As the coronavirus pandemic brought travel to a screeching halt, an industry that had been growing rapidly thanks to budget airlines, the sharing economy, and Instagram culture (to name a few reasons) suddenly had to reckon with a future that looked permanently altered. But with this pause comes the opportunity to reroute—to address the social, environmental, and economic issues that arise from tourism, for better and certainly for worse.
At the start of 2020, more people were traveling than ever before, especially by plane. Some were traveling voraciously. As Instagram—ten years old this fall—helped make the sheer act of travel into a possible career, a growing number traveled like it was their job, their identity, their personal brand. The pursuit of checking off 30 countries before age 30 got its own hashtag.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic grounded even the most determined travelers among us.
Flights, hotels, and adventures were canceled, and ticket-holders were left home to meditate on something we all shared: vulnerability. Anyone could catch a virus. And anyone, traveling to another place, could bring the virus with them.
The pandemic has changed the physical and logistical realities of travel—at least for the near future. But in the communities that rely on tourism, and that grapple with overtourism, there are other kinds of changes that residents hope will have staying power.
“The coronavirus pandemic marks the end of our romance with market society and hyper-individualism,” Eric Klinenberg, a New York University professor of sociology, told Politico in March. “I don’t think we will become less communal. Instead, we will be better able to see how our fates are linked.”
Dorsoduro, Venice: Appreciate the Calm
Across the stone-and-iron Ponte San Trovaso, the front window of the Cantine del Vino già Schiavi is a rainbow of wine- and liquor-bottle labels.
Inside, cicchetti—Venetian bruschetta topped with egg and herring, or grilled squid, or ricotta and flower petals—fill glass cases at the end of the counter. Worn wooden shelves of wine rise from dark-red clay tile floors to the wooden beams of the ceiling, and stretch back from one room to the cave-like next. The Gastaldis took over this 18th-century tavern in the 1940s, and for nearly 60 years, Alessandra De Respinis has worked behind the bar.
“When my parents started running the place, Venice was still a city full of people living in the city,” her son Tommaso Gastaldi wrote to me. “Then slowly [Venetians] started moving to the mainland, mainly because of the housing costs, and Venice became a tourist attraction. We also could see that the city lost some of its soul. This soul still exists thanks to the people who live and work here, but it seems to be more and more difficult to keep it.”
Over the decades that De Respinis has served her iconic cicchetti, the population of Venice decreased by more than half. Affordable housing began to disappear; locally owned businesses failed and artisan workshops were driven out; hotels, vacation rentals, and souvenir shops usurped space and drove up real estate prices; foreign business interests drained money from the local economy instead of bolstering it. News coverage of the effects of tourism in Venice over the past five years hasn’t managed to prevent these effects from accelerating.
“Venice has to become again a city with a soul and a life—not just scenography for Instagrammers.”
Before the pandemic, Gastaldi said business at the bacaro was booming: His family was accustomed to 10-to-12-hour days, serving “hundreds of people” each weekend, some locals, some foodies (some following in the footsteps of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who were spotted there by the tabloids while filming, appropriately, The Tourist). Then, suddenly, in early March, the 70-hour weeks stopped. Gastaldi retreated into his home, cleaning, reading books, and listening to music for weeks on end, for the first time in his life.
The pandemic took nearly 2,000 lives in the Veneto region this spring, but those who were spared of it had the city’s space, silence, and beauty all to themselves, Gastaldi said—and as surreal a time as it was, they knew they had to take from it what they could.
Approximately 24 million of the 30 million people who visit Venice each year are just there for the day. A large percentage of those in that category arrive via the massive cruise ships that threaten the floating city’s delicate foundation. In March, the media was in a frenzy to report how, in the stillness, birds and fish returned to the lagoon and canals. Photoshopped images of dolphins circulated online. But for Venice’s residents, the real-life presence of mallards and minnows was unbelievable enough.
Across Italy, tourism fuels the economy. In Venice, it yields an estimated €3 billion in gross revenue per year; in Florence, the taxes from Airbnb hosts and hotel stays generate $52 million annually, which is indispensable to maintaining the city’s infrastructure. The pandemic was also a chance to see what would happen if all of that disappeared.
“We have a monoculture with tourism, but now, with no tourists, the city is economically dead, and many people lost their jobs,” Gastaldi said. As of May, some 20,000 people across the region were newly unemployed. Despite Venice’s reliance on tourism, Gastaldi believes that immediately returning to the way things were is not the answer. “Venice has to become again a city with a soul and a life—not just scenography for Instagrammers,” he says.
By June 1, some piazzas were full again, not with tourists, but with Venetians, fighting to not let an opportunity for change escape their grasp. They gathered on socially distanced chalk asterisks with banners and signs, protesting the building of new ship moorings in one of the city’s last quiet neighborhoods. Niente cambia se non cambi niente, their signs read. Nothing changes if you don’t change anything.
The city’s councillor for tourism, Paola Mar, told The Guardian at the start of June that her office is planning ways to lure locals back as full-time residents: shifting real estate from the vacation rental market to serve students and citizens, slapping a long-awaited limit on cruise ship traffic, and charging a theme park–like entry fee to most day-trippers.
None of these policies are yet fully realized, and most Venetians suspect many never will be, calling them “meaningless political maneuvering” by officials who live outside of Venice but profit off its exploitation. According to restaurateur and native Venetian Giovanni Pietro “GP” Francesco Maria Cremonini, the lockdown did offer an opportunity for change, but, he said, “there is not any political will.” It must come from somewhere else.
Cremonini can often be found standing in the door of Ristorante Riviera, which he opened ten years ago, just a few blocks from the Gastaldis’ bacaro in Venice’s Dorsoduro neighborhood. There, his manifesto is printed right on the menu, and the gist is: Eating good food with natural, local ingredients is an act of respect; living and working as a Venetian is an act of resistance in itself.
In late May, as Venice prepared to reopen, he rowed a bright-red gondola through the canals with his smartphone, making short videos of all his fellow restaurateurs at places like Il Mercante, Local, Osteria Tre Fanti, and generations-old family-owned Vini da Gigio and Trattoria Vittoria. Chefs and owners stood in front of their still-shuttered businesses, sharing why they do what they do, and why Venice.
According to recent reporting by CNN, 99 percent of restaurants in the most touristy districts of Venice are foreign-owned. Cremonini hopes that even gestures as small as these videos, which he posted to social media with subtitles, might help give tourists a stronger sense of Venice’s history, culture, and place—and direct them to businesses that feed the city, not businesses that eat away at it.
His activism, and similar efforts by his neighbors, are smaller pieces of a bigger citizen-led movement: An organization called Venezia Autentica helps make tourists aware of which businesses are locally owned and operated, by way of door stickers and digital maps; We Are Here Venice advocates for policy and last year launched a street art campaign designed to inform cruise ship passengers of their disproportionate environmental impact in cringe-inducing detail. (In Venice, air pollution is five to six times higher than W.H.O. guidelines; 81 cruise ships in September will have their engines running for a total of 1,230 hours.)
“It’s an incredible moment because we don’t know what we’re going to find in front of us.”
The type of tourism Cremonini and many of his neighbors are asking for—in which visitors stay longer, support more local businesses, care more—is reminiscent of another “slow” movement that has risen to counter accelerating modernization. The Slow Food movement was born in Italy in the late 1980s to protest the construction of what was then the world’s largest McDonald’s near the Spanish Steps in Rome. The movement’s manifesto compares fast food—and the social and corporate forces that try to make it ubiquitous—to a “virus” that “fractures our customs and assails us even in our own homes.”
To eat slow food, the movement says, is to eat “good,” “clean,” and “fair,” to reject mass-produced, nutritionless foods with big carbon footprints or exploitive labor systems. A slow travel movement—to Venice or anywhere—would operate by the same principles. Good, clean, and fair tourism could make individual passion for travel inextricable from civic responsibility.
Before the pandemic, travelers were already beginning to push back on the frantic pace of Instagram-era travel. Responsible tourism was on the rise, flight-shaming was introduced, luxury long-haul train travel made a comeback, and the backlash against the cruise industry was gaining steam even before thousands of passengers were trapped aboard by coronavirus.
Now, tourism poses a more immediate health risk to travelers and to the communities they visit. Experts predict the cost of travel will eventually rise, due to the possible reduction in flights and the possible consolidation of struggling airlines following the slowdown. And remote work will change how we take and spend “time off.” An era of slow travel may be not only a necessity but an inevitability.
It’s an incredible moment, Cremonini told me with the same wide-eyed wonderment as a good tourist, because we don’t know what we’re going to find in front of us.
Tórshavn, Faroe Islands: A Sustainable Tourism Economy
The Faroe Islands—a waterbound nation about the size of Oahu floating between Scotland’s Northern Isles and Iceland—wanted Google Street View. Following a rare total solar eclipse in 2015 that brought 10,000 visitors to the otherwise isolated and unknown destination, some Faroes citizens thought Street View would help make the Faroes more visible to outsiders, more accessible and more navigable. When Google declined to provide the resources to make it happen, the Faroese went ahead and did it themselves, with sheep. They called it Sheep View.
With a population similar to that of Venice, but with three-and-a-half times as much land and one five-hundredth as many tourists annually, the Faroe Islands have seen tourism grow at a rate of about 10 percent a year since 2016, the year Sheep View launched. Many want it to keep growing.
“The benefits of tourism are indirect,” Levi Hanssen of Visit Faroe Islands told me over Skype from his office in the capital city of Tórshavn, population 13,000. One is that, where the male-dominated industries of fishing and fisheries employ 90 percent of the export economy, tourism has created jobs for women. “We’ve had a shortage of women here,” Hanssen said—but jobs in the tourism industry make it possible for female workers to stay, or to move back.
“We realized we need quality over quantity.”
But right next door, the Faroese can see the drawbacks of a bustling tourism economy: Iceland’s tourism industry has grown 400 percent in the past decade. Now, it is one of the most tourism-dependent countries in the world, facing overcrowding and the trampling of fragile landscapes.
“We felt as though we were heading in the same direction as Iceland. They opened their gates and brought in as many people as possible—large groups of people,” Tummas Rubeksen, cofounder and guide for a small tour company, Heimdal Tours, told me. But with narrow roads, quiet villages, similarly fragile landscapes (sub-Arctic moss grows less than half an inch a year), and comparatively scant infrastructure, the Faroes’ culture and ecosystem could face even more devastating threats from unchecked crowds.
So, Rubeksen said, as tourists began arriving in larger numbers, the arbiters of tourism in the Faroes found themselves looking inward. Rubeksen’s own tour company was among the first to focus on smaller groups, which are less impactful on the environment and less disruptive to the daily life of locals.
The government responded as well, paying closer attention, Hanssen said, to the type of travelers that were arriving. “In the tourism industry, most are wary about naming one particular segment,” he told me. “I think at the end of the day, research shows that the Faroe Islands is not particularly well-suited to the cruise industry. We realized we need quality over quantity.”
Toward sustainable tourism, Visit Faroe Islands put forth a unified manifesto as part of its national tourism strategy: the “Preservolution.” The manifesto calls for sustainable practices such as cruise ship number and size limitations, and dates that would be set aside each year when tourists would, instead of sightseeing, spend their time volunteering to assist with pre-planned, coordinated infrastructure projects, like improved footpaths that reduce visitors’ wear and tear the rest of the year. In each of the first two years that the volunteer program was offered, thousands of applicants vied for just 100 spots.
Rubeksen and his tour company cofounder, David Whale, agree there are still more steps to be taken to help control the growth of tourism in the Faroes and keep it healthy: regulating the expansion of rental-car companies, which have expanded tenfold in the past few years; outlawing drones, which disrupt bird habitats (not to mention invade locals’ privacy); and better regulating the hikers and photographers tromping through puffin nesting habitats.
The forced hiatus of the pandemic has been “a great opportunity to change those things that didn’t work,” Rubeksen said, and to improve infrastructure and walkways at popular sites.
“There’s room for everybody,” Whale added. “You just have to monitor it.”
If the idea of being a traveler was all about declaring one’s independence, being supervised by a host destination may not have previously appealed. But in a new era where tourists recognize the vulnerability of the communities they visit, respecting a host’s house rules suddenly seems like the natural thing to do.
Crenshaw Boulevard, South L.A.: Uplifting Communities
While emerging tourism economies around the world are evaluating the kind of tourism they need, some American communities are doing the same.
After World War II, the Crenshaw District of South Los Angeles was one of the largest Japanese-American communities in California. By the 1970s, the neighborhood had evolved into the pulsing heart of Black commerce in L.A. and later became a magnet for the West Coast hip-hop scene. But in 2008, the city launched plans for a new high-speed rail project to carry passengers—including the city’s estimated 50 million tourists per year—from LAX to Downtown and Hollywood. The train was laid out to run overground, directly through the Crenshaw District, chopping it in half.
First, gentrification along the train route led to Black-owned businesses being pushed out of their leases. Then, construction, which has been underway for approximately five years, felled hundreds of trees and caused minority-owned businesses to struggle and fold, their street parking and pedestrian access tangled in construction nets and cement rubble.
“The African American history of Los Angeles is extremely rich—as rich as any city in the country.”
“The African American history of Los Angeles is extremely rich—as rich as any city in the country,” Los Angeles councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson told a reporter last year. “There ought to be a place, like we have Chinatown, like we have the Fairfax district, like we have Little Tokyo, like we have San Pedro…that calls out the contributions of African Americans building this region.”
Destination Crenshaw, a 12-block, open-air “linear outdoor museum,” is going to be that place. A response to the railway, and an urgent attempt to preserve and foster the Crenshaw community’s Black history, the outdoor destination’s aim is to fortify the community instead of letting it be erased. Shortly before the project broke ground in February of 2020, Joanne Kim, senior advisor to Harris-Dawson, described it to me as “a holistic transformation that doesn’t replace, but that affirms what’s there,” with more than 100 “unapologetically Black” art installations amidst nearly a mile and a half of Black culture–inspired green spaces and gathering places, and “culturally stamped” sidewalks, facades, and other public infrastructure.
One of Destination Crenshaw’s central green spaces, Sankofa Park, takes its name from a Ghanaian word meaning “go back and get it,” or “go back to the past and bring forward that which is useful.” According to Zena Howard, the architect who also led the design of the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture, the “sankofa” concept is the driving force of Destination Crenshaw’s design as well.
Tourism to Destination Crenshaw can help foster the survival and health of local businesses, such as Dulan’s On Crenshaw, Hotville Chicken, Eso Won Books, and Swift Cafe. But tourism is more than just economic development—it serves to acknowledge the cultural significance of a place. To be a tourist who engages with a place’s true culture is also an act of respect.
In South L.A., just as in any other destination, communities will be hoping for slower, more thoughtful tourism—tourists who care about a place and, in all senses, leave it improved. 2020 could usher in this age. But as they say in Venice, Niente cambia se non cambi niente. Nothing changes if you don’t change anything.