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.