweeney reports for RTÉ News on falling tourist numbers in Kerry in 1992

At its worst, tourism commandeers and privatises scarce resources and public goods to deliver profits to the shareholders of international corporations. Mass tourism, an aggregate of several industries, has a huge carbon footprint and generates massive waste. It is predicated on speed, rapid turnover of guests, and low price. But low price does not mean low cost and the price we pay for tourism and travel will only reflect the true cost of our holidays when such externalities as pollution, biodiversity loss and carbon emissions are taken into account.

Overtourism has generated a backlash in Europe. Like many similar industries, tourism is entering a stage where the costs outweigh the benefits. The damage it has inflicted on the social and natural worlds is increasingly resented by citizens worldwide.

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From RTÉ 2fm's Dave Fanning Show, Sam Tranum from Dublin Inquirer and Richard Butler, who is researching tourism at Strathclyde University, discuss over-tourism in Ireland and Europe

In Barcelona and Venice, anti-tourism demonstrations led local authorities to limit the number of days that residential property may be rented out on Airbnb. The 'tourists go home, refugees welcome' protest which began in Barcelona raises huge issues which we cannot keep ignoring.

Gated hotel resorts confer very little benefit to local communities while extracting significant value and repatriating profits. Financial investments in planes, ships, resorts and hotels risk becoming stranded assets if they were to be deemed unsustainable - which they increasingly are. The niche sustainable offerings, such as ecotourism and voluntourism, have been described as a response to the criticism rather than a response to the problem.

The Global Plan for Nature calls for the protection of 30% of the planet from us, with a buffer zone of up to 20%. This is an appropriate response to the ecological emergency and one which will seriously restrict tourism. Companies in some jurisdictions have more rights in law than citizens, but this is changing. In 2017, the Whanganui river in New Zealand and the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in India were each granted the status of living entities. Meanwhile a campaign to make ecocide a crime before the International Criminal Court alongside genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression is gaining ground in Europe.

We need less tourism development and more development tourism

In Dennis O'Rourke’s poignant film Cannibal Tours, a villager in Papua New Guinea comments that tourists only buy her crafts and pay to take photographs inside the Spirit House and not while wandering around her village. The tourists haggle: an elder selling beautifully crafted wood work is unhappy being asked for a second price and even a third price when he does not get a second price in the town. The villagers are keenly aware of the inequality and wealth disparity and they cannot visit the homes of the rich tourists.

The Irish Government has yet to acknowledge the inability of a family to fund an annual one-week domestic holiday as a marker of poverty. On the other hand, the International Social Tourism Organisation, of which Ireland is not a member, advocates for tourism for all while respecting the capacity of the environment to cope. This is an expression of solidarity with host communities, a strong preference for fair business practices in the global and local economies and which enhances tourists' quality of life.

We need less tourism development and more development tourism. We need to align tourism with the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. These are nothing if not a promise to be kept. The instantly recognisable image tells the story of a family whose hopes for a life without hunger or poverty, depend on health and well-being, education, gender equality, clean water and energy, work, infrastructure, equality, sustainable communities, responsible consumption, climate action, biodiversity in water and on land, achieved by partnership governance.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Mooney Goes Wild, Éanna Ní Lamhna visits a new sustainable tourism initiative at Avondale Forest Park in Co. Wicklow

Critics of neo-liberal globalisation offer alternative visions of tourism, such as slow tourism, which follows the slow food and Cittaslow movements. Slow tourism is partly motivated by anti-commercialisation and is a longing for enrichment and true recreation in the context of time poverty. Once measured by sun up and sun down, time is now commodified. Stress, superficial engagement, loss of control, meaning and even self inspires the desire to slow down.

If we cannot stop tourism, we must rethink it. Slow eco-tourism would fuse social and environmental justice. Maybe we need only change our minds and identify ourselves as citizens rather than as consumers to change the habits of our everyday life and ultimately our lifestyles.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ