Lock up your tourists: a holiday in some benighted Middle Eastern country isn’t “a celebration of life”

Of course, with Europe’s Mediterranean beaches now becoming de facto Bantustans for Syrian, Afghan and all manner of other exiles, they are looking a lot less attractive as sunlounger locations. 

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That we always kill the thing we love may be a tedious truism, but that can’t make us feel any better when the warm body that we once cuddled and cooed to is lying on the ground at our feet while our hands are bathed in its warm red blood. Last week the head of the UN World Tourism Organisation, Taleb Rifai, spoke out, saying that travel as “a celebration of life” is under threat. Rifai, of course, was referring to tourism, rather than a broad idea of travel.

Apparently, global tourism rates have been rising faster than expected – there was a 4.4 per cent increase in 2015, the sixth consecutive year in which the numbers of people wearing garishly patterned shirts that don’t suit them went up. And what is the world total of tourists? A whopping 1.18 billion – which represents a hell of a lot of Germans lunging for the sunlounger ahead of you. If, that is, they aren’t stuck at home being bombed, shot, stabbed or sexually molested by the refugee cuckoos they’ve allowed into their gemütlich nests.

Rifai’s concern is just this: that the security measures taken by governments in response to the perceived terrorist threat will have a severe impact on an industry that accounts for one in every 11 jobs. (Yes, that’s right, one in 11! I was just as surprised as you to learn that one out of every 11 people I pass in the street very likely keeps a hot caramelised peanut stall.) But while we’re chewing over the statistics let’s just bite down a bit more on that 1.18 billion figure. It’s the equivalent of the world’s entire population in 1850 packing bucket and spade, shouldering their cumbersome Fox Talbot photographic apparatuses and buggering right off for a fortnight. Which rather suggests the question: who sold them their hot caramelised peanuts, aliens?

Look, I don’t want to piss on anybody’s parade (unless it’s the ghastly fake kind you find at Disneyland, complete with drum-twirling majorettes and Uncle Sam on stilts), and I appreciate it’s the time of year when hard-pressed workers of all stripes are making their holiday bookings, but isn’t the notion of a global economy substantially – if not primarily – dependent on vast hordes of tourists maddening by definition?

Currently, 9 per cent of global GDP comes from tourism, which accounts for a whopping 30 per cent of the world’s service industries. Western aid donors don’t like to allocate funds to tourism in the developing world but Rifai believes this is short-sighted, given that investment in such projects can have a multiplier effect as overall infrastructure, personnel training and other services improve.

I don’t want to come over all Paddy Leigh Fermor on you, but is a two-week package tour to some benighted Middle Eastern country really a “celebration of life”? I remember when the British tourists were all stuck in Sharm el-Sheikh last year how flabbergasted – not to say outraged – some of them were. “How could such a thing have happened to us?” they wailed, as if it were some sort of human right to be allowed to sip sugar water and paddle in the Red Sea at the tip of a peninsula that’s been the site of a savage insurgency for well over a decade. Left to me, if I’d been given the job of sorting self-aware sheep from gormless goats, I’d have made sure anyone who complained never got home.

Years ago J G Ballard wrote a short story predicated on just this idea: the thousands of Brit tourists sunning themselves in the Med receive a communication from HMG informing them that they are surplus to requirements and are being let go of. Far from being enraged by this summary curtailment of their citizenship, the doughty holidaymakers create a bizarre sort of “ribbon territory”, thousands of miles long, incredibly squiggly, but only a beach deep – then they declare unilateral independence.

Of course, with Europe’s Mediterranean beaches now becoming de facto Bantustans for Syrian, Afghan and all manner of other exiles, they are looking a lot less attractive as sunlounger locations. Still, I don’t imagine this will badly dent the numbers of tourists heading there for their hols, because the organising principle of tourism is, as Rifai makes clear, perception.

It is one thing to share a sable strand with a few washed-up beggars – the hyper-rich do it all the time in the Caribbean – but quite another to touch down in a country where every waiter and water-ski instructor nurtures a deep and burning desire to exterminate the infidel and establish Allah’s kingdom on earth. The only problem for the dumb and ovine tourists is that while they’re away in Tunisia or Egypt or Turkey enjoying a cheap holiday in someone else’s failing state, flying columns of refugees are occupying their own homeland.

There would be a sort of poetic justice in this if it really were to become a systematic scheme, whereby those whose work is deemed unproductive or irrelevant were simply swapped for the doctors, dentists and accountants who are now shivering to death in the waters off Lesbos.

I speak fearlessly about such penultimate solutions because I understand full well that the British economy can do without the product of my labours down t’word-pit; so I’m ready to celebrate life to the full. Are you?

Next week: Real Meals

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war

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