“So, Miss Honeychurch, you are travelling? As a student of art?”
“Perhaps as a student of human nature,” interposed Miss Lavish, “like myself?”
“Oh no. I am here as a tourist.”
By the time E. M. Forster published A Room with a View in 1908, ‘tourist’ was already a charged word. Heroine Lucy Honeychurch horrifies her inquisitors when she describes herself as a tourist in Florence. But she reveals to readers the refreshing, artless honesty of her character.
How many of us readily and comfortably use that word ‘tourist’ to describe ourselves when we visit other countries? “I am a traveller; he is a tourist”, so the saying goes. Yet anyone travelling for pleasure, to whatever place and in whatever manner, is a tourist. And why should we be uneasy with the term? All any tourist is doing, after all, is seeing what things are like elsewhere. And bringing wealth to that elsewhere in the process. The tourist’s only sin seems to be enjoying themself while they see the world. Or is it?
As we all know, tourists can create certain problems. In too high a concentration, they can ‘ruin’ the very places they’ve come to see. Increased traffic and hiked local prices are only the beginning. High-season crowds can obscure sights (Rome’s Spanish Steps must lie somewhere beneath all those people…) and reduce thoroughfares to an intolerable crush of bodies (try strolling across Florence’s Ponte Vecchio on an August afternoon). In sufficient numbers, tourists can actually ‘erase’ places – physically wearing objects away or blotting out landscapes with hotels. By consistently outnumbering the local residents, they can dilute a place’s character and alter its identity.
Even if things don’t go this far, tourists can still take away a place’s sparkle by making it seem cliché. They can dampen the experience of future visitors by making them feel unimaginative in going to such a well-visited place. Or embarrassed by the fact that they’ve not seen it already. Long-established tourist activity can make you feel damned if you do visit and damned if you don’t. Have you been to Venice? No? You must be a Philistine. Yes? You must have a herd mentality. Only snobbery could forge such a double-edged sword.
To some people, what is good must by definition be exclusive, and vice versa. With this attitude, places are valuable mainly for the social signals you send out by visiting them. And subtleties are legion. Yes, one must have been to Capri, but one must have been there ‘before it was ruined’. Ruined by what? By being visited. Luckily, the truth is that places which are innately interesting and beautiful cannot be drained of their interest and beauty just because you’re not alone in visiting them. And your choice of destination can only ever reflect well on you – because the desire to absorb somewhere other than home, wherever it is, is always just a little bit noble. So go on, declare yourself a tourist. Be proud of it
Tourists are, quite simply, a force for good in the modern world. They expand their minds with foreign places while giving the people there not un-mind-expanding exposure to foreigners. They value places so highly that inhabitants can’t forget their home is something to be proud of. Their interest in places (and the revenue it brings) provokes local preservation and restoration – the very opposite of ‘erasing’ places. On a tiny scale, tourists even do their bit as Global Snitch. They might bore us all with trivial tales of rudeness, over-charging, and too much dog crap on the streets, but they sometimes open our eyes to social injustice, corruption, and cruelty to animals. None of which, it might later be decided locally, is good for the tourist trade.
And the tourist trade is an almighty job-maker and wealth-spreader. Without tourists, many, many beautiful places worldwide would be impoverished, depopulated, or changed beyond recognition by much heavier industries. After the arms trade, tourism is in fact the world’s biggest industry – followed by the teaching of English as a foreign language. (What a strange species we humans are that we have an almost equal interest in getting to know people and in killing them!)
The world’s first real tourist destination, believe it or not, was Italy. And the world’s first real tourists? The English. From the 16th century onwards (and reaching a peak in the 18th century), wealthy young Englishmen were regularly bundled off on a ‘Grand Tour’ of continental Europe to have a finishing gloss put on their minds and manners (whence our word ‘Tour-ist’). Great architecture was to be seen, continental sophistication was to be absorbed, and wild oats were to be sown where any consequences could conveniently be left behind.
Obliged by geography to see much of France, the true target of the Grand Tourist was Italy – the dizzyingly esteemed source of Roman civilization and of the Renaissance. Dr. Johnson sums up the attitude of his time when he notes that “a man who has not been in Italy is always conscious of an inferiority from his having not seen what it is expected a man should see.” Testament to this earliest phase of English italophilia is its legacy of bespoke English versions of Italian place names. Think of Naples/Napoli, Florence/Firenze, and the bizarre Leghorn/Livorno, for example. Early English tourists were talking about Italian places, and with such frequency that recognized alternatives easier on the English tongue evolved and endured. The English might still today add a silent ‘s’ to the end of Marseille, but it’s hardly on the same scale as what they do with Italian locales.
Over the centuries, the English never ran out of reasons to visit Italy: initially fascinated by its historical contributions to European civilization, they were seduced by its climate and landscape, then liberated by its relaxed yet exuberant culture. Now, of course, the whole world flocks to Italy. And sometimes it seems they’re all standing in the same spot – on the pavements beneath the leaning tower of Pisa.
If there’s a single bit of Italy that now qualifies as the country’s number one tourist sight, it’s the leaning tower of Pisa – the most celebrated architectural disaster of all time. Such is the tower’s fame that, like the Eiffel Tower, it is often used as an instantly-recognizable symbol for the entire country in which it stands. My first visit to the tower seemed like a pilgrimage. Somehow I’d never been to Italy, despite my many visits, until I’d seen its most famous sight.
But my interest in the thrilling, beautiful tower was soon rivalled by my interest in the hundreds of people who had come from all over the world to see it with me. Far from being a quintessential part of Italy, I realized, the tower and its immediate surroundings weren’t even in Italy, but in Cosmopolitan Nowhere – a place colonized and entirely populated by international travellers. (Outposts of C.N. are dotted round the globe, and you’ve doubtless been to several.)
Simply everyone at the tower was a tourist – all united by the same goal, the same fascination, the same activities. People asked you to take their picture. You asked people to take your picture. They asked where you were from and where you’d been, and you asked the same. All answers were given with pride and received with delight. Only tourists meeting other tourists have such precious, dependable enthusiasm. No one was trying to look unmoved or knowledgeable or serious. No one was embarrassed by openly being a tourist. Our only concern was adoring that tower. And isn’t that rather wonderful? We’d come from all over the world, enduring all the expense and privations of travel, just to honour a particular spot and to revere what we’d been told we’d find there. Together we filled the air with our excited love for it. It’s true that tourists can transform a place. Sometimes they can make it more beautiful.