Paradise Lost How Tourists Are Destroying the Places They Love

Zintzmeyer / Alpaca / Andia

Part 2: Travel Has Become Almost a Human Right


There are many reasons a place attracts tourists -- it might be the sun, the beach or the sights. Or perhaps just lavender and a Chinese television series. But why would someone who lives in faraway Riyadh, Abu Dhabi or Doha come to an Austrian village of just 10,000 inhabitants?

In a word: the weather. In summer, the maximum temperatures in Zell am See, a lakeside town in the Alps of western Austria, are usually just over 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit). In Riyadh, temperatures can often be over 40 degrees. Pleasant temperatures, water for swimming and snow in the mountains are all draws for tourists. And who wouldn't prefer to cool off rather than sizzle?

In the city center, some restaurants have adapted by focusing more on these guests, offering menus in Arabic, pita bread and halal meat. Down at the lake, on the esplanade behind the Grand Hotel, crowds of largely Arabic tourists sit, enjoying their holiday.

Nadine Scharfenort is a geographer at the University of Passau in Germany. She has just completed a postdoctoral thesis called "The Conflict Potential of Arabic Tourism in Zell am See-Kaprun." Scharfenort says that local residents are highly ambivalent about the presence of these tourists. Some are open-minded, stressing the positive aspects, like the fact that these tourists don't drink alcohol. But others are bothered by headscarves and have general reservations about Arabs.

In the evening, as dusk settles over the lake, it starts to rain. The European tourists rush under the canopies and awnings of the adjacent hotels and restaurants. In front of the Grand Hotel, though, two small girls merrily jump into the puddles. For them, the rain is a highlight of their holiday.

The travel industry is probably the most important economic sector in the world. It's far larger than the oil industry or the automotive industry and has an estimated turnover of 7 trillion euros a year, about 10 percent of global economic output. In addition to direct revenues, this staggering sum also includes related business sectors such as the hotel trade or the transport industry with all its aircraft, cruise ships and buses. It also includes souvenir shops and travel agencies.

In Spain, popular among holiday-makers, the travel industry accounts for fully 14.9 percent of the country's gross domestic product. And in many nations -- Greece, Portugal, Spain, France and the Czech Republic, for example -- the number of people entering the country exceeds the number of inhabitants. This creates jobs and modest prosperity, but it also establishes a certain dependency, which can also be dangerous if, as seen in Turkey and Egypt in recent years, there is a sudden massive plunge in the number of travelers.

Tourists, though, have begun returning to both countries. After all, when it comes to vacation, we tend to ignore potential terrorist threats or human rights violations -- as long as the price is right and the weather is nice.

Cheap, Cheaper, Cheapest

Affordability is the main thing -- and travel has indeed gotten much cheaper thanks to the internet. Travel portals like Expedia, Trivago and Booking.com have edged out established travel agencies and even pose a threat to major European travel companies like TUI or Thomas Cook, which previously dominated the package travel market. Such websites constantly offer flights and overnight stays at bargain prices.

In contrast to holiday providers from the era of package tours featured in catalogs, these digital competitors don't operate their own hotels and they don't own airplanes, cruise ships, travel agencies or other things with expensive overhead costs. Their money is earned solely by brokering services provided by others. They can literally control prices in real time on their platforms and they constantly optimize their algorithms to generate revenues. They collect targeted data on customer preferences and are now even able to create tailor-made offerings on the fly.

This system, of course, wouldn't work without budget airlines, and without the internet, airlines such as Ryanair or EasyJet would not have become what they are today: the powerful drivers of the current tourism boom. Thirty years ago, they didn't even exist yet. Back then, Europe was still strictly regulated, with specific rules on which airline was allowed to fly to what destination. Each country had its own airline, and national airlines weren't allowed to service domestic routes in other European countries. Usually, there were also limits on the number of seats that could be offered on cross-border flights. The regulations were in place to protect the respective national airlines that were, almost without exception, state-owned.

Air traffic in Europe only gradually began opening up in 1987. Irish budget pioneer Ryanair, in particular, benefited from market liberalization, because it made excessive use of the new freedoms in air transportation. And because it was more consistent -- and brutal -- than any other company when it came to low costs. Budget carriers in Germany and Europe have a 30-percent market share today, a figure that is still growing.

Thanks to low ticket prices, travel has almost become a universal right, just like buying cheap T-shirts or shopping at a discount supermarket like Aldi or Lidl. This has also meant that a weekend trip to Berlin or Barcelona was suddenly seen as a viable alternative to an excursion to the local lake -- with dramatic consequences for the places and cities that were being visited. Barcelona, for example, has gone from being an insider tip to a mass destination, and budget airlines now have a market share of almost 70 percent in the city. At Berlin's Schönefeld Airport, budget carriers are responsible for almost 90 percent of all arrivals and departures. In the past 10 years alone, the number of passengers at the airport has more than doubled, from around six million to almost 13 million travelers.

This has helped transform the German capital city into one of the most popular destinations for overnight stays in Europe after London and Paris. During the evenings and on weekends, hundreds of young people from all over Europe can be seen partying across Berlin's central Mitte district. Although they don't leave a lot of money behind when they leave the city, they do leave tons of trash and empty beer and liquor bottles.

For years it looked as if the two systems, traditional hub-and-spoke airlines and budget airlines, could continue to grow side by side uninhibited. But this summer, the model seemed to hit its limits for the first time. Flight cancellations, delays and re-bookings have become the order of the day. According to the International Air Transportation Association (IATA), delays in air traffic in Europe alone increased by 133 percent during the first half of the year. Some airports, such as those in Frankfurt, Düsseldorf and Berlin, are now asking travelers to arrive at the airport up to three hours before takeoff so that they can cope with the masses.

The chaos at the airports began with Air Berlin's bankruptcy last year. Lufthansa subsidiary Eurowings, but also some of its competitors, secured some of the route rights without having the corresponding aircraft and crews. Demand also rose more strongly than expected. While just under 104 million guests took off from German airports in 2014, this figure had risen to over 117 million by 2017. Foreign passengers are also increasingly using German airports to catch their flights or as hubs for connecting flights.

The already heavily loaded system isn't designed for such a boom. And it's unlikely that the situation will change anytime soon. European air traffic controller Eurocontrol even expects the number of flights departing up to two hours late to increase sevenfold by 2040.

The rising stress associated with travel, however, is not enough to deter tourists. Sociologist Paolo Giuntarelli thinks he knows why: "Mass tourism is a phenomenon of our post-materialistic society. Possessions are no longer a priority -- we just want to be entertained," he says.

A City Overrun

Giuntarelli is the head of tourism for the Lazio region, with offices located in the capital city of Rome. He's here to hold down the fort, with many Romans having fled to the countryside in the height of the summer. It is too hot for them in the city.

But the high temperatures don't appear to have deterred visitors to Rome.

There are weeks when the Italian capital is literally overrun -- like at the end of July, when 60,000 altar boys and girls from all over Europe invaded the city, including 50,000 from Germany. The motto of the pilgrimage was: "Seek peace and pursue it!" Above all, though, it was the sights that they pursued.

On Tuesday night, they visited the pope. When their audience ended at around 8 p.m., St. Peter's Square was littered with plastic bottles, lyrics to hymns, Haribo bags and banana peels. The situation was similar at Pius XII Square, located just before it. The garbage bags on the side of the street had long since overflowed or burst. Even the pious produce refuse.

Rome is all about long nights on the piazza, with pasta, red wine and jovial singing. Late at night, though, tourists are no longer allowed to drink alcohol on the streets of Rome, with Mayor Virginia Raggi having decreed in 2017 that the ban would be imposed each year between July and October.

Rome needs tourists -- but it also needs to rein them in. This is most evident at the Trevi Fountain, where the first visitors start showing up early in the morning. Police stand guard around the clock so that nobody misbehaves. If someone holds their foot too close to the water, a carabinieri blows his whistle -- and those who dare to jump into the fountain face a fine of up to 450 euros under rules imposed last year by the mayor.

As a source of revenue, though, the visitors are highly welcome. Many throw coins over their shoulders into the fountain, because they believe it means they will return to Rome. Municipal workers regularly vacuum the coins out of the fountain, adding up to 1 million euros a year, which are donated to Rome's Catholic charity Caritas.

Marco D'Eramo lives right next door to Rome's Colosseum. He can monitor the daily growth of tourism right outside the front door of his seven-story building. Until about 15 years ago, all of his neighbors were Italian, but now 12 of the 40 units are holiday rentals.

Not long ago, D'Eramo set out to write down what was happening around him. But he quickly realized that there was much more to the story. So he wrote a book called "The World in a Selfie," which provides a thorough description of what he calls the "tourist era."

He believes the transformation of entire cities due to tourism follows a simple economic logic: The needs of the locals do not correspond with the needs of the tourists. Whereas a local resident might need a cobbler, the tourist wants a snack. With the rise of tourism, craftsman establishments are being transformed into fast food outlets -- and the neighbor with worn-out shoes ultimately loses out.

The transformation of an entire city happens very fast, d'Eramo has observed. If the Lonely Planet guide reports on a market, where "the locals do their shopping," more and more tourists flood the place. "At first it still looks authentic. But increasingly, items are sold that are of interest for tourists. And before long, the insider tip has become a purely tourist market."

In 2017, 14.7 million visitors poured through Rome's alleyways, representing one quarter of all visitors to Italy. Overnight visitors stayed an average of 2.5 days, much like in other major European cities.

Travelers rarely end up in the surrounding areas, in Frascati, Tivoli or other parts of the region, known as Latium. Giuntarelli, Rome's chief tourism official, would like to redirect them to the smaller towns and cities in the region, where they could experience the Italian way of life, "good food, good wine." Or follow the Way of St. Francis pilgrimage trail, which runs through Latium.

Giuntarelli extols the virtues of Latium in newspaper and radio ads and distributes pamphlets at tourism expos. One of them advertises Latium as a great site for a wedding, another presents Latium's thermal baths. Giuntarelli also wants to make the region known as a golf destination. "We're working on it," he says.

Little Money, But Lots of Garbage

Because Latium isn't alone in its problems, the region has teamed up with NecsTour, a network of 37 European regions that have committed themselves to sustainable tourism, a form of travel that satisfies economies and vacationers without harming the environment.

In other words, the opposite of cruise ships. "That is not the tourism that we want to support," says Giuntarelli.

The gigantic ships belch massive amounts of pollution into the air and contribute little to regional trade or the local hospitality industries. Their passengers are only in the city for a few hours, they spend their nights on board and often eat food they bring with them when they go on land. They leave behind little money, but lots of garbage. "Cruise ship tourism is good," says Giuntarelli with a resigned smile, "for the cruise ship operators."

In Dubrovnik, Croatia, cruise ship passengers only spend an average of 24 euros per day compared to an average of 160 euros per day spent by other visitors. The city is suffering more than most from the onslaught of the tourists. Since its picturesque Old Town became the backdrop for the fantasy saga "Game of Thrones," the number of visitors has risen dramatically. Each year, 800,000 people arrive on cruise ships alone.

Dubrovnik has 42,000 inhabitants -- and most of them prefer to stay home when the cruise ships arrive. But because not only the residents, but also the medieval city structures themselves, are suffering, the number of visitors is to be reduced to 8,000 people per day. Otherwise, UNESCO has threatened to strip the city of its status as a World Heritage site.

"A new approach is now being considered -- one that moves away from the one-sided thinking about growth that has characterized tourism policy in most cities so far," says urban planner Johannes Novy, who is currently researching urban development and tourism at London's Westminster University. He says that for too long, the question was: How do we lure more tourists to a city? "It was not about other goals, including the question of how one could work to counter the negative consequences." Novy says that tourism itself isn't always the problem, but certain aspects of it -- "for example, the party tourism that is pervasive in many cities, or the longtime unrestrained boom in holiday rentals."

Increasingly, he says, those in positions of responsibility have begun trying to combat the "growing pains" associated with the travel boom, as Novy calls it. They want to redirect the streams of tourists, as officials in Rome are trying to do, or even to limit them, as Dubrovnik is doing. Barcelona is no longer approving new hotels, Paris has strictly regulated Airbnb and other apartment-rental platforms and Palma de Mallorca has even completely banned the renting of holiday apartments on the platform. But no other city is taking measures as rigorously as Amsterdam.

The Last Resort

But still they exist, the cities and regions that welcome the tourists who are no longer as welcome elsewhere, where nobody gets worked up about constant parties and binge drinking rituals.

Daniel Stefanov is standing on a podium, squeezed between a street and the beach, where he watches the crowd as it sinks into the foam. His helpers have placed two foam cannons by the dance floor at the Megapark Dolphin, a giant, insane party venue that Stefanov has created with his business partners at Golden Sands, Bulgaria. From one cannon, the foam is spraying like raw cake batter onto the partying vacationers, while fine soap clouds are raining out of the other one. The crowd, standing in knee-deep foam, cheers.

Stefanov has come one step closer to fulfilling his goal: that of turning Golden Sands into a regular destination for partying German tourists, an alternative to El Arenal and Playa de Palma.

Fifteen years ago, Stefanov and his partner Sava Daritkov, 44, opened the outdoor nightclub Megapark Dolphin in Slatni Pjasazi, a vacation spot on the Black Sea. The club is filled with swimming pools and an adjacent dance floor. Eight years ago, they added the "partystadl," or "party city," where German pop music is played and a half-liter of beer costs the equivalent of 2 euros.

Stefanov and Daritkov have invested a lot into their dream. They imported hefeweizen wheat beer from Germany and hired singers who otherwise performed at establishments in Mallorca that are popular among German party tourists. And they began organizing foam parties. For 20 euros cover, visitors can drink the cocktails of their choice for an hour and get covered in foam, every Tuesday and Saturday.

This season has proven more successful than any that has come before. First came the wave of high-school graduates coming from Germany in the early summer. They were followed by football and bowling clubs. Their guests tend to be men and women in their early and mid-20s who only need three things for a successful vacation: "sun, sand and suds." The trend is likely to continue until late September, Daritkov says. And there is one more thing he really wants to say: "We're pleased about all the visitors."

It's a sentence that has taken on a new meaning in an age when tourists partying to excess with buckets of cheap sangria are no longer welcome in many places. Mallorca no longer wants to be a party island and has even banned nighttime binge drinking and sex on the beach. Golden Sands, the message seems to be, isn't only cheap, but the party isn't over.

Niklas, Marvin and Marcel are standing at the bar at Megapark Dolphin holding a glass of vodka with peach, wearing bright green vests with the motto of their previous trip, an excursion last year to Mallorca: "Malle 2017. Buckets for everyone." They were there with about a dozen friends. The new rules on Mallorca, says Niklas, a 24-year-old car mechatronics technician, are the reason they decided to come to Bulgaria. He says they had witnessed in El Arenal how Spanish police arrived with three cars when a bucket of sangria was spotted on the beach despite the ban. They thought the reaction was a bit over the top.

The situation is altogether different at Golden Sands. There are no residents here to complain about the ruckus.

By Dinah Deckstein, Lothar Gorris, Sebastian Hammelehle, Nils Klawitter, Alexander Kühn, Armin Mahler, Martin U. Müller, Ann-Kathrin Nezik, Raniah Salloum and Robin Wille

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