Wall Down Tourists Out: Bringing Down Barriers With Travel

Hackney Tours on Belfast Peace Wall small
As tourists, we were invited to leave a comment on a Belfast Peace Wall. Still work to be done…

Berliners will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the fall of Berlin Wall on 9th November. But some resent the influx of tourists that the new openness brings. This was discussed by the travel trade this week in London. But surely breaking down barriers is what international travel should be about?

9th November is the 25th anniversary of the Iron Curtain symbolically bursting open in Berlin. 1989 marked the end of one era for Germany and the start of another. But what has this got to do with London?

A few days ago in London at the World Travel Market show (#WTM2014) there was a discussion about anti-tourism in popular destinations like Berlin and Barcelona. One is still recovering from repression under the Stasi and the other still remembers dictator Franco’s cultural suppression. Both have seen huge changes since the former melted away and the latter died.

It’s ironic that the desire to travel – especially by agitators in the key city of Leipzig – was one of the key drivers of the ‘Peaceful Revolution’ that finally resulted in a Berlin border gate being opened that fateful night in 1989; because it’s the free flow of visitors that some Berliners are starting to resent. Their Catalan cousins have also articulated the idea that they are being ‘swamped’.

We couldn’t help but engage with this important debate. Once as a tourist in Galicia we found ourselves at a rally full of colourful flags and slogans and asked what they meant. “Er, um, it says ‘Tourists are the new colonialists'” was the embarrassed reply. And we’ve seen the “Du bist kein Berliner” stickers in the bars of squat-friendly Friedrichshain.

As one would expect in a ETOA (European Tour Operators Association) talk there was an extolling of tourism benefits. The UK’s ONS (Office for National Statistics) records 16.8m visits to London in 2013 (32.8m for UK as a whole). London and Partners said in October 2013 “Tourism in London supports 226,000 jobs, around 5% of all employment in the capital. Every £58,000 generated by tourism supports a job in the sector.”

But there was also an acknowledgement that any street can only hold so many people; infrastructure eventually reaches its limit and a common sight in downtown Barcelona now is the banner requesting people to leave bars quietly and respect the barrio.

One person suggested that crowds like this naturally self-regulate. Another suggested that international capitalists are just squeezing as much out of as many as they can at the expense of local business. That might sound dramatic but Anna Pollock highlighted that a significant amount of tour revenue does not remain in host countries when you take an adventure holiday (Chris Doyle of Adventure Travel Trade Association says this is being addressed by their organisation).

We pointed out the peculiar history of Berlin and Barcelona: many people are allowed to live an alternative lifestyle in the former because supply and demand hasn’t yet made Germany’s capital as expensive as England’s; while people in the latter can remember when the Nou Camp was the only place to freely express Catalan identity. So large numbers of outsiders are feared – as either drivers of gentrification or diluters of culture.

Hackney Tours is acutely aware that extolling the virtues of East London via tourism can only accelerate a process that is seeing rents rocket and some of the people that made it ‘cool’ priced out. We may end up living outside the boroughs we tour! But we live in the free market that opposes regulation and unless we’re all going to ditch that system, we can only work within its confines.

It’s the same system anyone buying property is driving too, especially when they rent it out for profit. It’s capitalism. It’s ‘great’ when it benefits us but ‘awful’ when it doesn’t.

But tourism can be a force for social good not just a bringer of investment, promoting debate and awareness and even sharing the wealth. It’s being used to rebuild countries and communities in former war zones from the Balkans to Africa. On a much smaller scale, we’re giving 10% to places like Hackney’s Abney Park cemetery when we tour them because they provide a vital community resource. And they want more people to discover and use the space.

“Tourism is in fact a powerful social force that can achieve many important ends when its capacities are unfettered from the market fundamentalism of neoliberalism and instead are harnessed to meet human development imperatives and the wider public good,” (Freya Higgins-Desbiolles PhD).

Anyone who’s ever taken a ‘Black Cab’ taxi tour of Belfast will tell you they come away with a much richer understanding of Northern Ireland’s troubled past. Anyone who’s toured Mostar and stood where sniper cartridges still litter the old front line will understand the notion of ethnic cleansing just a little more. And both places may send you home surprised how friendly the locals are.

Tourists in Belfast bar watch RUC Land Rover
The sun shines on a new Belfast as pesky tourists in a bar wonder how such a friendly place could have seen such violence.

We flag real issues on many of our tours here in London, especially in the precarious Hackney Wick artist environment. We live ‘precarity’ every day in the fantastic -but expensive global city of London, so we know what we’re talking about.

“So when did it become a bad thing to be curious about other cultures and want to visit them?” we asked the ETOA room. And here’s the thing: some of those protesting in cities like Berlin have only been a short time themselves. The same can be seen in Hackney: the resident of 6 years resents the resident of 2 years as a ‘newcomer’.

There is a phenomenon in psychology of The Other. It’s anything that isn’t ‘us’ and it’s a handy place to project our own issues and insecurities. All Americans are ignorant (therefore we must be smart); tourists are inconvenient (we occupy space in a much more thoughtful way) etc. We aren’t part of a problem, it’s everyone else that’s the issue.

After visiting 37 or so countries, we’ve experienced the stripping away of many prejudices (not all, we’re human too) and the realisation of more commonalities than differences. We’ve stood outside Stanford University and heard an analysis of European politics we could never articulate from savvy Americans, we’ve seen Brits staggering through Amsterdam bumping into the locals because they’re not used to the local (ahem) ‘drink’ and heard the blue collar guy bitch about his boss or football team in bars across the world.

So in a way, when we deride tourists, we actually deriding ourselves. “Nobody actually chooses to come somewhere when it’s absolutely packed,” it was astutely pointed out by the panel. The brochures never show overcrowded subway trains or a long wait in a line for a national museum or iconic monument that even the travel snobs want to see at least once.

Perhaps it’s time for a new word for ‘tourist’. Possibly it’s got too much baggage by now? Or perhaps it’s time to #ReclaimTourism and redefine what it is? We love being a tourist in our own street: discovery, engagement, connection…

Like the ‘woodpeckers’ who chipped away with their chisels at the Berlin Wall and the ‘freedom to travel’ agitators in Leipzig who undermined it politically, international travel can slowly erode the invisible walls of prejudice that separate us. So be nice to our visitors – they’re not just subsidising our public services, they’re connecting us with ourselves.

Older (pre-Hackney Tours travel blog posts can be found at the Bookpacking blog as featured in Oxygen Press City Pick series).

Hackney Tours also ran the Inner-German Border in 2009 for the 20th Mauerfall anniversary. You can see the Hackney Wall project here.

Copyright Simon Cole 2014

4 Comments Add yours

  1. We are two Berliners, one by birth and one by choice. This piece is deeply thoughtful and makes many very good points. Thanks for writing it.

    We do wonder if you are correct on the fact that the anti-tourism movement is driven in Berlin by many who are relative newcomers to the city. Nor do we think it is motivated by a great fear of Otherness – the Other being represented by the foreigners who jet into our city to take the pulse of Berlin life.

    We think, rather, that there are many ordinary Berliners, men and women who have lived entire lives in the city, who are deeply troubled by the ethos of modern tourism. The city breakers came from high-income economies (such as the UK which now has 35 direct flights each day into Berlin). These visitors come with an enormous sense of privileged entitlement. They are ultimately consumers – and Berlin is “consumed” by these visitors. It jolts ordinary Berliners who are naturally so laid back, so downbeat. We fear the visitors bring their values with them on their weekends away, often rather thoughtlessly imposing them on the ordinary people of the cities they visit. Sadly, these visitors’ own preoccupations often stand in the way of them really ever catching the pulse of Berlin.

    Nicky and Susanne
    editors of hidden europe magazine
    http://www.hiddeneurope.co.uk/the-beauty-of-berlin

    1. Thanks for this comment. I’m a big fan of your own writing, as you know.

      Of course, there are very legitimate concerns you express. A lot of people are worried where the city is headed here; a quote showed 61% of house purchases in a recent year being made by foreign investors. Whose London is it?

      And a colleague has very clearly and strongly explained his feeling that Barcelona has been effectively taken over by tourism.

      But I don’t think that ‘them’ and ‘us’ (not that you would articulate that viewpoint I’m sure) is either helpful or accurate.

      Berliners must take mini-breaks? And we’ve all met the militant newcomer who considers themselves different and it’s the *other* newcomers who are problem.

      Your excellent writing sometimes celebrates Berlin, I celebrate East London.

      So we are both aware, I imagine, that finger-pointing can not just be divisive, but also hypocritical.

      I still maintain that the ‘slagging off’ of tourists or Americans in general we often see is just too easy.

      We ‘re all complicit to varying degrees (without doing down those who are not ‘in’ the system: it would be a tragedy if the sub-cultures of Berlin or indeed Hackney were to be lost by the homogenising demands of commerce in the C21 mega-city).

      But we’re most of us in the system; our governments exploit/bomb weaker powers too.

      We might have been living here for decades yet buy from cheapest most exploitative retailers.

      We might have just arrived and have some money but only consider fair trade and do volunteer work in the community.

      Simple emotive responses are the easy route (‘bloody Yuppies/chavs’).

      Resolving the contradictions and moving forward, that’s the hard work.

      I wish I had the answers. For now, let’s keep asking the questions.

  2. xplorer says:

    Insightful, thoughtful post Simon – thank you and great to meet you last week. It’s taken me a little longer to post my reflections on WTM last week – they’re here:

    http://conscious.travel/2014/11/12/hope-and-despair-wtm/

    I wasn’t clear about the impact numbers. UNEP cites the global average for mass tourism is 5% of visitor spending in a developing country stays in the country with 95% leaking out. ATTA records significantly better figures for Adventure Travel – 65% stays in host country. The links to sources are in my post. Cheers Anna

    1. Good to hear from you. Thanks for that. Great in-depth article you posted. Quite often these issues are treated superficially but you’re going into the psychology behind travel and tourism.

      There’s a dilemma alright: travel can broaden the mind and help us grow, appreciating other cultures and their way of doing things.

      But yes, the elephant in the travel room is indeed carbon.

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