The big idea: is tourism bad for us?

The big idea: is tourism bad for us?
Illustration by Elia Barbieri

In 2019, the United Nations World Tourism Organization reported that international travel had increased to a record 1.4 billion tourist arrivals. It predicted a 3% to 4% annual increase in coming years. That didn’t happen, of course. At the end of 2021, international tourist arrivals were 72% below pre-pandemic levels with 1 billion fewer arrivals than two years earlier.

This is despite airlines’ ingenuity. During Australian lockdown, Qantas organised flights to nowhere: one left Sydney for a fly-by tour of Byron Bay and the Gold Coast, the Great Barrier Reef and Uluru; another in May last year took passengers to 43,000ft to see the blood-red supermoon.

According to UNWTO’s executive director, Zoritsa Urosevic, tourism has been the sector hit hardest by Covid-19 and, while countries such as China were able to switch to domestic tourism, smaller nations such as Fiji, where tourism represents between 40% and 70% of GDP, fared far worse. The pandemic put an estimated 120m tourism jobs at risk.

The organisation reckons that by 2024 international tourism will have returned to pre-pandemic levels. Surely that is a good thing. “There hasn’t been a war in Europe for 50 years because they’re all too busy flying on Ryanair,” the airline’s Michael O’Leary once told me. “I should get the Nobel peace prize – screw Bono.”

If Covid’s impact ameliorates as hoped, it will be replaced by a new virus – wanderlust. Millennials, according to one survey, would rather travel than have sex – and not only because they’re probably doing the latter wrong.

Great Britain’s tourist board, VisitBritain, makes a strong economic case for tourism: its impact is amplified through the economy because for every £1,000 generated in direct tourism, a further £1,800 arises thanks to supply chain and consumer spending. In that context, it is not just our pleasure but our duty to help out Britain’s beleaguered Basil Fawltys and their Fijian equivalents.

This is an excerpt from an article by Stuart Jeffries, originally published by The Guardian.

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