“Five-star tourism is a blip”

Last month I was lucky enough to hear a talk at the Destinations travel show in London by Kate Clow, creator of the Lycian Way long-distance trekking route in Turkey.

It was a great presentation. Kate is very passionate about discovering and preserving these walking routes through the hills, spending thousands (from her own pocket) on waymarking and maintenance, applying herself for EU funding, dealing directly with the Turkish tourism authorities to engage them in developing these old roads – and, by her own account, making some headway in introducing the idea of long-distance walking on heritage trails to Turks themselves: though originally from the UK, she is now a Turkish citizen. She self-publishes her own guidebooks – they are the most authoritative sources on these routes – and leads regular tours.

One thing she happened to bark out in response to a question from the audience stopped me in my tracks. In 20 or 30 years, she said, when coastal tourism is threatened by climate change or finished altogether because of rising sea levels (or economic collapse), community-based walking and nature tourism will still be thriving. “Five-star tourism is a blip,” were her words.

What a thought. There’s so much money wrapped up in luxury tourism – both in the investment, but also in the wider industry which supports it – that it can be hard to see past it. When you’re in the middle of the whirlwind, either reporting on hotels and PR-driven tourism initiatives or aspiring to the kind of lifestyle where a stay in a luxury resort is something to be desired, it all feels so exciting, so now.

That’s the point, of course.

But Kate is right. ‘Going on holiday’ – the idea of travel as mass relaxation, which we (in the West, at least) spend so much time, energy and money pursuing – was unknown a century ago.

And the notion of spending excessive amounts of money to play at a life of luxury within an opulent tourism complex under sunny skies far from home is even newer – perhaps less than 25 or 30 years old.

I don’t want to get too Alain de Botton-ish about this, but what Kate is doing – and many others involved in grassroots, sustainable tourism worldwide – mirrors how people have always ‘travelled’: with sensitivity, emotionally invested, on foot. For the entire history of humanity up until a few decades ago, travel was dangerous, unknowable and prohibitively expensive. It’s seductive to think that they way we do things now is the way things have always been – but of course that’s not true. Travel for pleasure is a very 20th-century thing; nothing says that it will last.

If fashions change and, some day, advancing technology renders five-star hotels obsolete or laughable (think of holiday camps, charabancs and “port out, starboard home”), walking will still be there.

It’s how we get about.