Never before have so many people traveled so far, and for such a light-hearted reason: to see something different from what they see at home. Already by 2005, half a billion people annually were traveling to foreign countries, and that number has more than doubled since. Hyper-globalization has produced hundreds of millions of new tourists and created new challenges for their destinations. While much of this change is positive in economic terms, the ongoing invasion of global cities by people who stay for a few days or a few weeks can fundamentally transform the character of places whose unique charms are what attracted tourists in the first place.
The growth of the global middle-class has driven world travel. China, a leading example, has amassed trillions of dollars in new wealth, and the new affluent class that enjoys this money wants to spend some of it abroad. Chinese families and students are not the only new global tourists, though. The expansion of the middle class in formerly Third World countries has helped increase tourism numbers from Brazil, Mexico, India, Chile, and South Korea, as New York’s own arrival figures show, in addition to the Japanese, American, and European tourists still eager to see the world.
Tourists go everywhere, but they concentrate in the same historic cities: London, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, and New York, among others. This week, Paris announced that tourism during the first half of the year had reached a record high of 17.1 million people, 700,000 more than last year. London had 22.7 million overseas visitors last year. New York boasted 13.1 million—an all-time high, despite concerns early last year that people would stay away in protest or fear of President Trump.
It’s a cliché to groan about the latest influx of tourists, but the large numbers of people traipsing through the West’s historic central cities do create a new people-management problem. Central-city sidewalks designed decades or centuries ago can’t handle today’s foot traffic, particularly when people don’t walk like the local commuters and residents of decades ago did. Today’s pedestrians walk slowly, several abreast, stop frequently to take photos or look at maps on their ever-available phones, and wheel bulky luggage behind them, ensuring that fast walkers can’t pass. Tourists to a large extent have become the central cities. In the two decades that I’ve been going to Europe at least once a year, visitors have morphed from relatively modest groups of people who could mingle less obtrusively with the locals on their way to work or at their daily tasks to large convoys of people who define the daytime population, particularly in the summertime, on subway cars, in parks, and on key avenues and streets.
The radical change in the makeup of pedestrian traffic has changed the streets themselves. Paris’s rue Cler is a traditional market street, with a butchery, a fromagerie, a bakery, an appetizing shop (for duck pâté and the like), a fish store, and a flower shop. Nearly two decades ago, travel-guide impresario Rick Steves made the rue Cler famous with his advice to his hundreds of thousands of readers and viewers to take a tour down “a small lane in a great city” and “decide if you want to call this slice of Paris home for a few days.” But foreign visitors haven’t just enjoyed the rue Cler; they’ve remade it. The butcher shop now offers sandwiches to go, to take in a little cash from the people ooh-lah-lahing over the raw meat behind the counter. The obscure pâté store now offers a small outdoor-seating area, to diversify its customer base away from elderly French women on their daily shopping walk.
With tourists now defining the streets, it’s harder, too, to try to act like a local. One must be determined and stubborn to practice one’s French in France. Today, anyone in Western Europe under 50 grew up taking English lessons and was absorbed in American culture from infancy. It’s second nature for a younger French person to slip into English after hearing a tentative slip from an intermediate speaker in the wrong accent. Older people, too, have surrendered to the force of the world’s global language. A block away from the rue Cler, bakery workers well into their sixties sell pastries to American and Chinese visitors, fully in English. This change is a loss as well as a gain. One is never forced even to try to speak another person’s language, and nobody carries a foreign-language dictionary today, just as no one carries a wrinkly map. Indeed, the British papers report that young Britons aren’t bothering to learn European languages anymore, and it’s easy to see why.
While these changes may be cultural curiosities, twenty-first-century tourism is causing deeper tensions. Airbnb, the global firm that allows people to rent out spare bedrooms or whole apartments to strangers, positions itself as a company that helps people from different cultures connect with one another. But it has seen a global backlash over the past half-decade, with new restrictions popping up from Amsterdam to Tokyo to New York. Accommodation in or near historic cities, whether for residents or visitors, is a finite resource. Though cities can and should build more incremental housing, constructing hundreds of thousands of new cookie-cutter housing units in or near key attractions overnight would make them no longer key attractions. In dense areas of New York, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, and other cities, tens of thousands of apartments have been emptied of permanent residents, of all income classes, to make way for transient tourists.
In the past half-decade, city officials, after much prodding by their voters, have tried to deal with this problem constructively, creating and enforcing new regulations on short-term stays. Some frustrated locals, though, are less high-minded; in Barcelona, guerrilla protesters are unfurling banners counseling British partiers to jump off balconies for sport. Indeed, more than half-a-dozen British tourists have died in Spanish balcony falls this year, some fatally injured by playing a deadly game of attempting to jump from one perch to another. Now, some hotels and apartment complexes are enclosing their balconies to keep their drunken foreign wards alive—and in the process making Europe a little less European.
Spanish residents and officials, in addition to having to deal with the traumatic aftermath of these senseless deaths, have to contend with people cavorting drunk, on drugs, and topless in the streets on a daily basis. “People cannot rest,” Barceloneta Neighbors’ Association vice president Manel Martinez told the U.K. Telegraph. “Many residents are leaving the barrio . . . because they cannot go on living like this.” City officials have said that they’ll curtail group-tourist visits to a local fruit, vegetable, and flower market “to prevent the area from being overcome by them.”
Yet across Europe, and in New York, tourists, the people who serve them, and the people who provide the “local color”—such as regular French people sitting at a cafe in France thoughtfully speaking French for the incidental enrichment of Americans at a neighboring table—are interdependent. In a post-industrial world where the real work is increasingly done by robots—or by low-wage migrants who cross borders for economic opportunity—tourism has become our collective export-import industry, whether one is a waiter, a consumer, or a besieged global-city resident, feeling as much a part of the scenery as the Eiffel Tower or Times Square.