Creating Europe through tourism?

One of the long-running stories in the British media over the summer has been the antics of British tourists in the Greek resort of Faliraki on the island of Rhodes. Stories of the misadventures of ‘Brits abroad’ have been a staple of the British media over the last few years, fuelled by TV programmes like the Uncovered series that’s highlighted various resorts over the year such as Ibiza and Ayia Napa, but this year there’s actually been a real story for them to focus on. First, a British tourist was killed in a bar brawl and then others were arrested for lewd conduct and indecent exposure, giving the media a chance to moralise and ‘why oh why?’ about what goes on when British youth meets the Mediterranean.

However, while the existence of resorts like Faliraki is often portrayed as a new development, it can be seen as merely the latest incarnation of the British experience of the rest of Europe as a location for escape from the realities of life at home.

The visit to ‘the Continent’ can be seen as something that’s gradually spread down through the classes over the years, as increased prosperity at home, coupled with reductions in the costs of transport have made travel outside of the British Isles affordable to almost all. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, ‘the Continent’ was the preserve of the aristocracy and the upper classes with the ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe being seen as one of the activities that helped define a young man or woman. France was the main beneficiary of this early tourism with its resorts on both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean receiving an influx of well-heeled British travellers, while Paris became synonymous with licentiousness and decadence, exemplified by the visits of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) around the turn of the twentieth century (perhaps taking this as an example, his grandson would later depart to France with Mrs Simpson after his abdication).

For the common man though, Europe would still remain a mystery, a place they would only experience as a soldier, not as a tourist. While the elites would have Beauvais, Cannes or San Tropez, they would have Blackpool, Skegness and Clacton-on-Sea. Certain travellers would go to Europe, but tourists and holidaymakers would remain on their side of the Channel until well into the 1950s and 60s when a combination of cheap flights and the Franco government’s need for foreign currency would open up Spain to tourists from Britain and the rest of Northern Europe, eager for holidays where sun was guaranteed. At the same time, the Grand Tour would be reborn by means of the Inter-Rail pass which would soon become the stereotypical holiday of the university student while Amsterdam, with its open availability of sex and drugs, would supplant Paris as the mythical home of continental licentiousness.

Other countries would follow the Spanish example – Portugal, the Adriatic coasts of Italy and Yugoslavia, Greece and even the Black Sea coast of Romania and Bulgaria would be developed in turn with each new development becoming more and more like a home away from home as Christopher Brookmyre describes in his novel One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night:

When the technology allowed, Simone believed, we would one day see rotund Glaswegians in garments bearing the legend: ‘My pal went to the second moon of Jupiter and all I got was this lousy t-shirt’ – these being gifts from their radiation-blistered neighbours, who will have at length regaled them of where to get the best full English breakfast on Neptune, while complaining that the Martians still haven’t learrned to do a decent fish supper.
‘Make the world England’ had been the motto of imperialist ambition. Where invasion and colonisation had failed, tourism was rampantly succeeding. The poet Hugh McDiarmid once said that England destroyed nations not by conquest but by pretending they didn’t exist, words which went a long way towards explaining, for instance, why centuries of Spanish culinary heritage had been wiped off menus to make way for ‘bubble and squeak’…
…Gavin appreciated this, although he’d phrased it differently: ‘People don’t like anything foreign at the best of times; they certainly don’t want to be bothered with it while they’re away they’re holidays.’

As tourism has advanced, so have the pockets of cultural colonisation. My favourite personal example of this was in the Spanish town of Torrevieja, still a working fishing port, spotting an ‘English’ bar and restaurant that specifically offered North Sea Cod and Chips, just in case their patrons were worried they may be getting something unfamiliar from the Mediterranean.

It’s easy to sneer and present tourism as a bad thing, but I think that the progress of tourism is a ray of hope for the development of a wider vision of ‘Europe’. Yes, there is the incessent parochialism of the tourist, but that’s a global phenomenon, present in Australian bars in London for example, but there’s also the acceptance that what was once the mysterious ‘Continent’ is now seen as just another place that’s easy to get to as well as being welcoming and not in the least bit alien. Going anywhere outside your home country was once seen as taking a huge step into the unknown, not it’s something people do with a second thought. Yes, they might misbehave, but young people on holiday misbehave everywhere in the world (think of the American experience of the Spring Break in Florida) and while the tour companies may be striving to make the Mediterranean English (those parts that aren’t Scandinavian or German, anyway), we’re now travelling beyond our borders in a way that would have seemed unimaginable just a few decades ago.

12 thoughts on “Creating Europe through tourism?

  1. The tabloid coverage of the second kind of story (the woman arrested at the Eurovision Thong Contest, or whatever it was called) was mostly “why oh why” nonsense and a mediation on the loose morals of Brits abroad, etc., but it was made a bit more interesting by the overtone of anticipation of that good old tabloid staple, a “My Foreign Jail Hell” storyline, in the event (which didn’t materialise) of a hefty prison sentence.

  2. This is news? As a Club 18-30 participant in the early 80’s, and therefore old enough now to pass jugement on ‘the youth of today’, it would seem to me that these stories add nothing to the perceptions , and indeed facts of British tourism for the last 25 years. They do nothing that we didn’t (except for the excellent clubbing that did not exist then). I well remember vomiting in the streets of Mykonos from a surfeit of alcohol. It seems that this is no more than ‘silly season’ journalism that is dragged out every year with updated pictures.

  3. One of the more economically productive things about tourism these days is that people keep seeking ever more out of the way and “authentic” places, often going to the armpits of the world just to prove that they’re real tourists and not soft-asses. This brings money into very depressed areas, and that kind of tourist money is often basically free cash, since you don’t have to invest much in remaining obscure and out of the way.

    Having chucked in the back alleys of a few European capitals myself in the 80’s, I second Mark. But, I was pretty irritated at the level of fast-food and fish-and-chips joins I saw in Prague a few months ago. I suspect that’s what motivates people to get away from the big centres to be considered “serious” tourists.

  4. I agree it’s nothing really new, but I think I didn’t make that point well enough in the post. What I think is new is that there’s a much greater development of the tourist areas with much more specialisation of resorts – whereas 10-20 years ago there may have been certain hotels in resorts that were family-oriented etc, now whole resorts and areas are specialising in certain areas e.g. Faliraki for drunken 18-30, Ibiza and Ayia Napa for dance music, whereas the older resorts are catering more towards the family experience.

    And there’ll always be people looking for the next ‘unspoilt’ destination – there was a piece in The Observer’s travel section recently about Sri Lanka, whose basic tone was ‘peace equals access to new beaches’…which makes me wonder how long before people are going on about Sierra Leone or Liberia as a great place to get away from it all.

  5. It’s not just tourism, either… British home buyers are flooding into areas like the Limousin where real estate is still dirt-cheap compared to the UK. At a dinner near Limoges recently, a table full of local residents complained that house prices had gone up 30% in their area because of the influx of British buyers. And they’re not all just buying holiday homes, either; many are relocating for good, thus boosting the local economy and, of course, integrating both themselves and their new neighbors more tightly into Europe.

  6. Nick Barlow conjects that holidaying with foreigners will somehow render the British susceptible to government by foreigners. I suppose that wishful thinking and faith in the beneficence of passing time are bound to give thusfar disappointed Euro-enthusiasts some hope. But it all relies on the false assumption that, as a nation, we cannot tell the difference between a cosy chat in the neighbour’s garden once each summer and knocking through the party walls to live together (and sharing bank accounts, too).

    Similarly with the phenomenon of second home buying, the object is, literally, to buy into the holiday dream. It is escapism made concrete, not some kind of veiled plea for one’s home at home to be opened to the European public. I’d wager that any research done into the Europhilia of second home buyers abroad would reveal the usual 70% against.

  7. However, anecodotal evidence — not to mention the letters section of “France” magazine — suggests that many Brits are in fact buying *first* homes in France, and thus abandoning the pound pre-emptively.

  8. As Mick Jagger once said: ‘I said I had a home in France, I didn’t say I liked the French’

  9. “I actually have gone out of my way not to know or care about the Dutroux trial. Last I heard, it was planned for 2004, maybe.”

    The exceedingly tardy progression in bringing Dutroux to trial is but one of many reasons Brits have become increasingly cautious about ever closer political integration in Europe when our starting point is this from Magna Carta of 1215:

    “39. No freemen shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor send upon him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.” – quoted from text at:

    Any readers who feel in need of some updating on what’s behind the protracted course of bringing Dutroux to justice might try this suitably sanitised account on the BBC website:

  10. I’ve always been under the impression that the main reason for the incredible delay in the Dutroux trial is the fact that Belgium is decentralized to a ridiculously absurd degree. This is, after all, a relatively tiny country that is nonetheless split among three regions, three language communities, 11 provinces, and a couple hundred communes, each of which has its own hazily delimited areas of competency. These entities’ inability to communicate effectively with one another has, perversely, fostered a form of anarchy, of which the Dutroux fiasco is the most prominent example, but by no means the only one.

    So, let this be a lesson to all you devolutionist libertarians: Be careful what you wish for.

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