The story of Diagoras the boxer moves me, makes me think of him running on the beaches of Rhodes, climbing up the hills to strengthen his thighs and calves, his sons and daughter maybe trailing behind him. A family of pugilists, of Olympic champions. On my sunset runs on the island of Rhodes, back in the fall of 2018, I would gaze at the statue of the victorious father being carried on the shoulders of his two sons. Where was his daughter, Kallipáteira, I wondered. I wish they had included her too.
Those days I used to write during the day at the International Writers’ & Translators’ Centre of Rhodes, then take a break at around 17h. I visited the island in late October, the end of the high season and the beach seemed like the terse skin of a toddler, unblemished. No beer cans, no plastic cups with cocktails, no straws. The deck chairs were gone, stowed away. Only the seagulls peered at me with suspicion. “We can finally get some rest from all the tourists,” a resident told me. “Yes, we need them, it’s crucial for the economy. But you were not here to see it. The cruise ships vomit tourists the whole summer. And the amount of waste. You can’t imagine.”
A holiday trip brings joy, a break from the demands and stress of every day life. Destinations need tourism, no one is going to debate that. But what happens after we’ve dozed off by the pool, floated in the sea and forgotten even if for a day about the mortgage? What do we leave behind us when we go back to “make a living”?
1. Phi Phi Islands, Thailand
Twenty years ago this archipelago in the Andaman Sea was a little corner of eden. Just before the travel restrictions were put in place, as many as 5,000 people arrive each day on boat trips from Krabi and Phuket. Passersby needed to be careful not to ruin someone else’s selfie.
There was a point in time, back in 2018, when the Thai authorities announced plans to close the Bay for four months to give the surrounding coral reef a chance to recover.
Other Thai beaches have been closed off in the past. No information is yet available to reveal how much these quiet periods have helped the submarine life, or if its enough to compensate for the rest of the year.
The days when Leo in Danny Boyle’s film was basking in the sun on a deserted beach from paradise are long gone.
In 1990, an estimated 5,3 million tourists visited the island. The figure for 2018 was 35,5 million. The trend has not gone down since then.
2. Cozumel, Mexico
Cozumel was once a sleepy place. Maya ruins surrounded the inhabited areas; a couple of old churches still stood. Then came the cruise ships. A deepwater pier was built in the 1990s, allowing large vessels to dock but the island’s coral reef was damaged.
Today, Cozumel is one the busiest cruise ports with 3.6m passengers arriving every year, mainly from Florida. To put things in perspective: Venice receives on average 1,6 million cruise ship passengers. Besides the cruise ships, Cozumel receives an additional 600,000 tourists landing at Cozumel airport.
In 1990, Mexico received roughly 17 million tourists. In 2017, the number was 40 million.
3. Big Major Cay, The Bahamas
A colony of pigs colors the sand dunes of Big Mayor Cay island in The Bahamas. Some goats, a handful of stray cats and the pigs conform the island’s only permanent inhabitants. Some people speculate that the pigs were brought to the island to boost tourism. Another theory, closer to an urban legend, recounts that some sailors had brought them on the ship to be slaughtered and cooked but in the torpor of the alcohol guzzling they soon forgot about them.
There are boat trips to see the cute little piglets. Influencers elbow each other to capture the perfect composition for their Instagram fans. Then came the news. In only one year, seven of the pigs died. Tourists were accused of giving alcohol to the pigs, trying to ride on top of them. This type of tourism, in The Bahamas and across the world, keeps growing.
4. Mallorca, Spain
The Serra de Tramuntana mountain range in the north of the island is a magnificent hike all the way to the fortress of Castell d’Alaró which stands at the top like a forlorn sentinel.
Mallorca receives an average of 10,5 million annual visitors, and arts of the island have felt the strain. There have been protests with demonstrators holding sign posts saying, “holiday makers go home”.
The spectacular road to Sa Calobra becomes a nightmare of traffic in peak season and the cruise ships arriving in Palma, the capital, drop off up to 22,000 passengers a day. As many as 500 of those ships dock in the city each year.
Authorities have tried to circumvent the problem by doubling the tourist tax during peak season. They state that a levy of €4 per person per day, depending on the type of accommodation used, could help fund ecological projects, as well as encourage holiday makers to visit out of season. Other measures proposed have included stricter restrictions on Airbnb and a ban on tourists arriving by car.
5. Venice, Italy
In A View of Society and Manners in Italy, John Moore wrote in 1781, “Such a mixed multitude of Jews, Turks and Christians. Such a jumble of senators, citizens, gondoliers, and people of every character and condition.”
Visitors today will find almost nothing but tourists. It is estimated that about 22 million travelers visit the city each year, while the resident population has dwindled to a little under 50,000. The cost of living has skyrocketed. According to some reports found in local media, if the trend continues Venice won’t have a single resident by 2030.
Authorities are trying to tackle the problem by banning new hotels and fast food restaurants. Even an entry fee to visit St Mark’s Square has been suggested. There’s also been an attempt to prevent the largest cruise ships from visiting even if they account for just a fraction of Venice’s annual arrivals.
By re-framing the actual cost of tourism, city and state governments can nudge us to make friendlier environmental choices by including in the price all the economic externalities that we often ignore. But they cannot do everything. Each individual must be accountable for his or her choices -how often we travel and with which goal, how often we buy a water bottle. It does not have to be a discussion about privilege -who can and who can’t afford to pay a premium fee- but who decides to stop and think about the long term effect each consumption choice has on the location one visits. Or else there might come a time when Diagoras and his sons are buried in layers of garbage swept in from the sea.