I had never eaten a pizza before my first visit to Florence. I entered a restaurant, just a short distance from the Duomo and the Uffizi gallery, and found myself the only tourist in a room full of Italians. An elderly lady (she must have been all of 50) encouraged me to try a pizza rather than the safer, more familiar pasta dishes. I watched it being prepared in an enormous oven by a chef who looked as though he might have been a model for one of Donatello's sculptures. I had no idea what to expect but it was delicious.
When I was back in Florence again about five years ago, the Duomo and the Uffizi had survived several decades of mass tourism, but every other shop in the vicinity seemed to have become a pizza parlour. There was no opportunity for interaction with Italians (elderly or otherwise) because most Italians with any sense had gone elsewhere to eat. There was a rumour that the pizzas were imported on a lorry from somewhere like Belarus and their tastelessness suggested that there might be some truth to that. Mass tourism seemed to have killed off social interaction and tasty pizzas in central Florence.
Mass tourism has also had a substantial impact on Barcelona where it featured as a major issue in the city elections two years ago. It is asking a lot for a city of 1.7m people to absorb 32m tourists every year. An opinion poll identified it as the biggest problem after unemployment. Places such as La Boqueria food market, which have been part of the heartbeat of the city for centuries, are increasingly targeting the shopping requirements of the tourists rather than those of the local population and are in danger of driving everyday life away from the centre.
Housing is a major issue in the city and the rents are the highest in Spain. Airbnbs, many of which are not licensed, add to the problem insofar as many properties which might once have housed local people are now used to make quick short-term profits for their landlords. There is a decline in feelings of neighbourliness and certain areas of the city have become uninhabitable for those who aspire to be permanent residents. It is ironic that many of the chatterati who recently flooded into the city to observe the Catalan self-determination campaign did, by their use of Airbnbs, contribute to the difficulty that many people have in determining for themselves where they are going to live.
The mayor, Ada Colau, has engaged strongly with the way in which tourism is overwhelming the city and has sought to use her planning powers to protect the cohesion of community life. In January, the city introduced a law to limit the number of tourist beds, but in a city where tourism brings in 12% of its income this is proving controversial. Ignoring the issue would be even more controversial. At least in a city like Barcelona there is an opportunity to use democratic structures to engage with the problems resulting from mass tourism. In those areas which are thinly populated and are admired for their atmosphere of peace and quiet, it is more difficult for such approaches to be effective.
On Skye this summer, the population rose from its normal 10,000 to 60,000: the pressure of all the additional tourist traffic on single-track roads is enormous and really not sustainable. Local businesses have called for more investment in the infrastructure and the possibility of a tourism tax has been raised. Drivers need to be incentivised to leave their vehicles at their point of arrival as part of a strategy to reduce toxic emissions. Fuel-efficient community minibuses which leave a light footprint on the environment could play a part in taking tourists around the island to the places they want to visit. Many cities now have rent-a-bike schemes and Skye could be looking to do something similar for its visitors.
Music has long been a part of the life of the islands and it can only be a matter of time before we hear more songs about the contradictions of tourists loving a particular environment and destroying it because of their insistence on exploring it in private cars. Competitions could be held in schools and youth groups to support young rappers to write about such peculiarities of island life.
Ways must be found to bring together local residents, local businesses, local authorities, musicians, writers and the tourists themselves to protect the beauty of island life. It should become common sense to celebrate the wonder of the islands rather than allow them to be exploited to death. It wasn't always seen as common sense not to drink and drive; it will take some time before it's seen as equally sensible not to drive and destroy the environment. Mass tourists are not bad people who can be easily identified by a mark on their ear or a secret handshake. We are now all part of the mass tourism phenomenon in one way or another and we have a responsibility for the effect that our behaviour has on the environment of the places we visit.
One of the key catch phrases of the sustainable tourism movement is 'Leave no trace.' The people of Nepal who recently spent a week clearing away four tonnes of rubbish, such as oxygen tanks and plastic bottles, left behind by privileged and entitled mountaineers on the slopes of Everest would doubtless have some sympathy with this phrase. People, of course, want to be care-free when they are on holiday, but we need to develop ways of incorporating our care for the environment and its other residents into our leisure time.
We can all do small things, such as minimising usage of plastic bags, taking our litter home, avoiding food waste, using services where staff are paid a living wage and buying or hiring environmentally friendly cars. We need to develop respect for the places whose beauty we claim to love so much that we need to take selfies there. Respect is also owed to the people who try to live in these places despite the best efforts of the tourist industry to price them out of doing so. We also need to adopt a more questioning attitude to the people who are providing services and the people who are making our laws.
What might seem like niggling pedantries in isolation can, if multiplied, turn into a mass consciousness-changing movement. Organisations in the community will develop the capacity to take forward policies on sustainable tourism but they will only do so if there is sufficient pressure from the grass roots. It does start with us. Future generations on this planet will have no sympathy with those tourists and hospitality profiteers who never bothered to find out the consequences of their throwaway vacations.