This morning, in Kent, the sky was grey but there was no wind; the air was warm, and a fine rain had just stopped. At 8am, the tide was turning. On my way to the beach I met a fox walking up the lane and a fellow swimmer heading home for breakfast. I walked to the water’s edge over shingle and oyster shells, sea pinks and wild spinach. I could not imagine anything more perfect: the water was like silk, all I had for company were a couple of floating seagulls. For twenty minutes everything was luxuriously peaceful.
Life is full of choices, and as I have every intention of living to 100, each day has to be considered carefully. Do I want to be pushed around, treated like cattle en route to market, forced to queue for hours and be crammed into a small space for a prolonged period of time? That’s what going on a “normal” summer holiday entails.
Every day, we see pictures of disgruntled and tired families at airports and stations; the victims of failing transport systems, ramshackle technology and labour disputes. Ryanair, BT, Eurostar, Heathrow, Liverpool airport – and there’s more to come.
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Just as we are being told to eat less meat to save the planet, we need to make big changes to how we think about holidays, because mass travel is just as environmentally catastrophic – and it’s endangering our health.
It beggars belief that on a sunny day in August the number of people swimming in a Kentish seaside resort yesterday was fewer than a dozen. People have forgotten simple pleasures. I asked one woman why she didn’t try the water and she replied simply: “jellyfish and weeds”. Perhaps we need to learn a few lessons from Australia, where summer life revolves around the beach.
Seaside towns could invest more in lifeguards, extend safe bathing areas, provide swimming lessons, build free barbecue areas and mount regular beach patrols. This already happens in popular resorts like Brighton but cash-strapped councils in smaller towns like Herne Bay and Lowestoft need extra funding to entice visitors to spend longer enjoying the facilities and alter the British mindset about what constitutes a “holiday”.
In the last months, I’ve regularly swum in rivers and off beaches in England and rarely encountered another soul. Have we become so feeble and lily-livered that we can only consider a holiday if it involves cheap air travel, a chlorinated pool full of other people’s urine and a lounger with a complete stranger just a metre away? Perhaps a re-education process about the meaning of holiday could start at school, with classes in how to withstand chilly winds, build sandcastles in the rain and walk in steady drizzle?
Greta Thunberg says that only young people understand the impact of global warming, that young people care more about saving the planet and are eating less meat and travelling more responsibly. I don’t agree. Older people (my age group) who want to extend their healthy lives, really do care. It’s the people in-between, the families with children that we need to brainwash urgently. And the middle class professional travellers, jetting all over the world in a desperate search for “experiences” they can swank about on Instagram.
Mass tourism (driven by a huge increase in middle class travellers from China) is destroying popular destinations all around the world. Historic city centres, London, Rome and Paris are being swamped with zombies filing through them recording everything on their phones.
In future, we will have to enjoy iconic places online and forget actually walking through them. Artificial intelligence will allow us to experience a new kind of travel without ever leaving home. That day can’t come soon enough.
I’m glad I visited Venice in winter fifteen years ago, when it was foggy and empty. Now it’s packed all year round, with 60,000 visitors a day in high season. Residents have finally succeeded in banning cruise ships from docking in the city after a series of crashes in the lagoon.
In Rome, the city is swamped with tourists who are being fined up to £370 for sitting on the wonderful Spanish steps because the marble was being damaged by wine and coffee spillages. One resident said it was “a small step back to civilisation”.
In Paris, the region received over 50 million visitors last year and the city recently held a seminar entitled “Are there too many tourists?” The deputy mayor has banned tourist buses and coaches from the city centre and ordered visitors to walk, cycle or take public transport like locals.
In Barcelona, a 25 per cent increase in visitor numbers over four years (to 34 million in 2016) has led to vociferous demonstrations. One placard read: “this isn’t tourism, it’s an invasion”. AirBnB is one of the reasons rents have risen over 16 per cent, forcing locals out of the city if they want an affordable home.
The day might eventually come when air travel will be rationed and cities might charge an entry fee. Radical solutions are required to encourage people to think before they make holiday choices. I look back at the black and white photos of our family on a beach in Anglesey, gathered around a camping stove eating egg sandwiches: happy days.
We need to sell that experience back to the next generation – it’s the only way.