Mass Tourism's Demise

As new impediments to tourism arise, the economics that brought us the hotel, the campground, and the annual summer vacation are vanishing.

Along with the normal requests for car rentals and hotel reservations, Ryanair, the European low-cost carrier, now allows clients to pay for a carbon offset when booking online. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a carbon offset is a type of eco-indulgence for the ecologically concerned that compensates for your trip's fossil fuel emissions. You may choose your offset after uploading your necessary Covid documents, which includes a vaccination passport, a negative Covid test, and an official record of your home address and the area where you'll be residing, depending on your country of origin.

It's not difficult to see where this is headed. Not only was the second half of the twentieth century an era of mass luxury, but it was also an era of mass travel. Middle and working-class families, at least in the developed world, have grown accustomed to leisure travel. The economic structure that brought us the motel, the campground, and the yearly summer vacation is already vanishing, while new hurdles to foreign travel have evolved, ranging from Covid restrictions to environmental concerns.

The classic foreign tourist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a well-heeled sophisticate, frequently British, with an amateur interest in painting, architecture, or travel writing. Affluent Americans would take large European tours, which served as a formative experience for young Theodore Roosevelt, whose rich family could afford the cost of a long continental vacation.

All of that changed with the postwar boom. Peace, paid vacations, the automobile, and decades of postwar expansion in the United States and Europe spawned a new class of low-cost tourists, prompting the establishment of travel agencies, charter buses, hotels and pensions, and other businesses geared at easing middle-class tourism. Exotic places such as the French Riviera, the Amalfi Coast, and St. Tropez, aided and assisted by mass media and popular films, have suddenly earned international reputations.

Most Western Europeans had two weeks paid vacation by 1960. According to historian Tony Judt, hundreds of French visitors visited Spain in the early 1950s. Every summer, 7 million people visited by 1964. By the early 1970s, the Yugoslav shore had attracted more than 6 million visitors from Western Europe each year. A comparable travel boom occurred among the American middle class.

Generations of travelers have witnessed this period of international travel, from "tourist traps" to family holiday packages to clichés of loudmouthed Americans, photo-mad Japanese, and pasty Brits making their yearly exodus to sunny Spain. But, in the midst of the twenty-first century, can a pre-pandemic economy based on broadly shared wealth and massive fossil fuel use survive?

For elderly visitors, navigating a world of virtual restaurant menus, electronic vaccination passports, and required document uploads will almost definitely be confusing. Even when the fear of Covid has passed, the elderly's increased exposure to the disease may reduce their excitement for foreign vacations.

The young and tech-savvy will most likely find this new atmosphere more welcoming, but if carbon offsets, health-related flight cancellations, and negative antigen testing become regular operating procedure, air travel will become prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of people. While the young are more adept at handling internet obstacles, their enthusiasm for foreign travel may be stifled by digital life. Video games with graphic violence appear to have lowered our taste for violence, whereas pornography has almost certainly lowered our appetite for sex. In the case of travel, social media networks such as Instagram might help.

Airlines and the tourism sector aren't going away anytime soon, but their business models and client profiles will shift to reflect new economic realities. Tourism will return to its roots as a luxury good, and for those who can afford carbon indulgences and enough upgrades to avoid invasive security and health checks, travel will become an extravagance instead of an annual middle class ritual.  

Already, the travel industry seems to be moving in this direction. Family packages and economy class airline tickets are out; eco-tourism, boutique hotels, and personalized services like Airbnb are in. In the United States, pandemic-era trips to national parks boomed while European countries like Hungary and Italy launched campaigns to promote sight-seeing within their own borders. Domestic tourism and “staycations” are becoming consolation prizes for those who can’t afford to go abroad. 

It's possible that international travel may swiftly recover after the virus has passed, but the post-9/11 security theater's clinginess serves as a cautionary example. We've had 20 years of required airport shoe inspections, TSA pat-downs, and lengthy security lineups because of the extremely tiny possibility of a spectacular terrorist strike. Will a disease that is already on its way to becoming endemic and has far greater ramifications than the 9/11 assaults vanish from public attention quickly? A more likely outcome is the permanent inclusion of health protocols in our routine security checks, which will only be avoided by those who are savvy and wealthy enough to pay for various officially sanctioned shortcuts (a Covid version of the TSA's CLEAR program, which allows travelers to pay to bypass security by uploading personal biometric data, seems inevitable).

Carbon offsets and other environmental restrictions are not yet mandatory, but elite consensus is rapidly moving in the direction of restricting air travel. Flygskam—Swedish for “flight shame”—has become shorthand for feeling guilty about air travel. Popular travel websites help eco-conscious consumers find alternatives to flying. A Green New Deal explainer posted to the website of progressive darling Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says the program aims to make air travel “unnecessary.” A World Economic Forum report on eco-friendly air travel carefully points out that there is a “cost differential” between old-fashioned jet fuel and sustainable alternatives but is mostly silent on the question of who will bear this cost as airlines go green. The likely answer is that travelers will pay in the form of“green flying duties,” a solution that has already been proposed in the U.K. The World Economic Forum report helpfully notes that “corporate flyers” have shown a willingness to pay extra for environmentally-friendly transportation.

This final remark is significant. Those most likely to travel in the future—affluent, youthful, educated, environmentally sensitive, and presumably working for a company—are also more inclined to accept new environmental and health limitations and absorb additional travel expenses. As the concept of an annual beach vacation abroad fades from memory, the older and poorer will be left out in the cold, both figuratively and physically.

Changes within the travel industry are lagging indicators of broader economic and cultural shifts in Western society. According to the Brookings Institution, the middle of the American middle class has shrunk considerably over the last several decades while the upper middle class has expanded. The tastes and prejudices of upper middle class consumers, who already wield disproportionate influence as cultural tastemakers and gatekeepers at elite institutions, are now reshaping tourism. The result will be a travel industry that prizes environmental and public health concerns over affordability.

The E.U. is in bad odor among conservatives, but there is (was?) something faintly miraculous about the Schengen Zone, which allowed for the free movement of citizens across most member states before the pandemic. Some of Schengen’s most enthusiastic backers thought that it was a blueprint for a borderless global society. Instead, it looks like the last gasp of the era of mass tourism, a relic of a time before global pandemics, economic stagnation, environmental alarmism, and resurgent nationalism.

What follows might be more sad than all of the cheap hotels and filthy campsites combined. On a recent vacation to Italy, I came upon a McDonald's near the Milan Central Railway Station in search of a fast bite to eat. A masked and gloved health inspector met me and scanned the QR code on my vaccination card before presenting me with a red verification sticker. All orders were taken through electronic kiosks, and staff scarcely spoke to customers while assembling and distributing Big Macs behind a giant plexiglass screen. Everyone was wearing masks, and almost everyone was crouched over a phone, waiting for their orders. Many people did not bother to take off their wireless headphones. Who will bother paying for tickets if this is the future of low-cost travel?

In a parallel universe, Mark Zuckerberg had just announced Facebook’s rebranding as “Meta,” complete with a cringe-inducing video of his new virtual reality platform. Coincidentally, the World Economic Forum recently suggested that virtual reality tourism could become a healthy and eco-friendly alternative to real-world travel. The Zuckerbergs of the world are not about to give up their private jets, and well-heeled employees at companies like Facebook—excuse me, “Meta”—will almost certainly continue to holiday at exotic foreign destinations. For everyone else, the lure of digital life and the indignities of steerage class travel in the 21st century will make mass tourism a thing of the past.   

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