Mass Tourism

A few days ago, I was involved in a Facebook discussion about mass tourism, one that was provoked by a recent accident in Venice involving a cruise ship that crashed into a dock because the engines could not be stopped. The posting was put up by one of my sailing friends who wants to spend time in his cruising dinghy that sails, rows and sculls. This video is thought-provoking:

Another person asked the question of whether my friend in the sailing dinghy was also a tourist. In the discussion, I suggested that there was a world of difference between a discreet man and his boat quietly exploring a place and a crowd of tourists who have not the slightest understanding or respect of the place. The sight of a big cruise ship towering over the buildings is impressive as much as the diesel fumes being belched out of the funnel is dismaying.

It is always the same dilemma. Venice needs tourists to make a living. My wife and I went there on our honeymoon in 2006, going there by train and staying in a small hotel. Other than that, we were autonomous and discreet as we visited churches and museums, taking advantage of Il Vaporetto (boat acting as a bus). We both speak Italian reasonably well and we ate in restaurants other than the big tourist places. Our way of life had to be simple, since we did need to watch the money! Contrasted with my friend in his dinghy, or us in a simple hotel and enjoying the week we had, the sight of hordes of “human cattle” coming down the gangplank from the ships is quite frightening. As humans become more numerous, the more intelligence and culture evaporate and one is faced with the lowest form of bestiality. A historical place needs a source of income, and can handle limited numbers of people, but there needs to be something to limit the numbers – perhaps by banning immediate access to ocean-going ships and limiting the size of hotels.

Tourism was once the preserve of the aristocracy, and the travels of men like Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and John Henry Newman are known. Almost invariably, the only means of travelling long distances was by sea in an era when only a few short railway lines were in place. The history of tourism is a subject in its own right. As with any other issue featuring the notion of growth, how long can the pollution of the air by increasing numbers of aircraft and ships go on? Does mass tourism really benefit people by offering them an exposure to new cultures and ways of life?

An old friend wrote an article about Aylesford Priory… which seems by its architectural design to be more geared to hosting mass pilgrimages than being the home of a community of contemplative Carmelite monks. In the light of a reflection of mass humanity in general, there seems to be an idea according to which the more mass pilgrimages are encouraged in places like this community, or in places where the Mother of God is alleged to have appeared in apparitions like Lourdes and Fatima, the more spiritual humanity is occulted. It is my experience. I have been both to Lourdes and Fatima. I am moved on seeing some very poorly people in their last hope for healing and relief of pain and disability. Fatima is also a special place, where people are seen inflicting discomfort on themselves by walking on their knees. Perhaps the most spiritually moving scenes are when the persons can be seen in their individual approach rather than as one of a herd of “human cattle” moved around in coaches.

I remember my time at the Benedictine Abbey of Triors as a working guest. Days when coachloads of pilgrims arrived with Don Gobbi to preach to them were so anxiety-provoking. I would excuse myself and go away for the day in my car to visit some place alone, or be in the natural beauty of the Vercors mountains.

Still on the same theme, I visited the tall ships moored in Rouen of the Armada 2019. I went with a friend yesterday morning, and the levels of the crowds was not too bad until about 11 am, and then they came flooding in. The boom, boom, boom of popular “music” blared out of speakers. The star ship was Hermione, a reproduction of an eighteenth-century frigate. She was open to visitors, but there was a huge queue, and people would be admitted at the same rate as those who finished their visit and disembarked by the second gangplank. The effect of so many people is dismaying. By the early afternoon, I could not get away quickly enough to catch my train back to Yvetot where my van was parked to get me back home.

What can we learn from such experiences? Certainly independence and self-reliance are our conditions for finding our humanity and our souls. I can only give my personal reflections in these matters, because other people need more social contact and a feeling of being a part of the larger scale of humanity. For many years, I have felt the need to live in the country, spend leisure time either alone or just with my wife in conditions of self-sufficiency. I am self-employed and have to balance independence against a monthly workload that goes up and down. When visiting churches, the best is to be completely silent and to spend time in prayer before going to seek out the details of its history and architecture. God is always found in silence and inner peace, not in noise and outward manifestations. Perhaps it is the brief Quaker influence I found almost fifty years ago.

I do believe it is good for people to stay away from the tour operators and to become more self-reliant when they go on pilgrimages or holidays. Even on a budget, it is possible to go somewhere by car or train, camp or bivouac and “recharge our batteries” in greater simplicity. We don’t have to be “cattle”. Perhaps one of the greatest sources of suffering is human stupidity, unawareness and ignorance – all of which are made more acute in the massed crowd.

We just need to be ourselves and find God in our inner spirit.

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5 Responses to Mass Tourism

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Taking a tangent into film history, I remember enjoying seeing the tourism comedy, Bon Voyage! (1962) – at school! (as one of what in England are, or were, called ‘mixed infants’), and I remember when If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (1969) was released – a year or so before my first trip to the UK, France, the Netherlands, and Eire. Your sensibly tying in ‘mass’ pilgrimage reminds me how well it is included in The Song of Bernadette (1943), and also how well the ‘mass’ (and ‘touristic’) aspects were treated in The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952) – at least to my mind and memory. That leaves me wondering about depictions of (large-scale) pilgrimage in stories set further back in history, but no clear examples spring to mind. (I exclude Pasolini’s Canterbury Tales.)

    I would suspect that large groups of tourists include people who have done varying degrees of homework – unless it is the sort of cruise organized to include preparatory popular-scholarly lectures. I must say, I am grateful for the ‘coachload-scale’ touring of that first trans-Atlantic visit of mine, with, e.g., vivid, intense memories of lots of different places in a week in one of my ancestral homelands, Wales. Such things can give a good sketch to be followed up more intimately and in greater detail at leisure – for example, a comparatively brief stop in Oxford, that nonetheless convinced me I’d like to study there, if ever possible.

    Later, I experienced how coachload-scale tourism can at least syncopate one’s studies – when living in the old Lewis house, The Kilns, and looking up from my breakfast to see dozens of people streaming along the path and across lawn, no-one having inquired whether such visiting was possible or opportune… but we obliged them with quick, informative looks round in small groups…

    I wondered, on first seeing your title, if you might be intending a wordplay – for I like the idea of ‘Mass tourism’ in the sense of actually attending services in old Churches on my travels – which, given the justly noted need of a source of income, is, often enough, the only way one can enter them, other than as a ‘(heavily) paying tourist’. That in turn reminds me of the lines in Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’:
    You are not here to verify,
    Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
    Or carry report. You are here to kneel
    Where prayer has been valid.

    • Of course it is is not something that dates from yesterday. Thousands of people go to the Ganges in India, Muslims to Mecca, Jews to Jerusalem for the various feasts and the Passover. I have experience of big gatherings with Pope John Paul II in Rome. Popular fervour can be highly motivating. I don’t say such crowds are bad, simply that I feel ill at ease with them – because crowds give me anxiety.

      I wonder how many tour operators lay on some kind of education like the culture of the place where they are going, what kind of behaviour is expected and what offends local people for religious and other reasons. Perhaps the coachload of people can be divided up into smaller groups and take turns for the guided visits. A good guided visit for a small group is highly educational, and they will go back home enriched with the knowledge of a different way of life. Personally, I like to travel alone or with my wife, and read up about things in the various guidebooks that are available. Then we can visit places at our own pace.

      I didn’t think about the “Mass tourism” play on words. When I first came to France, I wanted to visit churches, religious communities and find something that had escaped Vatican II. There were some parishes, but the traditionalist communities aren’t exactly like ordinary parish life before the changes. I have some books about liturgical tourism in the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe. That must have been interesting! They were invariably gentlemen who visited churches, cathedrals and abbeys and observed their normal lives.

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        “I have some books about liturgical tourism in the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe.” That sounds very interesting! Not so long ago, I read Boswell in Holland, and was surprised to learn that in the late 18th c., the Scottish church in Utrecht held services in Latin for foreign students and other visitors. The other day, I suddenly wondered if those Latin translations of the Book of Common Prayer may have been for such use, as well as for domestic use in the English universities (and other Latin-literate places).

        I tend more and more to avoid large crowds myself (in part, these days, from thinking what an easy target they are for mass killing), and certainly also enjoy small-group or family travel with good guidebooks where you can visit and explore at your own pace. (Several of us art-history lovers once met up with such another friend in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum where he began to talk so interestingly about exhibits that someone rushed over and objected that no unlicensed guides were allowed, to whom we had to explain we were just interested – and knowledgeable – fellow tourists.)

  2. David Marriott says:

    Dear Father,

    I agree with much of your thoughts: the situation at Walsingham where in my stays, I realised that there were many coming for a ‘nice trip out’ to see what that ‘iteration of Anglican worship’ was, even when the clergy were using the Roman liturgy, far from what they heard in their home parishes: or the ticket booths at York Minster or Notre-Dame Basilica – La Basilique Notre-Dame – Montréal ( (If you say that you are there to pray, then the door was opened and ‘no charge’).

    However, for many in North America, the thought of that first venture to Europe can be very frightening, which is where tour companies can provide a good ethical service to open peoples’ minds to different cultures and ways of life, so that their customers will feel able to go it alone on their next trip.

    I have been on one ‘Alaska Cruise’, from Vancouver, as part of my work. The cruise was also a morning study with acclaimed speakers on liver disease, sponsored by the Canadian Liver Foundation. So, each morning we met for lectures and discussions, ending when we could rejoin the rest of the people (including our wives) for the rest of the day. This made it worthwhile, together with some amazing scenery of Alaska and its wildlife, together with glaciers shedding huge chunks of ice into the sea….But the ship itself is a floating hotel, remote from the very cultures and ways of life that you might have come to seek. Someone told me that on one of those river cruises, popular for many, they had looked forward t meeting local people in the cities they were passing through: but sad to say, most of the time, they met a lot of people from all over the United States!

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      My grandmother, aunt, and a cousiny-friend of the same generation went on a more touristic variety of such a northwest-coast cruise, from Seattle to Alaska in the early 1970s and brought me back a Royal Stuart Scotch bonnet from Vancouver, made from cloth woven in Scotland – which I still wear many a day throughout the year, now even further on the eastern side of the Atlantic.

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