1970s >> 1979 >> no-898-june-1979

On the beach

Everyone — that is, every City Editor, every investment analyst — loves a growth industry. It usually doesn’t matter what the growth is about; the firms which supplied the ovens and the gas to the Nazi concentration camps must have been a growth industry. What matters is growth — the vision of an ever-developing, ever-expanding and therefore, it is assumed, an ever more profitable business.

One of the great growth industries of recent times is the tourist trade; sometimes, as if it were a political theory, called tourism. Six per cent of total international trade is attributable to tourism — more than iron and steel and surpassed only by motor vehicles, chemicals and fuel oil. The World Tourism Organisation, who may be supposed to be not entirely impartial in the matter, claims, “Tourism is no longer a cottage industry . . . today [it] has developed into a major industry”.

Britain, advertised as a place where the scenery varies from the simply pretty to the dramatic and where there are buildings dating back to the Roman occupation, is one of the world’s big tourist attractions. Last year 11.72 million tourists came here, to stare at the scenery, photograph the buildings and dazedly shell out their cash to the riotously charging barrow boys of London. During that same year, 12.86 million people travelled abroad from Britain. Those who came in here spent £857 million more than those who went out spent abroad a bias on the balance of payments such as to please any City Editor.

For a favourable balance of payments, like a growth industry, is everyone’s favourite. This (although there are arguments that even by the standards of capitalist accounting the advantages are often more apparent than real) is one of the inducements for the ‘developing’countries to build up a tourist trade. In these cases, the state takes a close interest in the trade; there is usually a Ministry of Tourism and some impressive government subsidies and investment as well as other help. Sometimes the capital for the development has other sources. One American travel firm planned to take over an entire African country, with “no economy, no nothing” and to “merchandise it . . .  so the entire country is run as a beautiful place’’. (The money was to come from Rothschilds.)

Lego
This drive to ravage some defenceless part of the world into a paradise for the tourist trade gives tourism a bad image. The industry has its apologists, whose efforts sometimes have a note of desperation:

  Anyone concerned with the motivation of travel has to realise first that he is reaching deep into one of the major conflicts of the human mind; a desire for sameness, the return to the womb, if you wish; conflicting with the motivation to reach out and discover the world. In a sublimated fashion, a trip is therefore a form of birth or rebirth. (Dr. Ernst Dichter, Address to the Department of Travel, Kashmir, October 1967.)

Rather closer to the reality of the balance sheet the trade says it aims to supply hopeful people, on their annual release from the job with a little money to spend, with the Four Esses — Sun, Sea, Sand. Sex. And in pursuit of the profits to be made from that, the tourist trade has invested millions into ships, aircraft, motor coaches, airports, roads, beaches. It has raised hotels which all appear as if they have been built from the same Lego set, where among the palms and the sunbrellas workers can lie roasting like fowls on the spit, hoping to take a sun tan back to the office.

Behind the illusions, tourism has had a dramatic, even drastic, effect on the social fabric of the places it has invaded. In 1955 Torremolinos was a tiny, poverty-stricken village on the south-east coast of Spain. Then the developers’ eye fell upon it and now the Lego is everywhere, the Thomas Cook brochure describes it as “. . . exuberant [with] all the essentials of a modern resort: bars, boutiques, restaurants, beer cellars, clubs, golf courses, yacht marinas . . . One observer has summed up this trend:

  Tourism . . . is no less an industry than steel manufacture and its introduction into Alpine valleys has been no less destructive of total population patterns and traditional culture than if each hotel had been a blast furnace. (The Geography of Recreation and Leisure, Cosgrove and Jackson.)

Pollution
This aspect is beginning to worry the tourist trade, and much of the writing on it is now concerned with a call for something called a Tourism Policy, by which is meant a controlled development of tourism. It also worries the ecology lobby. The summit of Mount Snowdon is literally being worn away by the millions of feet which trample over it. In the season, a city like London suffers exhaust fumes made even denser by the fleets of taxis, cars, buses, coaches needed to move the tourists from one box office to the next. Outside the city the big jets scream to and from the airport on their carpet of noise, a 707 at take-off generates the same sound level as all the world’s population shouting in unison — and this can happen every few minutes, nearly every hour of every day.

But for the present the pollution which it causes is a lesser worry for the tourist industry. Of more immediate concern, because it offers an imminent threat to profits, is the bogey of saturation. If too many people visit the same place and overwhelm the available facilities, they may have the kind of experience to persuade them not to buy that holiday again. London, which lies fourth in the league table of saturation, measured by tourist nights spent per 100 residents, is getting near that point. Moving around the city in the summer is difficult, almost impossible, as the visitors from abroad add their weight to the rush-hour miseries of the travelling workers. In Westminster Abbey the crush is so great that an admission charge has been imposed, and after paying to go in the visitors are channelled along roped-off routes with no waiting allowed to look at anything.

This illustrates a contradiction of tourism which (although it may not occur to the Ford worker inflicting his Spanish on some hapless English-speaking bartender on the Costa Brava) is typical of capitalist society. Tourism has grown from the pressures of industrial capitalism. It was the concentrations of urban life — factories, close-piled slums, relentless exploitation — which spawned the need to get away from it all as well as the faster and more efficient means of doing so.

It took some time for the workers to establish that a holiday is an essential part of the recreation of their labour power. As this need is now accepted, and as many workers now get three or even four weeks break each year, the tourist industry has grown to market that recreation. This can assume some startling forms but who cares, as long as it sells? So holiday camps marshall their millions into obedient queues and into nerve-wracking competitions to find the funniest face in the place. Package tours take care of everything except stomachs abruptly overfull of unusual food and booze. Jet planes pack in their economy passengers as tight as a bus, easing the discomforts with the plastic smile of a leg-weary hostess. Somewhere among all this gusty enjoyment, say the industry’s salesmen, batteries are recharged; the line at Ford’s flows freer for it.

So big business is interested in an efficient holiday industry and the tourist trade has answered this by itself becoming big business. It is becoming increasingly harder for the small firm to survive. The British hotel industry is dominated by companies like Trust House Forte (who try to promote a cosier image by advertising that all their employees wear unctuous smiles) and Grand Metropolitan (who also own Express Dairies, Watneys and the Express Newspapers). Behind them is some of the latest, most expensive technology, Holiday Inns has a central computer link-up which is said to be the world’s largest private communications network.

In package holidays, three firms — Clarksons (the largest in the world), Thomsons and Horizon account for over half the business originating in Britain, leaving the rest to seventy-odd smaller operators. Governments offer a wide range of subsidies (in Britain a grant of £1,000 was available for every hotel bedroom completed before 1973), tax allowances, low interest loans and so on. They also invest a lot of money directly in the trade; two-thirds of the airlines in the IATA are wholly or partly state owned. At the same time, governments impose laws on safety and consumer standards, many of which can be met only by the bigger operators. The 1971 Fire Precautions Act, which laid down regulations about fire safety in hotels, caused thousands of small hotels and guest houses to close or to change their use.

Jaws
These laws are designed to prevent the profit motive running riot to the point of being counter-productive and to encourage a more orderly investment of capital in the industry. A bad experience, caused by a rush to get a quick profit, can damage the industry overall; and that is the sort of thing governments are supposed to prevent. The film Jaws showed how tills operates, and there are many examples of it in real life. In 1962 the Swiss ski resort of Zermatt suffered an epidemic of typhoid caused by its neglect of the water supply in favour of building hotels, ski lifts and the like. In 1973 the typhoid bacteria was found in the water in Miami. The authorities could not ignore the problem, as had happened at Zermatt; they advised everyone to boil all their water but refused to use words like ‘contamination’ which, although accurate, might have damaged their holiday bookings.

Workers who spend their lives on the treadmill of exploitation need to buy a holiday once in a while, to restore themselves. The industry which sells these holidays is now big business and operates under all the contradictions of any capitalist enterprise. The rush to invest in tourism has proved environmentally damaging — although the ‘environment’ is usually an essential part of the commodity which the industry sells. In some ‘developing’ countries the tourist trade has been built up at the expense of other industries which, by the standards by which capitalism judges profits —might well prove to be more worthwhile. A mess which is typical in a society where wealth is turned out to make profits and not to satisfy human needs.

There is a final irony. Holidays are about illusions, about forgetting reality for a while. But the trade which markets those illusions is itself being forced up against its own reality. And it is not always having a lovely time.

Ivan