The Destructive Power of Tourism

A few days ago I was directed to a piece on the MailOnline website about Barcelona or, more specifically, tourism in Barcelona or, to be really, really specific, high volume and damaging tourism. The problem is that “uncontrolled tourism” is attracting too many low-spending tourists who are turning Barcelona into a ‘theme park’ and making locals feel like strangers in their own city. To give some idea of the perceived problem, in 1993 the city attracted 2.5 million visitors but by 2012 that figure had quadrupled to 10 million. Going to YouTube turned up other videos on a similar theme. One about the Lake District, this one about Snowdonia. And there are others.

Does all this sound familiar – hordes of cheapo tourists over-running a place and making the locals feel like strangers? Of course it does, because it’s what happens in Wales. Though the citizens of Barcelona should be thankful that their city isn’t being bought up by these visitors, looking for holiday homes, a lifestyle change, or somewhere to retire to. Nor is it destroying the Catalan language and identity. And I guarantee that most of the businesses taking the tourists’ money are run by natives of Barcelona. (Though the pickpockets mentioned almost certainly come from further east.)

Wales tourism stats
Click to Enlarge

The traditional reason that Wales is a low-spend destination for tourists is because tourism in Wales was developed for the convenience of England, not for the benefit of Wales. Which has meant that in practice, we – or those who run tourism here – target English tourists saving their major outlay for holidays abroad, encouraging them to use Wales for weekend breaks and secondary holidays. Then, because these English tourists don’t spend much, we must have them in damaging and unsustainable numbers. This recent news story even rejoiced in the fact that Wales is “affordable” / cheap, without apparently realising that ‘cheap’ is also a derogatory term.

Though the story in WalesOnline is rather confusing. It claims a record 9.93m tourists spending a record £1.7bn in 2013. Yet the figures on the ‘Welsh’ Government website, for 2012 (see panel), claim 10.45m tourists (from the UK and overseas) spending £2,44bn. Presumably the article refers only to tourists from within the UK, though this is not stated.

Numerate readers (of whom I have many) will have worked out that this means in 2012 UK visitors spent on average £165 (up to £171 in 2013), whereas overseas visitors spent on average £405. So why aren’t we doing more to attract overseas visitors, of whom we’d need fewer? Well, in addition to the explanation given above, tourism in Wales also has a political purpose, in that it anglicises Wales; partly by smothering areas in English tourists for months on end and partly by encouraging English tourists to make a permanent move to Wales. And don’t overlook the financial benefits . . . to England. Money spent in Wales by English tourists will eventually make its way back to London, unlike money spent abroad.

(The panel from the ‘Welsh’ Government website also quotes “around 100 million day visits” earning “over £3bn”. I have ignored these figures mainly because we are expected to believe that these are all day trips made from outside Wales; they are not. The most popular pay-to-enter ‘tourist attraction’ in Wales is Swansea Leisure Centre. Most visitors come from within a 15 mile radius. Your next shopping trip or day out in Wrecsam, Llandudno, Aberystwyth, Brecon or Carmarthen may count as a ‘day trip’. So you will understand why I treat such figures with caution, if not contempt. The (nicely rounded) figures for day trips get wild guesswork a bad name, but are, regrettably, what we expect with tourism ‘statistics’.)

The table I’ve compiled (and I hope it’s clear) gives some figures for the tourism industries in Ireland, Scotland and Wales for one year. (Click to enlarge.) The figures for Ireland and Scotland were fairly easy to come by, but not so with the figures for Wales. The ‘Welsh’ Government website is difficult to negotiate, full of guff and propaganda on tourism but low on facts. So I went to StatsWales, the ‘Welsh’ Government’s specialist group for statistics – actually part of an English government department – but the most recent figures available there are for 2010. (A regular failure with StatsWales.)

Tourism table
Click to Enlarge

A few observations from the table. As an example of how little Wales really earns from tourism note that visitors from the Six Counties to the Republic spent £225 per head, even though many would have been staying with friends and family, or making just a short trip (e.g. Derry to Donegal). Compare this to UK visitors to Wales, who spent just £165. UK visitors to Scotland spent £227 per head. In addition, Scotland made over one billion pounds more than Wales from overseas tourists. Spend per head can be equated with the profit margin, which means that when other considerations – cultural damage, traffic congestion, environmental degradation, etc  – are factored in to the equation then tourism in Wales is a loss-making, bargain basement business. To tourism what the Reliant Robin is to automotive technology. Nothing to be proud of.

Furthermore, reReliant Robinmember that Ireland and Scotland are some four times the size of Wales and both see a ‘spread’ of tourists across the land, whereas most of those who come to Wales head for the west and the north, and stick fairly close to the coast. This, inevitably, results in the kind of overcrowding and unsustainabilty being complained of in Barcelona.

Given the damning facts why is ‘Welsh’ tourism trumpeted as a great success story that cannot be improved on? Why are we constantly reminded that our rural and coastal areas were wastelands ere the arrival of English tourists, and without them to wastelands they will return? In a word, we’ve been brainwashed. We can either continue accepting this ludicrous – and, frankly, racist – propaganda or we can start arguing for a tourism industry for the twenty-first century rather than the nineteenth, one that serves Wales and Welsh people.

Fundamentally, and for benefits across the board, we need to attract more overseas visitors and fewer low-spend tourists from England. To do that we must ditch the defeatist argument that says Scotland and Ireland have a higher international profile. Because even though this may be true today, there are successful tourism destinations now that were unknown a few decades ago. It comes down to promotion, and priorities.

The first priority is for the soi-disant ‘Welsh’ Government to start living up to its name, by putting Welsh interests first. A phased move from caravans to serviced accommodation would be a start. Tourism taxes – especially at ‘hot spots’ – would be another step in the right direction. The second priority must be minimising the influence of the tourism operators who currently control long-term and strategic planning. Few of these are Welsh and consequently have little regard for the damage being inflicted. Too many are driven by self-interest and believe there can never be too many tourists. That’s the major problem with tourism – if you allow it to be run by such people then you end up with the problems of Barcelona, or Venice, or Prague, or Wales. Restraining influences are needed.

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29/04/2014 18:29

Interesting arguments agree with some valid points but too wide a brush stroke as times ( does that make sense), but should we then ban working class people or those who cannot afford a de luxe self catering heritage paste coloured holiday cottages from going on holidays? rather elitist, that’s me stopped from visiting places then! gwendraeth valley isn’t a tourist destination and the locals don’t want to speak Welsh to their kids and that’s not due to influx of horray henrys as far as i can see from living there. Don’t see why you should get anxty at that bloke he just wanted facts to back up the argument which is fair enough – you don’t want to start sounding like Julian ruck ,our local plonker. do you?

Daley Gleephart
Daley Gleephart
28/04/2014 12:11

“I’m one of the ‘witches’.” The hat that you wear is pointed isn’t it. You’ve simply cropped the photo to make it look like a fedora.
Swansea recently held a conference on neutering – Bloody neuters, coming over here …

28/04/2014 07:04

I live in Denver, Colorado. This weekend I took a hike in a nearby county park to climb up a Mesa. Same, issues: twice as many cars as the car park could absorb, dozens of hikers and their dogs all going up the same route. Someone was riding up the hiking trail on his motorcycle, and if the county trail crew hadn’t been out to turn him back, he probably would have gone all the way to the top. We have the same problems in ski season to the point where the highway through the mountains gets backed up for hours. Point being, I think anywhere where there is tourism, or areas of natural beauty there are similar problems.

A main difference is that our state is pretty big, so a lot of the congestion issues are in very specific sites. However, these days, if you want to camp in proper camps sites in certain areas, you need to book online with the forest service well in advance. You can still go in many areas for wilderness camping, but in some mountain parks you do have to get permits (used to control the quantity of visitors to fragile areas) in advance. Seems to me, with Wales being the size that it is, it may be necessary to restrict access to fragile areas to avoid destroying them. While getting permits seems the antithesis of the outdoor experience, in some cases it’s the only way to protect the environment we are trying to appreciate. Not sure if it would work on Snowdon, since you already have a train going up that one.

I was in Nepal a few months ago, and there the government is taking steps to reduce the negative impact of the trekking industry by encouraging “home stays” as a way of getting tourists off the congested trekking routes and spreading tourist dollars directly into more remote communities. A western version of that would be “Airbnb” which allows people to book directly with anyone offering a place to stay. Seems like if you could combine these two concepts, you might be able to disperse the concentrations of tourists, enable almost anyone (not just in rural areas) to benefit from being able to accommodate them, and who knows, maybe give them the opportunity to meet the Welsh in their homes.

I haven’t been to Wales in a long time, so I’m not aware to what extent the country is being trashed by tourism, but managing tourism’s impact on the environment and culture is a huge challenge. And the challenge will only get bigger. You are not alone in this regard. I dont know to what extent your local and regional governments have the authority to regulate planning and code enforcement, but without it issues such as the proliferation of caravan parks only get worse.

27/04/2014 12:04

Just saw this on somebody’s FB page:

“Because of the difficulty the Corsicans are having to find a house to live in with the amount of second homes on the island, and to avoid market speculation, the Corsican Assembly has just passed a law barring the buying of property unless one has lived there permanently for at least 5 years.”

The article (in French) also posted. I wasn’t able to share it to your page Jac. Not sure why that is?

27/04/2014 10:18

Of course we must also factor in all the morons who fall off mountains due to them wearing flip flops, drive their cars into the sea, get bitten by adders whilst trying to pick them up, suffer the bends whilst diving in abandoned quarries or decide to go kayaking on a river suffering the worst floods for years.

Not a week goes by that I don’t find myself reading about some idiots from England who have put their own lives and those who rescue them in danger. How much are they taking away from our economy

Phil Davies
Phil Davies
26/04/2014 21:45

It’s all about pricing at the end of the day. No limit has ever been put on the supply of the Welsh tourist ‘product’ – when one caravan park reached capacity, simply more agricultural land was made available for others – and there has been no fiscal ‘pressure valve’ on the tourist pound to centrally offset private self-interest, which in spite of neo-liberals’ belief, is often crucial to retain sustainable prices (and it would not have been used in any case by a London govt. up to 1999). You therefore simply get over supply against modest demand and a relative devaluing of the asset. If your principal objective is volume at any cost then that is the correct strategy, if however you want high returns on lower capital exposure, you’re on a hiding to nothing with our current market structure. The former is normally associated with people who don’t know the value of the assets they own (or haven’t the wit or will to successfully exploit it). I don’t think Welsh policy-makers have ever lived in the English midlands or Greater Manchester conurbation and therefore have no understanding of the golden duck they’re sitting on.

27/04/2014 11:03
Reply to  Phil Davies

I see a storm has erupted in Aberystwyth over motorhomes parking on the sea front.

Unlike permanent caravan parks these campervan vehicles leave no permanent scar on the landscape, they come, they spend, they leave. No property purchase or permanent caravan sites needed.

Introduce scheme where the council can use car parks overnight or even local farmers can hire out ‘pitches’ called ‘Aires’. A new, and specific planning concept, as exists in the rest of Europe for motorhomes. It will also help stop the buying up residential property for holidays or scaring the landscape with huge static and permanent caravan sites. Surely, the challenge for Aberystwyth is to drive the hotel provision ‘upmarket’ which would need capital investment bigger than a few wealthy retirees. Make the short term visitors pay directly into community coffers by way of motorhome charges on council land. Empty car parks at night, the sea front full of motorhomes, and the hillsides planted with wind turbines. £10 a night for parking a motorhome, an electric meter per bay at 50p per kwh, with free water. Not rocket science, even for Ceredigion Council.

Sadly, Aberystwyth is hell bent on evicting indigenous residents to build supermarkets, protecting the interests of downmarket hobbyist B&B providers who have parachuted in from elsewhere, and cannot see an opportunity driving onto their doorstep to gain income from an obvious demand which leaves no permanent damage.

You may notice the outspoken resident in the BBC piece is Wendy Leng of South Marine Terrace. I assume she is connected to Richard Leng of the same address, an architect who specialises in converting small residential property into holiday accommodation and is listed on MarbleArch architects database as being based in the town of Aberystwyth in the West Midlands.

It’s time councils in Wales didn’t just act as docile receivers of lowest price volume, but actually look at tourism as an industry to leverage real income to indigenous communities. Not only to widen the market into ‘upmarket’ but also to direct existing income steam into local communities away from foreign corporates, hobbyist retirees from elsewhere, holiday homes, and static permanent caravan sites.

26/04/2014 18:50

I spent a few days at magnificent Rhossilli last autumn, I could just as well have been visiting Dorset or Devon.
Other than the bi-lingual road signs and a few ‘Welsh interest’ books on a bottom shelf in the twee National Trust shop there was absolutely nothing there to remind the many visitors that they were in Wales, not even an odd ddraig goch.
The large group of Spanish students and the German and Japanese families I saw there must have gone away thinking that Wales has no culture or identity of it’s own.

How different from the tourist traps in Scotland and Ireland where no one could be in any doubt about what country they are in. There their distinctive cultures are promoted to the full and used as a marketing tool to attract high spending, respectful overseas visitors.
The total opposite happens in Wales where language and culture is hidden away and played down as if it’s something to be ashamed of and viewed as a hindrance to attracting to the all important English masses.

The late Rick Wright one time owner of the Majestic holiday park on Barry Island once stated that his business was all about providing cheap and cheerful holidays for thousands of working class English people.
He could have been speaking for the entire Welsh tourist industry.

Phil Davies
Phil Davies
26/04/2014 12:35

If a thorough and proper economic study of tourism in Wales were done, I’m pretty sure that it would show that, at the very least, it is an extremely badly structured sector of the economy of Wales and doesn’t deliver the value it could in either economic or cultural terms. To that extent, I don’t think Jac’s hypothesis is either outlandish or that radical. Reassignment, re-prioritisation within the industry as it is currently configured is a bit of a no brainer in my opinion (albeit one that politicians do not have the courage to even look at seriously).

However, I’d go further. There are many parts of the sector that have never really been subjected to an holistic ‘opportunity cost’ analysis (the potential loss of overall value by having capital and resources invested in one area/aspect of an economy that would be better invested in another). To that extent, I’d argue that the tourist economy could quite easily get smaller in Wales with transfer of capital and resources to other sectors and still yield higher overall returns for the economy.

For example… the northern coast of Wales from Prestatyn to Pensarn is plastered with caravan parks that were established in the 1940s and have acquired a de facto status of ‘semi-urbanisation’ (that is to all intents and purposes they have become permanent features of the landscape with road systems, built infrastructure, electricity sub-stations, sewerage infrastructure, etc.). In no way are they the temporary camping parks that planners originally allowed for 60 years ago and are so highly developed that they are unlikely to be ever returned to nature or agriculture, but at the same time they do not comply with the full requirements of urbanised planning consents from either an aesthetic, infrastructural or economic value point of view. An opportunity cost analysis would quite conceivably find that many of these parks should be reassigned to proper urbanisation within the overall strategy of the local authority (houses, business parks, light industry, commercial, and yes, some hotels, resorts, golf courses, etc.). That is to say, an holistic view of the economic needs/opportunities for the north Wales coast may well determine that ‘more’ is better than sub-standard ‘less’ if configured in the right way.

This needn’t have a detrimental affect on wider social or cultural considerations, particularly if it were simply displacement of development and urbanisation currently forecasted for other places. Would, for example, we need to build thousands of new homes in Bodelwyddan (and thus completely destroy the fabric of a small village) if there were proper urbanisation of the Rhyl to Pensarn strip? Would we prefer houses, businesses and schools in Towyn or thousands of empty caravans benefitting a handful of landowners and a handful of seasonal service employees? Is it conceivable to imagine a vibrant new town on the coast sensitively balanced between quality tourism infrastructure and local businesses, housing and services where currently there is a ten-mile-square of semi-permanent static caravan sites?

If we went back to 1945, do we think that anyone would plan for the sort of infrastructural, aesthetic and economic mess that we have today in large swathes of coastal Wales? More of the same does not have to be inevitable. Opportunity cost analysis is the way forward for much of Wales’s under-performing and culturally damaging tourist ‘capital’.

26/04/2014 10:54

Some nice images here:

But the least our government could do is introuduce some for of tourism tax which could be used to repair the damage done by this mass-tourism. It could also be used to fund Welsh classes; that language being another victim of such high visitor numbers….a number of which decide to stay.

Robert Tyler
Robert Tyler
26/04/2014 09:52

The US has massive potential. I recently spent a Fulbright year in the US and spoke before a number of Welsh American groups. I remember one lady who was interested in Celtic culture and the Druids in particular and was shortly heading to Europe. When I asked her where she was going in Wales she told me she was just crossing Anglesey to get to Ireland by ferry without making any stops. Her intention, therefore, was to pass through a county, a majority of whose inhabitants speak a Celtic language and was the centre of Druidic power on the Island of Briatain, for a weekend visiting Dublin’s shops!

25/04/2014 22:02

I don’t know how one would reduce the number of lower paying tourists from England, but a lot could be done to increase bookings of higher paying tourists from abroad. It would require investing in marketing and promotion in countries you want to target. Here in the U.S., one never hears about Wales, what Wales has to offer, or tourism opportunities, except when it’s bundled as a total U.K package. I think the notion of linking with Welsh-American groups is valid, but they are not all that numerous or visible. Better to promote Cymru as a relatively undiscovered (by US awareness) destination, and all that it offers, especially the culture. Then highlight operations that are certified Welsh owned, Welsh operated, where Welsh is spoken, and where tourists have a chance to interact with the Welsh. It’s a shame that so many non-welsh own /run the hotels, restaurants, shops, etc. because it sours the tourist experience. When I go to Wales, I want to meet the Welsh, not so much the English. Maybe targeting the Chicago taffia with language classes is an option to provide that cross-cultural experience, and give jobs to Welsh speakers. Another thing that could be done in this age of the internet is to concentrate advance bookings by giving priority to overseas visitors, again through directly marketing to them. Finally, one of the challenges that we have as U.S tourists is that we can’t fly directly to Wales, and we have to spend so much money in London or other locations before we’ve even arrived in your country.

Thinking Out Loud
Thinking Out Loud
25/04/2014 20:39

Interesting post, but why would anyone trust the Welsh Labour Government to promote Wales or welsh tourism when for 15 years they have done the bare minimum and at local council level they have tried for 11 years to put a stop the annual Cardiff St David’s Day parade on March 1 which compared to the Dublin parade is on a bank holiday and part of promotion of St Patrick Day to attract visitors, yet in Wales the governing party refuses to send it’s elected political representatives to the parade or countenance a bank holiday.

On the wider point in a functioning democracy (which Wales isn’t) a lot of the points you raise about numbers, spend per head and Wales’s international profile are things that would be regularly reported and debated by the media, politicians, businesses and civic society to ensure the policies were economics and environmental sound, but it doesn’t help matters when the Tourism Minister is Edwina Hart who along with her boss Carwyn Jones, Ministerial colleagues and most of the welsh political class and media (and electorate) are economically illiterate and in Labour’s case remain instinctively suspicious of and anti business and believe the spin and media reports that it’s all ok.

An easy and pretty cost free way to raise Wales profile would be to contact the various Welsh groups abroad like the Chicago Taffia and make them into formal cultural and business networks with contact in Wales, but that would take effort and Carwyn and co are more interested in attacking Tory straw men arguments which the media duly reports without question that fixing Wales’s problems, the sad part is they’ll be rewarded handsomely in the European, Westminster and Welsh Assembly elections for their inaction and begging bowl mentality.

Red ²
Red ²
25/04/2014 19:08

Are there any cities or towns in Wales that compare with Barcelona, Venice or Prague?

25/04/2014 18:33

Hi Jac,

Interesting post. While I don’t share your hostility towards our neighbours, I always find the blog an interesting and thought-provoking read – so thanks!

Felt the urge to comment on this one – so here goes…

Certainly agree with your conclusion that we should be doing all we can to bring in the international tourists, and, to be honest, don’t think many people would disagree with that. Be interested to hear your views on how this could be achieved in practice.

Not so sure, however, on some of your statements about the current stats. For example:

“Spend per head can be equated with the profit margin”

Aren’t operating costs an important part of calculating profit? Without those I’m not sure how much a statement like that stands up. Also:

“…which means that when other considerations – cultural damage, traffic congestion, environmental degradation, etc – are factored in to the equation then tourism in Wales is a loss-making, bargain basement business.”

To say, categorically, as you do that tourism in Wales is ‘loss making’ you surely have to put some numbers on your ideas about “cultural damage, traffic congestion, environmental degradation”. What is the economic impact of each? Without providing those it seems to me your bolder statements don’t really mean much.

But, anyway, don’t wish to sound overly critical – as I mentioned above the site is always a good read. Be interested to hear your thoughts.


25/04/2014 19:41
Reply to  Jac

Hi again,

Thanks for the reply.

“As far as we Welsh are concerned tourism is a disaster.”

Fair enough, but on what measure? Who is making this claim and what evidence is there to support it?

“It can only be painted as a success by separating ‘Wales’ from ‘the Welsh’, reducing it all to money and, effectively, treating Wales as a region of England.”

But isn’t the economic argument primarily what you’re trying to address in this post (with the stats and the table)? And the problem is that your central claim (that tourism is ‘loss making’ for Wales) is not support by the evidence you present.


25/04/2014 22:10
Reply to  Jac

Thanks for the response again.

“I am making the claim, obviously. This is my blog on which I give my take on a whole host of Welsh issues.”

Of course, but by saying “As far as we Welsh are concerned tourism is a disaster” could just as easily be interpreted as meaning “It is the opinion of all Welsh people that tourism is a disaster”. But, obviously, that sort of comment can’t be made without polling data to support it (and if such a poll was to be conducted I suspect that most Welsh people would be overwhelmingly in favour of tourism – even if it was of the penny-pinching English variety, but that is nothing more than a suspicion).

“For example, with the table, and the comparisons with Scotland and Ireland, I expose the myth about the economic benefits of tourism.”

Could you be specific about which myth about the economic benefits of tourism you are exposing with the table? It seems to me to demonstrate that tourism brings in a lot of money to Wales.

“Spend per head in Wales proves that Wales is a bargain basement destination.”

‘Bargain basement’ – fair enough, but in the post you make the further claim that tourism in Wales is “loss-making” – would you accept that none of the evidence you present supports the idea that it is loss making?

“As for the damage done to the Welsh language and Welsh identity generally, or the environment, this is obviously impossible to prove with data because politicians and others ensure that such data is not collected.”

I’m interested in this passage because it chimes with the claims you make in many other posts. You seem to be convinced that everyone involved in the Welsh Government, civil service, various executive agencies etc are not just misguided or incompetent but are actually operating in bad faith – that is, they are actively seeking to harm Wales and Welsh people. Is this your position? If so, what do you think their motivations are? In relation to the points above, do you believe there is an actual conspiracy not to collect this data?

I guess my broader point with this post is that the rhetoric seems to go far beyond anything that the research supports. You state: “As far as we Welsh are concerned tourism is a disaster”, but taking into account the stats you present a more reasonable and accurate summary of you position would be something like:

“Tourism brings a huge amount of money into Wales, but visitors to Wales spend less per head than they do in other parts of the UK. I can’t quantify the downsides to tourism (cultural, environmental, traffic) but given the low spend per head I consider the net impact to be negative.”

I’m particularly interested in the concept of ‘cultural damage’. Could you expand on this and how it works?

Thanks again,

26/04/2014 00:01
Reply to  Jac

Appreciate the response. Certainly not my intention in any way to be a wind-up merchant; just interested in the points raised. But given the hostility in your post probably best to leave it there.