My day began recently, as it does most days, with a bit of "Morning Joe" on MSNBC, some freshly made Lavazza coffee and a heavy dose of political analysis: What will America be like after our presidential election in November?
One of the reporters from the Washington Post said something about the "impact on tourists," and suddenly I started listening intently as he speculated that "countries that don't like us all that much now might like us a heck of a lot less" if a certain candidate were to be elected. "I wonder if American tourists will start to see a less receptive audience when they travel abroad."
Coincidentally, I was working on a story that touched on this topic. I have been wondering if American tourists are as valued as they once were by countries with a developed tourism infrastructure. In other words, how badly do they really want us as their guests?
What triggered my interest were some articles that had been published beginning in May 2013, claiming that even the Canadians were turning their tourism backs on us.
Earlier that month, Destination Canada issued a report with the typically exciting Canadian title "Delivering Value for Canada's Tourism Business Through Innovation and Efficiency." But once you got past that, you read that the official Canadian tourism organization had reached the conclusion that, based on the low-spending characteristics of tourists from the U.S., Canada would get a far better return if it used its marketing dollars to go after tourists from higher average-spend areas such as India, Mexico and Europe.
Visitors from those markets, the report said, spent double the $518 spent by Americans who crossed the border. Even more surprising is that Australian, Brazilian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese tourists spend at least three times as much as American visitors when they vacation in Canada.
Naturally, Canada became a lot less interested in attracting visitors from the States.
This is, of course, something we have heard before from tourism officials who decry inclusive tours for American guests as well as countries that have ports that host a fair number of cruise passengers.
The travel forums in the States are almost all of a certain mindset that the best and smartest travelers are those who spend the least. Very few Americans seem interested in buying very much abroad, given that they are increasingly purchasing inclusive packages and resent spending money when they have already used their budget to buy a comprehensive tour or cruise.
But I think it's more than that. Ten years ago, you'd still see visitors in Swiss cities lining up to buy Swiss timepieces at jewelry shops along the main streets. Now, we order those same watches online at a discount.
In writing about places like Florence and Cancun, I've been struck by shopkeepers who bemoan the spending habits of U.S. tourists, particularly those off the large cruise ships. Walking the streets of Charleston, S.C., and stopping in to chat with shopkeepers, I heard a steady stream of negative comments about day tourists who "spend an average of about $10 per person." One elderly seller at a basket stall in the Charleston Market told me, "They may buy their T-shirt or they may stop for a sandwich. And that is about all they're gonna spend to have a Low Country experience."
If the spending habits of Americans traveling abroad are changing, we can take some comfort that we are not alone. The new travel economy in which travelers don't spend money on luxuries like taxis or actual hotels is forcing countries all over the world to take a second and a third hard look at tourism.
Uber and Airbnb are just the beginning of a new-age travel economy. We are, I believe, very close to a tipping point in which a growing percentage of international travelers view advance reservations as a relic from the travel past. Who needs reservations when you have a tiny computer in your pocket?
The value of mass tourism is being questioned across the globe, as well. Something always taken for granted is now being questioned. How many is too many?
When I lived in Italy, I wondered even then if the local governments would ever say, "Enough is enough." Now, one of the most beautiful areas of Italy is standing up to tourism. The five villages of Cinque Terre will, with the Italian government's consent, begin capping the number of visitors at 1.5 million per year.
That would still seem like a huge number of tourists who are overrunning these small, cliffside villages until you look at the fact that 2.5 million visitors crowded in last year. The villages will now sell tickets. And if your clients want to know if they can get in, well, there's an app for that.
Leonid Bershidsky, writing for Bloomberg News, points out that there are now some cities, major cities, that simply "don't like tourists."
Berlin is a current hotbed of anti-tourist fervor, and some pubs have started hanging signs in English that read "There are no lattes here," aimed primarily at wandering Starbucks seekers from the States. A number of clubs and bars make foreigners feel about as welcome as a Bernie Sanders supporter at a Donald Trump rally. This has a lot to do with the fact that Berlin is so vital, so hip, so advanced and so, dare I say historical, that visitors outnumber residents by about a million.
Barcelona also seems to have had it with its own fame. The new mayor, Ada Colau, wants to cap the number of visitors. Her actions are being watched carefully by other European municipalities. In addition to limiting the number of tourists allowed into Barcelona, she has discussed a freeze on hotel construction and much tighter regulation of apartment rentals, a theme that accompanies several of the current anti-tourist movements.
But this is not all a wish list. Changes are already occurring in Barcelona. The wonderful Park Guell, a whimsical urban example of some of Antoni Gaudi's best work, was on many travel agents' lists of places to see in the city. It was always free. Now it costs about $9 per person, cutting down substantially on the crowds.
Similarly, the requisite spot for foodies, La Boqueria, the large market and dining hall just off the packed La Rambla, has been closed to large tour groups after locals complained that they had to shove past thousands of nonshopping tourists just to buy their fruits and vegetables. Now, security guards stand at the entrance to keep out groups of 15 or more.
Lisbon sees about seven times more visitors than it has residents, and tourist opposition groups have been forming. Most prominent among them is a group that wants to keep locals away from tourists as much as humanely possible. They call themselves "People Live Here." So much for "meet the locals and have an authentic experience."
In Hong Kong, locals are urging curbs on the number of tourists, which totaled 8.8 million last year. Much of the anti-tourist resentment comes from a flood of visitors from mainland China who are primarily filling up the cheap hotels and rooms-to-let on the Kowloon side of the city. That is the colorful side of the harbor where the Peninsula and other fine hotels are located. But now, some travel consultants are wondering if it is too crowded and "colorful" for American tourists.
There are some not-so-theoretical by-products of our new age tourism. Our clients want authentic experiences, the kinds best found in neighborhoods where actual residents might dwell. But as we hunt these authentic haunts, these safe havens within the city center, businesses spring up to serve the visitors and apartments open up. Soon we'll see examples of gentrification, and the formerly authentic neighborhood becomes typical of nothing. Prices for residents rise dramatically while access to affordable goods and services declines.
I haven't talked about Venice, as it is too easy an example of tourism gone wild. To get a sense of what is actually sinking the city, you need only stand in the center of St. Mark's Square for a quiet moment of contemplation. If you look left and right while standing still, your eyes will take in just over 3,000 people on a summer day. Statistically, .002% of them will be Venetians.