I drive buses; often for days at a time; carrying literally hundreds people: up and down Scotland. The movement of people has never been so fluid. For those in a privileged position to afford it, there is an incessant need to venture further a field to more remote, secluded and scenic destinations.
This is becoming ever more difficult. Since the explosion of mass tourism in the 1950’s the numbers of people traveling overseas has grown exponentially. And as economies in both China and India stabilise and grow, the number of tourists projected to arrive in the coming season is set to surpass all previous records.
What we are experiencing in Scotland is the saturation of locations exposed to mass tourism. The hyper-connectivity of modern-day social media has casts loops around the planet, allowing once secret locations to be picked up, highlighted, and shared within seconds. Previously local hotspots have become common knowledge. And it is having a detrimental affect on community and environment.
In order to go forward with tourism we must first go back. It is worth understanding that the mass free movement of (certain groups of) people is a relatively new paradigm. Prior to this travel was largely in the context of exploration. White males, circumnavigating the globe, largely on voyages of discovery and conquer. Unsurprisingly modern-day tourism feels intertwined with a colonial past. Individuals taking more than they give.
Nowadays people are increasingly searching for connection and commonality with strangers. Instead of this taking shape through the sharing of customs and traditions, it tends to be exploited through the commodification of a people or a place. Passengers behaving like crazed crows, gathering tartan clad trinkets and faux cashmere, attempting to knit kinship in a foreign country.
Through sustained commodification, traditions loose all meaning. It encourages acculturation as heritage is replaced by habit, replaced by way. And this is even more pronounced in developing countries ‘westernised’ by tourism. Older cultures and more vulnerable people swept under the path of mass tourism. Instilling the belief that things should be ‘had’ rather than ‘seen’, as people find themselves clawing to preserve rich experience through low quality tat.
Daily I’m confronted to both the absolute beauty of tourism and its atrocities. Everything from the defiant Selfie Stick jammed in the face of cultural appropriation, to the tender experience of watching people view the magnificence of Neist Point for the first time. There are moments of serendipity and lasting connection with people who only recently wouldn’t have had the opportunity to travel here, to moments of poor choice, cultural insensitivity, and environmentally damaging behaviour.
It is now being discussed whether so-called ‘Sustainable Tourism’ can exist. This is particularly pressing in developing countries were the propensity for exploitation, corruption and cultural degradation is far more pertinent. Though in Scotland you don’t need to look far to see the corrosive effects of tourism.
Change must come two-fold. Primarily we need a top-down approach. Policies implemented by government and maintained by local community, working in tandem together. There should be guidance over visitor numbers, and adequate reinvestment of profit into improving infrastructure. Communities and environment should be protected, shared and enjoyed were possible.
The second wave of change must come from us. As thing are set to increase before they plateau, we must be conscious and clear as to why we are visiting a country (especially developing). Asking always if we would still travel there if we couldn’t bring a camera. And being informed over local issues, or at least prepared to listen.
As a tour guide I have unearthed the beauty in my own country. It is understandable why so many find themselves booked to visit Scotland. And it has opened up a myriad of potential trips and adventures for myself that do not require international travel. That said I would always encourage those who want to travel overseas – to do so -providing they are clear about their impact.
Travel has the capacity to broaden one’s mind. It is an important aspect of how in an increasingly global context we can begin to be not just tolerant but accepting of different peoples and cultures. It might just be the way in which the integration of people and ideas begin to truly take station.
When faced with the challenge of mass tourism, woven deeply into the hardware of a technological era, we are met with a complex and vastly interdependent problem. It is therefore important that we begin to shape a new narrative of tourism. One that promotes the sharing of ideas and education. One that stands defiant against the rampant culture of consumersim. Only when people are aware of exploitation and erosion of tourism then we can start building the pieces of a society that is conscious on leaving the smallest footprint.