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The End of Mass Tourism

The economies that gave us the motel, the camp ground, and the annual summer holiday are fading as new barriers to tourism emerge.

Along with the usual asks for car rentals and hotel bookings, the European budget airline Ryanair now offers customers the option to pay for a carbon offset when booking online. For those unfamiliar with the term, a carbon offset is meant to compensate for your trip’s fossil fuel emissions, a sort of eco-indulgence for the environmentally conscious. You can select your offset right after you upload your mandatory Covid documentation, which includes, depending on your country of origin, a vaccine passport, a negative Covid test, and an official record of your home address and the location where you’ll be staying.

It’s not hard to see where this is going. The second half of the 20th century was not just an age of mass affluence, but an age of mass tourism. At least in the developed world, middle and working class families became accustomed to recreational travel. Now, however, the economic system that gave us the motel, the camp ground, and the annual summer holiday is fading just as new barriers to international tourism, from Covid restrictions to environmentalism, have emerged.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the archetypal foreign tourist was a moneyed sophisticate, often British, perhaps with an amateur interest in painting or architecture or travel writing. Affluent Americans would embark on grand European tours, a formative experience for the young Theodore Roosevelt, whose wealthy family could afford the expense of an extended continental holiday.

The post-war boom changed all that. Peace, paid holidays, the automobile, and decades of post-war growth in the United States and Europe created a new class of budget vacationers, who in turn spurred the creation of travel agencies, charter buses, motels and pensions, and other services aimed at facilitating middle class tourism. Exotic destinations like the French Riviera, the Amalfi Coast, and St. Tropez suddenly acquired international reputations, aided and abetted by mass media and popular films.

By 1960, most Western Europeans had two weeks of paid vacation. In the early 1950s, according to the historian Tony Judt, French tourists to Spain numbered in the thousands. By 1964, 7 million were visiting every summer. By the early 1970s, more than 6 million tourists from Western Europe annually visited the Yugoslav coast. The American middle class experienced a similar travel boom.

From “tourist traps” to family vacation packages to stereotypes of loudmouthed Americans, photo-mad Japanese, and pasty Brits making their seasonal migration to sunny Spain, generations of travelers have experienced this era of foreign travel. But can a pre-pandemic system premised on broadly-shared prosperity and prodigious fossil fuel consumption survive into the middle decades of the 21st century?

Navigating a world of virtual restaurant menus, electronic vaccine passports, and mandatory document uploads will almost certainly prove disorienting to older travelers. The heightened Covid vulnerability of the elderly may also dampen their enthusiasm for foreign holidays, even after the threat of the disease has receded.

The young and the tech savvy will probably find this new environment more hospitable, but if carbon offsets, health-related flight cancellations, and negative antigen tests become standard operating procedure, air travel will soon become prohibitively expensive for most of them. And while the young are more comfortable navigating electronic hurdles, digital life may sap their desire for international adventure. Gory video games seem to have diminished our appetite for violence and pornography has almost certainly reduced our appetite for sex. Social media platforms like Instagram could do something similar to travel.

Airlines and the tourist industry are not about to disappear, but their business models and customer profiles will begin to conform to new economic realities. Tourism will return to its roots as a luxury good, and for those who can afford carbon indulgences and enough upgrades to avoid invasive security and health checks, travel will become an extravagance instead of an annual middle class ritual.  

Already, the travel industry seems to be moving in this direction. Family packages and economy class airline tickets are out; eco-tourism, boutique hotels, and personalized services like Airbnb are in. In the United States, pandemic-era trips to national parks boomed while European countries like Hungary and Italy launched campaigns to promote sight-seeing within their own borders. Domestic tourism and “staycations” are becoming consolation prizes for those who can’t afford to go abroad. 

It is possible that international tourism will quickly bounce back after the pandemic recedes, but the stickiness of post-9/11 security theater is a suggestive precedent. The relatively minor threat of a spectacular terrorist attack has given us 20 years of mandatory airport shoe inspections, TSA pat-downs, and endless security lines. Will a disease well on its way to becoming endemic, and with a far wider impact than the 9/11 attacks, quickly fade from the public consciousness? A more likely outcome is the permanent addition of health protocols to our routinized security checks, to be avoided by those savvy and affluent enough to pay for various officially-sanctioned shortcuts (a Covid version of the TSA’s CLEAR program, which allows travelers to pay to bypass security by uploading personal biometric data, seems inevitable).   

Carbon offsets and other environmental restrictions are not yet mandatory, but elite consensus is rapidly moving in the direction of restricting air travel. Flygskam—Swedish for “flight shame”—has become shorthand for feeling guilty about air travel. Popular travel websites help eco-conscious consumers find alternatives to flying. A Green New Deal explainer posted to the website of progressive darling Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says the program aims to make air travel “unnecessary.” A World Economic Forum report on eco-friendly air travel carefully points out that there is a “cost differential” between old-fashioned jet fuel and sustainable alternatives but is mostly silent on the question of who will bear this cost as airlines go green. The likely answer is that travelers will pay in the form of “green flying duties,” a solution that has already been proposed in the U.K. The World Economic Forum report helpfully notes that “corporate flyers” have shown a willingness to pay extra for environmentally-friendly transportation.

This last aside is telling. Those most likely to travel in the future—affluent, young, educated, eco-conscious and likely corporate–are also more likely to accept new environmental and health restrictions and bear new travel costs. The older and poorer will be left out in the cold, both figuratively and literally, as the idea of an annual beach holiday abroad becomes a distant memory. 

Changes within the travel industry are lagging indicators of broader economic and cultural shifts in Western society. According to the Brookings Institution, the middle of the American middle class has shrunk considerably over the last several decades while the upper middle class has expanded. The tastes and prejudices of upper middle class consumers, who already wield disproportionate influence as cultural tastemakers and gatekeepers at elite institutions, are now reshaping tourism. The result will be a travel industry that prizes environmental and public health concerns over affordability.

The E.U. is in bad odor among conservatives, but there is (was?) something faintly miraculous about the Schengen Zone, which allowed for the free movement of citizens across most member states before the pandemic. Some of Schengen’s most enthusiastic backers thought that it was a blueprint for a borderless global society. Instead, it looks like the last gasp of the era of mass tourism, a relic of a time before global pandemics, economic stagnation, environmental alarmism, and resurgent nationalism.

What comes next may be more depressing than all the cheap motels and grubby campgrounds put together. On a recent trip to Italy, I ran into a McDonalds at the Milan Central Railway Station hoping for a quick meal. I was greeted by a masked and gloved health inspector who checked the Q.R. code on my vaccination card before giving me a red verification sticker. All ordering was done via electronic kiosks; the employees barely exchanged any words with customers as they assembled and distributed Big Macs from behind a massive plexiglass shield. Everyone wore masks and just about everyone was hunched over a phone while they waited for their orders. Many never bothered to remove their wireless headphones. If this is the future of affordable travel, who is going to bother paying for tickets?

In a parallel universe, Mark Zuckerberg had just announced Facebook’s rebranding as “Meta,” complete with a cringe-inducing video of his new virtual reality platform. Coincidentally, the World Economic Forum recently suggested that virtual reality tourism could become a healthy and eco-friendly alternative to real-world travel. The Zuckerbergs of the world are not about to give up their private jets, and well-heeled employees at companies like Facebook—excuse me, “Meta”—will almost certainly continue to holiday at exotic foreign destinations. For everyone else, the lure of digital life and the indignities of steerage class travel in the 21st century will make mass tourism a thing of the past.   

Will Collins is a teacher in Budapest, Hungary.