A Rant About Tourism


Cambridge Market Square. Photograph by inkelv1122

by Jenny Diski

August is the worst month to be living in Cambridge. It’s quite a small town, with a population of about 120,000, very small compared to Gothenburg with 510,000 inhabitants. It has local areas, but the centre is a functioning part of everyone’s life. The market square has had stalls selling its wares since the middle ages, and it still sells everyday necessities like bread, cheese and local vergetables. There’s a farmers’ market every Sunday morning. Nearby is the largest John Lewis department store in the country. If you live in Cambridge you need to go to the central area pretty regularly. If you also work in one of the colleges as a don, a cleaner, gardener, electrician, or a porter, you usually can’t avoid the centre. Most of the colleges are clustered around the ancient centre. Students on cycles ride in packs throughout the day from college to college for supervisions from different dons. It’s a busy, working place. And in August a nightmare. Although to be honest, it’s only really all right in the deepest of the winter months. The local council needs money and there is no easier source of income if you’re a city with a heritage than from tourists. They arrive in coach-loads, which ring the centre, parked up in the narrow medieval roads, waiting for their passengers to return.

The Poet, who works at Queens’ College, just off King’s Parade, a street which is flanked by the low wall of King’s College on one side and a row of tourist shops on the other, but is the main way for anyone to get to the market either to shop or soak in its history. He says it’s like a Tudor battlefield at this time of year. Troops of tourists in crocodile formation march around in every direction, crossing each other like the individual armies of Dukes and Princes, their guides in front holding up a sign so as not to get scattered in the melee. Cardboard notices, umbrellas, flags are all hoist, and the tourist masses follow making a kind of interweaving dance. Except when they stop in the middle of King’s Parade (which is not a pedestrian precinct) to take a photo, usually these days with their iPads, of the gothic frontage of King’s college, or sit in an unbroken line on the low wall eating their packed lunches. One of these days The Poet’s going to be arrested as he gets more and more furious with people stopping dead to enjoy the view and causing him to bump into them. They look offended. They’ve paid to be there, he only lives and works there. Cyclists duck and swerve around the tourists as best they can, trying to get on with their lives, but eventually get off their bikes and try to walk on the completely congested narrow pavements. The market square is unbearable if you want to pop over to it to get supper from the vegetable stalls. The nice lady who sells amazing T-bone steaks from the local Red Poll cattle that graze by right on some of the commons, says you have to be there before 8.30 in the morning because all the American tourists get there and buy her out. Restaurants you might go to for lunch, cafes you would stop at for a quick coffee are full to bursting. John Lewis is heaving with people from overseas buying things they could presumably buy just as well at home. International relations are strained to say the least. The highly multicultural residents of Cambridge fume, often about their own nationals, for making life hell.

Cambridge really needs the tourist yen and dollars, as do most small towns in the United Kingdom, and so do all other much more impoverished parts of the world. Worldwide tourism as it has developed over the 20th and 21st century is a plague of far worse proportions than the  Black Death that swept through 14th century Europe. It can be hard to talk about it because it sounds so close on the one hand to xenophobia and on the other to wealthy elitism. People have a ‘right’ to travel and see the world. If mass transport and better finances mean that millions of people can see Cambridge or Gothenburg or the pyramids, so much the better for equality of opportunity. But so much the worse for local communities which cannot refuse the income but whose way of life is completely devastated.

In the 1960s and 70s I used to travel to the Greek Islands, amazing, empty places most of them, where if you walked inland from the seaside town, you would meet people working the land, husband and wife and a donkey, who had never met anyone beyond their shores and invited you to share their lunch. We would sit and talk as best we could neither party having the other’s language, but it was amiable. We left offering money for our lunch which was or wasn’t accepted. It seemed harmless and as if we were making important connections. It was however the beginning of the destruction of the Greek Islands. Many islanders now live double lives. They have a summer life in the coastal towns as waiters, maids, landlords, cooks, entirely devoted to servicing the tourists, and then in the winter they return to their real villages up in the hills to regain the remnants of a normal life. Lots of people have got rich or have made a decent living from the tourists. But tourists are no longer shy and grateful to share a meal with a local farmer. They want old ways made new and with the comfort that they have paid for. They have expectations.

In the north of Sweden, I spent a week with the Sami people who were trying to publicise the tourist industry that they have decided is the only way they can survive in a money economy which no longer recognises reindeer as a reckoning of wealth and social pride. They need to offer tourist rides in reindeer sleighs and reindeer lunches around the fire in lavuus while someone yoiks, in order to keep their young people within their lands, working in the old ways, but with money in their pockets to buy the things that young people everywhere want.

It’s inevitable, but tragic, I think. I don’t believe that people’s lives would be much the worse if they didn’t spend time with the Sami or queue up in ships to walk over the Antarctic mainland. But I’ve done both. I’ve been very fortunate. Only the very rich or an ‘elite’ of writers and photographers and so on, can get to these places in the early stages, but gradually they become more and more accessible, until people are no longer living their lives, but are performing them, serving the tourists. There is no solution. People need money. Tourism is the way to get it if your unique selling point is a way of life, although your way of life is as good as lost as the tourists increase. And of course people have they right to spend their money as they want and go where they want, don’t they? Don’t they?

Piece crossposted with This and That Continued. Piece originally published in Goteborgs-Posten.

Cover image by Simon Webster