In 1994, at the British Airways (BA) Travel for Tomorrow Awards launch, Sir Colin Marshall, then chair of BA, let the cat out of the bag when he said that “travel and tourism is the renting out for short term lets of other people’s environments.” Back then, of course, it mainly was the public sphere, but with the growth of the ‘Airbnb phenomenon’ it now includes the local housing stock. Having bought their flight and hotel, many tourists behave as though they own the place, forgetting that the airline and the accommodation provider do not contribute to maintaining the public space the tourist enjoys for free. Taxpaying locals pay to clean up after them.
The public realm is for free, subject to the tragedy of the commons as each tourist maximises their own use of the space and the views, likely complaining about the crowding and congestion, forgetting that they too are part of the crowd, part of the problem. In Firenze, known to tourists and the travel and tourism industries as Florence – recognising that to name a place is in an important sense to own it, some, many (?), seek to correct their visitors.
The traditional Tuscan restaurant L’Osteria di Giovanni’s website explains that others know Firenze as “Florentia, Florence, Florenz, Florencia” (Latin, English, German, Spanish, respectively). “So remember, Firenze is not a tower that you can climb or a sight you can see. It’s our city, and that’s its name. And you might just notice that we like to use it when talking about our city, even when we are talking in English.”
Valene Smith explores the relationship between tourists and locals in her seminal text Hosts and Guests: The Anthropology of Tourism. Smith postulates and examines five types of tourism—historical, cultural, ethnic, environmental, and recreational—and their impact on diverse societies. The idea that tourists might behave like guests is seductive. I, for one, would wish that it was so, and I aspire to behave as a guest engaging with my host. Too often, I fail, partly because of personal frailty, most often because my host has invited too many guests and because of the monetary transactions that characterise tourism. We don’t charge guests invited to dinner or to stay for the weekend, as a guest in a hotel, we expect to pay. In the streets and piazzas, we forget that we have not paid for and do not own the space and that we are a part of the problem of overtourism.
The Vasari Corridor, built in 1565, overlooking the Arno River in Florence, was recently defaced with seven large letters and numbers believed to be about the German football team, Munich 1860. Graffiti asserts ownership. Eike Schmidt, director of the Uffizi Galleries director, pointed out that similar crimes in the US can bring a jail term of five years. He said, “Clearly this is not a drunken whim, but a premeditated act. Enough with symbolic punishments and imaginative extenuating circumstances. We need the hard fist of the law.”
Fortunately, graffiti on this scale is relatively rare. But graffiti has been defacing buildings and caves for centuries.
The selfie is now an epidemic. In Florence, I saw very few cameras, but nearly every tourist was snapping away with their mobile phones.
Trophy photographs are used to demonstrate conspicuous consumption and assert ownership of a memory of the place.
At least now we no longer suffer the holiday photographs when friends and relatives return.