We do not often talk about tourism in industrial terms. Certain particular ills of the industry — the environmental calamity of exploding air travel; the pressure on rents due to Airbnb, etc. — feel current and salient, but they are often discussed in a vacuum, or as sui generis problems to be addressed one by one. Venice is sinking. Pasty Americans are trying to ride sea turtles on Mexican beaches. Landlords in New York are throwing out renters in order to transform entire apartment blocks into short-term rentals for tourists.
I am increasingly convinced that we need to regard tourism as an industrial problem, and that those of us on the socialist left need to think about it in the broad terms of economic and environmental justice that we try to apply to other areas of the economy. I do not think that people should stop traveling; I wish more people could travel, and more often! How, though, can travel be decommodified and democratized? How do we reimagine it as a driver of human exchange, international solidarity, and constructive contribution to both the built and natural environments?
Every event in the second decade of the 21st century is defined by a reaction and then by a reaction to the reaction. And so, when the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris caught fire on April 15, the first responses were shock and horror, followed quickly — even as the building still burned — by a counter-response: roughly, that to shed tears for the destruction of one expensive building in one expensive city in one of the expensive centers of the Western world while so many immeasurably greater human tragedies had occurred and were, right then, occurring, was a kind of despicable chauvinism. How many people died in Yemen, perhaps the world’s most brutal, pointless, violent catastrophe, during the few hours of the fire? How many synagogues and black churches have burned over the centuries, mostly unnoted? False equivalencies, but the Internet does not allow for much nuance.
It’s a humbling experience to realize just how much you are a product of your times. I was sitting in my office, eating a sandwich, agonizing over an email to a colleague with whom I have an occasionally strained relationship, and half-watching Twitter when the first images and videos of the fire began to appear. I found a streaming French newscast and watched it for the rest of the afternoon, feeling both horrified and a bit guilty for how viscerally horrified I was.
How do we reimagine travel as a driver of human exchange, international solidarity, and constructive contribution to both the built and natural environments?
I went to Paris for the first time when I was 15 and have been back many times. When I was in college, I spent a semester living in Strasbourg, and even though Strasbourg is itself an almost unutterably lovely city with its own Cathédrale de Notre-Dame that is, I think, more beautiful than its far more famous Parisian sibling was, I used to waste my money on train tickets and hostel rooms for quick weekend trips to the capital. I learned its neighborhoods and its metro stops. I now know that city far better than the great and famous cities of my own country, better than New York or L.A. or D.C., where I’ve also spent some considerable amount of time. As a gay kid, Paris held an aspirational allure; I could imagine myself being fancy in its fancy streets. Now that I am older, I would rather eat Chinese dumplings in the Belleville restaurant that my boyfriend showed me, but my love for the place has only deepened.
Returning to a city every couple of years makes incremental, subtle changes to neighborhood and texture feel much more acute. Paris may be prettier now than it’s ever been before, but at a cost. There is still too much traffic, but congestion pricing has had a noticeable effect. The riverfronts, once given over to highway traffic, have largely been reclaimed as parks and promenades. It is very clean. Compared to New York’s dreary, damp subway, the Paris Metro is an incredible model of cleanliness and efficiency.
But the city also feels increasingly preserved under glass. I never had much use for Notre Dame, to be honest. The Ile-de-la-cité absolutely thronged around the cathedral, with vast herds of tourists shuffling toe-to-heel around the plaza and through the monument — tens of millions a year. It is surrounded by awful restaurants, tchotchke shops, caricaturists, tour buses. Parisians actively avoid the whole area.
Even outside of the dense, touristic center, though, much of the city feels increasingly designed to be visited rather than lived in. Residential streets are full of bemused tourists hauling luggage toward their Airbnb apartments, but no one seems to actually reside there anymore. The gruff hauteur of clerks and waiters who refused to speak their perfectly decent English and pretended not to understand your mangled French is much reduced; everyone seems to speak English readily, perhaps because no one speaks German, Mandarin, Arabic, Russian.
These phenomena aren’t unique to Paris. You see them in Manhattan and wide swathes of Brooklyn, throughout huge chunks of Washington, D.C., where the black population that in 1970 made up over 70 percent of the population is down to 50 percent and evidence of the former “Chocolate City” has been razed away to make room for restaurants that serve $40 brunch. You see it in Austin, Texas, which is still awfully fun to visit but has by no stretch of the imagination stayed “weird,” the hopeful cry of local preservationists and business owners that was almost immediately co-opted as a tourism marketing ploy. It is even true in my own small hometown of Pittsburgh, which has seen a shocking transformation from its postindustrial decay and malaise, which the national press can’t stop begging you to visit, but which also boasts some of the most segregated neighborhoods and worst racial-income disparities in America.
Tourism is an industry, and just as manufacturing industries shaped the great global cities of the 19th and 20th centuries, tourism shapes them today. In superficial ways, it shapes them for the better. They are often — just like Paris — very pretty, and very clean. But they are also increasingly oriented toward and designed for a transient elite. Oh, we can all scoff at the super-rich and their vacant luxury pieds-à-terre all over the world, but even the tourism of a weekend in a hotel in a cute neighborhood in a city you always wanted to visit is a luxury good, available to a narrow global caste of the relatively rich.
Some cities have made modest regulatory efforts. Venice has banned the largest cruise ships, although it is a half-measure (it applies only to the very largest vessels) and has been dogged by bureaucratic and logistical delays. Cities from New York to Mallorca, Spain have attempted to crack down on the excesses of Airbnb — here too with limited success. On the other hand, French President Emmanuel Macron has already announced that there will be an international architecture competition to design a replacement spire for Notre Dame, which promises not only to produce a lot of ghastly showboating from a gormless cohort of transnational “starchitects,” but also to make the cathedral an even bigger tourist attraction, when any sensible preservation project would set crowd limits and regular maintenance closures as central criteria.
Even the tourism of a weekend in a hotel in a cute neighborhood in a city you always wanted to visit is a luxury good.
But we know that mere regulation of industry is insufficient to curb capitalism’s innate drive to grow, consume, and destroy. Somewhat counterintuitively, then, I think that a solution to the abuses of the tourism industry is to apply that wonderful, basic, universal socialist principle: make it free at the point of use. Like health care, retirement, housing, and art, travel too should be subsidized by the state. Reliable public forms of transit and adequate time off from wage-earning would allow people to travel more slowly and stay in places longer. Interestingly, the medieval world that gave us the gothic cathedrals had some modest version of such infrastructure, largely maintained by their own universal institution, the church, for the benefit of the closest thing that world had to tourists: pilgrims.
I don’t advocate that we all start sleeping in monasteries while we’re on the road, but it shouldn’t be such a radical idea that a society that can build social housing can’t also build low-cost accommodations for tourists. Maybe a few of the people who will rent rooms to strangers over a website for a fee in order to make some extra money will even welcome visitors into their homes for free in a society where money is less important and less hard to come by than it is in ours.