Two years ago, Rebecca Mead of the New Yorker published a long article, “The Airbnb Invasion of Barcelona,” that addressed some of the challenges of unfettered tourism. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Barcelona, year over year, found itself steadily drowning in foreign visitors. Short-term rentals on Airbnb, often illegally operated, filled the city’s apartment buildings and depressed the local housing supply. Barcelona’s main tourist draws, including Park Güell and the Sagrada Familia Church, were thronged by enormous quantities of visitors.
In the summer of 2014, spurred by the drunken antics of holiday-makers, protesters took to the streets to bring attention to “the pestilence of young visitors who came to Barcelona not to sample the local culture but to enact internationally recognized tropes of partying.” Three years later, 60% of Barcelona residents claimed in a survey that the city had reached or exceeded its capacity to host tourists.
Hating tourists is nothing new, as the Italian journalist Marco D’Eramo notes in “The World in a Selfie,” translated into English by Bethan Bowett-Jones and David Broder. Mr. D’Eramo quotes a British magazine article from 1848 lamenting that, for all their merits, the advent of the railroad and the steamboat had “afflicted our generation with one desperate evil; they have covered Europe with Tourists.” Adam Smith, in his “Wealth of Nations” (1776), heaped mocking scorn on the vogue of young men gallivanting around the Continent on so-called Grand Tours.
“The World in a Selfie,” first published in 2017, has been updated in this English-language edition to account for the pandemic, which shut down international travel for a year. Mr. D’Eramo highlights tourism’s paramount role in the world economy, smartly observing that Covid “proved the centrality of tourism through tourism’s omission. Once this industry ceased, not only airlines and shipping companies but aircraft manufacturers and shipyards found themselves on the verge of bankruptcy.” The book, “an inquiry into the tourist age,” is somewhat disjointed, moving distractedly at times from topic to topic and losing the thread in the philosophical weeds. But in its more focused moments, “Selfie” makes for a bracing, provocative examination of an all-too-human pastime.
One recurring theme here is our futile search, through travel, for the “authentic.” Mr. D’Eramo saves his most biting commentary for UNESCO and its “World Heritage” listings, which he likens to a “kiss of death.” “Once the label is affixed,” he writes, “the city’s life is snuffed out; it is ready for taxidermy.” That’s hyperbole, no doubt, but his commentary on the unintended consequences of preservation is compelling.