Can you tame the tourist?

Venice wants to fine its visitors into being better behaved. Some hope, writes Decca Aitkenhead

For complicated reasons that now escape me, when I was 19 years old I spent a night in Magaluf. This was before everybody went to Ibiza, and Magaluf was still the centre of package-holiday nightlife in the Balearics. I didn't know the people I was with well, so when they all started taking acid, it felt more trouble to opt out than in. I hadn't taken LSD before, and that night in Magaluf I was so horrified by what I saw that I never tried it again. Why would anyone want to? It made everything look monstrously repulsive. And so ugly.

I found myself back in Majorca a few years later on a job, and got a rather nasty surprise, because Magaluf with a straight head was indistinguishable from the nightmare of teenage memories. Ugly isn't the word. Youngsters marauded like sunburnt buffalo, lurching and howling and pissing and rutting, their faces contorted by cheap drink and the insane fever of licensed anarchy. It is difficult to describe Magaluf without sounding like a Daily Mail writer. But the alternative is to sound like a hippie, because what it basically looks like is a bad trip.

But it's a trip you can't return from if you are unlucky enough to live there. Every summer's dawn, the streets of most Mediterranean resorts wake up to what looks like the remains of civil war. The shopkeepers get up, sweep and hose and tidy, and ready themselves for another day. How can they put up with it? The forbearance is a daily but depressing miracle, speaking less of a surfeit of generous spirit than an absence of choice. Tourists are literally a law unto themselves.

The good news from Italy this month is that Venice, at least, has had enough.

According to Armando Peres, the man responsible for tourism in the city: "The situation has really worsened because of the behaviour of the people, because they leave a lot of paper and glass everywhere, and they do not behave properly. So there was a need to remind them how to behave and to give them some good advice." He drew up a ten-point code of conduct, with instructions to visitors to dress properly (no bare torsos), stop dawdling on bridges and not picnic outside churches. Break the rules, and you will be fined on the spot.

This would be good news anywhere, but particularly so in Venice, as it gives the lie to a middle-class myth about acceptable and unacceptable tourism. There has always been an assumption that we should distinguish tourists who visit culture from those who visit Majorca, and absolve the former from the latter's crimes. But as the Venice experience demonstrates, tourism is not a question of class so much as of critical mass. Between 13 million and 15 million tourists visit Venice every year, and therein lies the problem. Once tourists amass sufficient numbers to feel dominant, we behave appallingly wherever we are, interpreting the imperative to "make the most" of our holiday as an exemption from any kind of manners.

Maybe the problem is that the word "tourist" suggests a special status - a special category of person, to whom special rules apply. It was first officially used in 1937, by the League of Nations, to define an individual travelling abroad for periods of more than 24 hours. But, in truth, tourists are really no more than shoppers.

Wherever we go, we have no relationship with our destination beyond what we are going to spend there. Whether we are buying high culture or cheap cocktails, we are the customer. And because the customer is always right, it follows that for two weeks every summer, whoever we are, we are absolutely right. We are tourists!

Ibiza recently launched a campaign to try to price out bad behaviour, by making the island unaffordable to all but the very wealthy. But why would shoppers with plenty to spend consider themselves less right than those with less? People with money are equally awful on holiday, only in a different kind of way. Americans on luxury Caribbean vacations are notorious in Jamaica for their refusal to accept that they are no longer on US soil. They seem to have particular trouble with having to use foreign currency. Worse still are rich tourists pretending to be poor - the "budget" backpackers who will haggle over fivepence, and approach most of Asia as if it were an Ikea sale.

Tourists get away with murder because the local people let them. Poor countries can't afford not to; hence the immense popularity of developing-world destinations, whose appeal we may prefer to pass off as "exotic" but which in fact boils down to exploitation. Richer countries do not have to do this. But whereas Italy chooses to tame the tourists, Britain appears to be closer to Magaluf. Earlier this year, the Home Secretary announced proposals to send aggressive homeless people to prison. Tourists in London, he explained, had been surveyed for reasons why they might not return. They mentioned beggars. The customers didn't like beggars, so he thought we should lock them up.