Earlier this month Clint and I spent a long weekend in Belgium with two American friends visiting from Japan. Clint and I took a detour to Bruges for an afternoon, but the rest of the time we were in the Flemish port city of Ghent.
Ghent has all the things I like to do and see when I travel. Easy to bike or walk: check. Architectural and artistic heritage: double check. Enough beers for me to lose my liver trying them all: in spades. The number of Belgian beers varies depending on who you ask—we heard 1000+ in Bruges and 700+ in Ghent from people who know these things—but I don’t need a specific number; it’s plenty enough for one to never get bored trying them all, especially on a 3-day trip.
As is characteristic of a northern European city of its history (port city) and geography (lowland), Ghent has its own network of canals. Being the very charming city that it is, and our visit on a mostly sunny weekend while tourism season was in full swing, we did the obvious thing of taking a canal tour. (It didn’t hurt that the tour was free with our CityCards, either.) The tour itself was informative but not particularly memorable, at least not until our boat wandered away from the River Leie into a smaller canal in a residential area. And that’s when we saw this:
The rebellious part of my psyche howled upon seeing this, and I couldn’t forget this sign for the rest of the trip. I was outraged on behalf of the folks who live on these canals, and proud of whoever put the sign up for letting us know exactly how we were impacting their lives. And there was a twinge of guilt that I was helping precipitate this terrorism; I was culpable.
This canal tour was not our first. On the others I considered water pollution, local economics, tourism demographics according to languages spoken by the guides, and how some tours adapt history lessons to their audiences. But until I saw this sign, noise pollution was not an effect I had thought about.
To be clear, not all canal or boat tours impart such noise pollution like the one in Ghent did. In Breda and Utrecht, the boats were small (capacity 6-8 ppl), so our guides’ voices needed no amplification. In Amsterdam the intimidating knot of canals weave through the historic but commercialized/touristified old center (where, yes, some very rich people live), and some boats continue on to the much larger River IJ (“eye“). Amsterdam’s was the least personable canal tour we’ve taken. The guide steered the full 48-person barge while a recording told us about our surroundings in Dutch, English, German, and French (the guide in Ghent did the same, but off the cuff: “Do we have any English speakers with us? Nederland taal? Français? Sprechen Sie auch Deutsch?”; multilingualism is as good of a reason as any to raise your kids in Belgium, I guess!)
Our Ghent tour guide, while good at her job, used an obnoxious company-issued loud speaker. There were no more than 20 people in the boat, and her voice was louder than the recorded voice on the boat in Amsterdam. Noise terrorism, indeed.
[An aside: While looking into the history of this sign, of which I could find none, I came across a short video that does a decent job demonstrating the blunt frustration canal-area denizens surely feel at times. The intent is for this video clip to be performance art, but I just want readers to hear how loud the tour guides can be. Watch here.]
There’s a school of thought within academia that the study of tourism is essentially “the study of the mobile consumption patterns of the wealthier members of society.” The more obvious examples of this theory include the rise of civil aviation in the 1960s, the advent of high-speed rail in certain countries (e.g. China), and current discussions about space tourism. This theory, when paired with significant evidence that environmental change is caused by human activities, doesn’t provide a very flattering image for the tourism industry at large: Transportation and consumption for the sake of tourism by the wealthy adversely affects poorer communities in the long run.
Even if you discount this theory, the tourism industry is still in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation from a land use perspective. As a locality or region’s tourism increases, new facilities, parking lots, and accommodations are built to manage and sustain such a boon; in fact, tourism can be seen as spurring an evolution of a place’s land use while its economy grows and adapts. So far, so good: more people, more consumption, and therefore more money. But land use changes have their own ecological footprints—and, let’s be honest, most cities are not going to invest in landscape restoration when they could upgrade infrastructure or build a new museum or convention hall for their visitors.
So not only does tourism’s land use contribute to the size of a place’s economic footprint and an increase in consumption, but tourism is affected by the changes brought by its own land use, such as the loss of biodiversity, resources, and other natural amenities that visitors may come to a place for. And dilution of local cultural can be an issue; this affects locals more, of course, but we’ve likely all traveled somewhere and thought, “This place is totally canned.”
Now, it’s highly unlikely any Dutch or Belgian city is going to dig new canals just for tourism. The costs far outweigh the benefits, especially considering the thin slice of the GDP pie tourism has compared to other industries. In the Benelux countries, tourism is about 8% of GDP. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but the percentage is on par with those of France, Spain, and Italy, Europe’s three most travelled-to countries. Unlike these southern European countries, though, the onset of climate change is predicted to have positive long-term effects on tourism, at least in terms of lengthening “tourist season.” The website ClimateAdaptation.eu explains:
“The temperature is likely to rise further in the Netherlands, thereby extending the summer season and, consequently, increasing the possibilities for tourism and recreation. The Netherlands will likely become a more attractive destination for foreign tourists. The Dutch will probably be more inclined to spend their holidays in their own country… The changes are likely to be unequally spread across Europe, however. The year-round potential for tourism increases most in the northern parts of Europe, including the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, and in Austria.”
My takeaway is that whatever effects of tourism the people of Ghent (and Amsterdam and other cities in the region) feel are only going to grow. Impacts will vary by locality and by mode of tourism, and citizens must either make peace with these impacts, or continue to make their grievances known, lest their quality of life and affiliated economic factors be diminished.