OPINION - Let’s forget foreign flights and rebuild our great holiday resorts

·3-min read
 (Alamy Stock Photo)
(Alamy Stock Photo)

The first revolution in popular tourism began 200 years ago, in the period following the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. At the end of two decades of war with Napoleon, the British were finally free to visit continental Europe.

“It’s raining Englishmen”, wrote an amazed observer in Paris. Over the next two centuries, tourism shaped and re-fashioned not only British attitudes to abroad but life in the countries they visited. In their wake they brought hotels, campsites and caravan parks, new forms of food to cater for foreign tastes, sporting facilities, burgeoning souvenir industries, improved transport systems and infrastructures. The economies of fishing villages, alpine communities and rural backwaters became suddenly dependent on the seasonal influx of tourists from abroad. Tourism kept alive religious festivals and artisan crafts that would have long died without it.

But over the years it has also brought standardisation and blandness. In the huge, hermetically sealed beach resorts of the Costa Brava, for example, only the faintest traces of the original villages remain behind the skyscraper hotels, Irish-themed pubs and fish and chip shops.

The problem of mass tourism is sheer numbers. Even in the 1850s, when Thomas Cook took the first package tours around Europe, visitors complained that wherever they went, another crowd of tourists had got there first. In response, to escape the crowds, tourists had to go further afield to avoid the throngs of people like themselves — and thereby brought their own expectations and culture to ever more far-flung places.

It doesn’t take long before communities learn to merchandise ways of life that have been developed over millennia — and then change them to accommodate visitors looking for modern sanitation, familiar food and home comforts.

The prevailing paradox of tourism is that in the end it kills the pastoral paradise that it seeks. Travel expands the mind but crowds of tourists narrow the view. The touristic jaunt can’t help but be an elegy to ways of life that then vanish under the onslaught of visitor numbers. Tourist destinations are kept artificially alive only for visitors to look at, a desirable background for posts on social media that says “I have been here”.

The volume of the mass is overwhelming. In 1953, in the post-war wave of the first cheap flights to the sun, two million Britons went abroad on holiday; in 2000, 30 million went abroad. The break in travel during the pandemic gave us pause for thought: according to the UN World tourism Organisation in 2021, tourist arrivals during the Covid pandemic were down 85 per cent. For two years those Brits who took for granted a holiday abroad had to reimagine a break from work as staying at home.

Perhaps it’s time to re-think our holidays. Rather than export tourism’s globalised blandness to yet more dull and featureless resorts abroad, it’s time to revitalise our own seaside cities, to become properly engaged tourists in our own country.

We need to re-engage with our own landscape rather than whisk through it on the way to the airport. Our magnificent seaside resorts, many now faded, are ripe for regeneration; the last 30 years has seen an extraordinary new awakening of local food — why not expand that further into local industries and leisure, monuments and architecture?

A renewed interest in being engaged tourists in our own country will give new life to hotels, piers, shops and local traditions. It will stave off decline. And if this summer is a harbinger of the future, we can also bask in that most vital ingredient of the modern holiday — sun.