In 2016, around 1.23 billion tourists travelled around the world, at least according to the World Tourism Organisation. It claims that was 4 percent more than in the year before. According to the first estimates, 2017 brought an even higher growth, 7 percent. In any case, tourism represents about 10 percent of the global economy, and one-tenth of all the world’s workers are employed by the tourism industry. In 2017, Croatia was visited by about 17 million tourists, who left about 10.5 billion euro in the country. The Croatian economy is undoubtedly too much tourism-independent, since the tourism revenues make up almost 20 percent of the gross domestic product, while up to 65 percent of the annual VAT is collected during the tourist season, which makes the indirect impact of tourism on GDP likely to be well over 20 percent.
Most of this information does not mean much to most people. Indeed, large figures have a counter-intuitive effect on most people. However, what most people can feel very intuitively and which they can empirically prove to themselves thanks to their personal experience are dynamic and often dramatic changes in their living environment created by tourism. From the changes in a way the environment is used to the arrival of people from lesser-known cultures and parts of the world, to lifestyle changes which become dominantly marked by seasonality, a small world in which most of the local population experiences or survives changes. A change, especially a sudden change, as in almost all other segments of society, inevitably creates polarization.
Our society has started to split or has already been split on those who advocate tourism and those who advocate a kind of purism in life. The first group, aware of the developmental and financial opportunities offered by tourism, often and without reflection advocates uncontrolled development in order to achieve the best possible results. The second group, in its efforts to limit the influence of tourism on their own lifestyles, advocates for the continuation of or even a return to an arbitrary time in the past when life allegedly followed an imaginary, romantic film script.
The most interesting thing is that, as with any polarization which soon begins to turn into a kind of ideology, after a passage of time and deeper entrenchment of groups in their respective trenches, the noise created by both can be heard only in the trenches from which it emanates, and its only purpose is to maintain “combat readiness” in the trenches. But, unfortunately, the noise can also be heard by those of us who are trying to look at the world and the changes in the world from different perspectives and who are trying to walk on a narrow strip above the trenches. While the first group produces its noise with construction machinery and creates irreversible changes in the environment and landscapes, the second group is whining about the times past in newspaper columns, social networking posts, and sometimes with a call to the police in a hope that that will be enough to deal with polluters and those who disturb public order and peace in urban cores. That is followed by the well-known claim that they were there before tourism, forgetting that calls for authenticity are just a form of chauvinism.
The truth, as some claim, is not in the middle. The truth is entirely independent of these perspectives, and we might say it is above these polarization. And the truth is factual and complex, and at the same time contextual and multidimensional. It is true that we live in a world where more and more people are living better and better, and more and more people will want to travel. It is true that there is no reason why the growth trends in tourism should not continue in the coming years and decades when more and more people will travel. It is true that modern means of travelling have enabled people to cover vast geographical distances in short periods of time.
It is true that there are efforts to create even faster and safer ways of transporting people. It is true that the internet and especially the social media have brought people closer to the culture of other societies, making them more desirable to see, visit and experience. It is also true that the increase in travel has caused a rise in greenhouse gas emissions, and now for the first time we also talk about the carbon footprint of tourism. It is true that tourism brings huge sums of money and that tourism has an enormous multiplier effect, but also that tourism is a quite volatile branch of the economy and is therefore undesirable to be the dominant industry. In the end, it is true that life changes in places where tourism becomes the primary industry. It is also true that life is changing regardless of tourism, but that the impact of tourism on these changes is possibly quite negligible in relation to the changes that have been brought or will be brought by technological innovations or major industrial revolutions.
There is metaphorical, but also factual truth in Mahatma Gandhi’s statement that travel is a language of peace, just like there is factual truth in the words of contemporary American novelist Don DeLillo, who says that tourism is a march of stupidity. By travelling, people become more aware of their place in the world and become more tolerant and considerate, and demonstrate greater respect for the unknown. These claims are confirmed by scientific research which shows that people who travel are more creative, open, modest and that travelling particularly increases cognitive flexibility. On the other hand, we have surveys that show that those who travel a lot, in addition to breaking down mental barriers, which is necessary to adapt to new patterns of social interaction and new norms, also partially break down their own moral barriers and behave in a way how they would never act in their own part of the world.
My 20 years of experience of working in tourism confirm the claim that the entire mechanisms of host countries are aimed at travellers who are expected to behave as if they were not too smart, as if they did not know how to talk to people, as if they did not understand what is money, what time it was, what to eat or how to eat. Everything is done according to the “for dummies” model. While that can be somewhat expected, since people visit unfamiliar destinations, we still do not know what kind of effect this “for dummies” adaptation has on the population of the host country…
Let us return to Croatia for a moment. It is true that Croatia is a naturally beautiful country, it is true that, although it is located in the Mediterranean and in the heart of Europe, it is still unexplored and even unknown for most of those over a billion travellers and tourists. It is true that today Croatia is perceived as a safe country and that, with all these other factors, it is very desirable for people who want to travel, or speak in the language of peace, and at the same time suspend part of their intellectual abilities and behave a little bit more irresponsibly.
At the end of the day, there will be more and more tourists and those who manage the construction machinery will continue to build new tourist capacities and use natural resources in new ways, sometimes to the satisfaction of the majority, but mostly to the disgust of the puritan minority. Life will undoubtedly change, as it has always changed, though the speed of change today is perhaps higher than before. Some will perceive this change as desirable, some will not, but that does not make us any different from any other social group today or in the past.
What remains is for us to embrace this change and steer it towards the only viable path, the way of excellence. With excellence, we can fight against stupidity, against mediocrity, against the unsustainable use of natural resources, as well as against unselected and worn images of the past. The only viable path is the path of excellence and for it, I believe, it is still not too late! And, more on excellence some other time…