When tourism parodies places

McCarthy's Bar, by Pete McCarthy

McCarthy’s Bar, by Pete McCarthy

McCarthy’s Bar keeps revealing on-the-trail observations that chime with my own concerns about how some places seem to be losing the fight to maintain their character and distinctiveness in the face of tourism and “inward investment”.  His book was a “Number One Bestseller” so I may be among many others with similar concerns:

“Now the Irish economy is so driven by tourism, will every special little place end up like this, as they see what’s to be earned by marketing their idiosyncrasies, leaping aboard the Celtic Tiger, and getting the builders in? A successful tourism industry can quickly turn itself into a parody of itself.”

Clearly this is pre-“crisis” (the book is copyrighted 2000), but the same sentiments can be applied to other times and places.  Just think about the comments you have perhaps heard in relation to the charm of Havana, Cuban people, other places in Cuba, and what lies in store for them once the country “opens up”.

So why is it that when the money blows through some places–investment (chicken or egg?) or tourist cash (egg or chicken?) that it seems to get spent on making them poorer in terms of charm and interesting detail?  Is there some kind of underlying mechanism (“globalisation”?) that makes this inevitable?  How can a place–i.e. the people of that place–conserve its charm and distinctiveness without “selling out” to moneyed “others” and the tourism entourage?  How should destination managers and promoters best communicate the said  idiosyncracies of the place their livelihoods are set to be based on, if at all? Perhaps, in fact, these little sources of charm and distinctiveness should be left to personal discovery and real-world encounters, with communication being equally diffuse thereafter, via post-trip musings via the digital ether and maybe even…  in books.


Real versus contrived places

In Titanic Belfast – it didn’t rock my boat travel writer Catherine Mack contrasts beautiful, “real
breathing spaces [that] are part of our living heritage”, with a designed (or contrived) visitor attraction built on tragedy and destination marketing thought:

Titanic Belfast Visitor Attraction

Reading her piece had me balancing the following:

  • investment in the places to date
  • investment needed to maintain the differing attractions (thereby benefiting the communities most closely involved)
  • the cost to the visitor of visiting (“entrance fee”)
  • enjoyment and illumination
  • underlying motives–which do we really want to be sustained three or four generations from now?

It’s a close-to-the-heart piece, so perhaps the most pertinent question is…  Which of the places she throws into contrast are most likely to fill locals–and maybe even visitors–with pride?


“We all need space”

“We all need space; unless we have it we cannot reach that sense of quiet in which whispers of better things come to us gently.”

This quote comes from Octavia Hill, writing in 1875, in Homes of the London Poor:

“There is a small, square, green churchyard in Drury Lane, and even the sight of its fresh bright verdure through the railings is a blessing; but if the gates could be opened on a hot summer evening, and seats placed there for the people, I am sure the dwellers about Drury Lane would be all the better for it.”

Octavia Hill’s legacy may well serve as inspiration for those seeking to enable better places for people to live in (as well as visit)–places meaning inclusive, shared places; people meaning the wider community.  Small-scale, thoughtful changes can sometimes have profound consequences.


Sensing outstanding natural beauty

The remarkable CoaST team and people at Tamar Valley bring on sense of place to better appreciate the value of this AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, in Britain) and hopefully draw appreciative visitors to the area too.

For illumination visit www.coastproject.co.uk/theland/tamarvalleyasenseofplace.


Sense of development

Dominant transport modes have a major effect on sense of place and other ways we experience and imagine urban places. They can both energise and afflict a place; both clutter and adorn a place with their concomitant infrastructures. Just think of cycle taxis and tuk-tuks in Indian and South East Asian cities, gridlock in LA, civilised cycling in Amsterdam, or commuters flooding off trains and metro services in London and Tokyo before scurrying away into their studios and offices. Picture the absence of cars in mediaeval market towns, or in the plazas of world heritage hotspots. Perhaps ancient tram wheels squeal out their steely call a couple of streets away. Or maybe a modern tram glides into view.

So, here’s a “thought for the day” from someone who has the responsibility of overseeing transportation as well as the social, economic and cultural life, environment and reputation of his city. Gustavo Petro:


A particular place in the land…

A particular place in the land is never, for an oral culture, just a passive or inert setting for the human events that occur there. It is an active participant in those occurrences. Indeed, by virtue of its underlying and enveloping presence, the place may even be felt to be the source, the primary power that expresses itself through the various events that unfold there.

David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, 1997.

From Quotes That Prompt Creative Action at powersofplace.com.


Collecting our senses in Collserolla

Evarist March of NaturalWalks joined our group in the afternoon and led us “by the most natural route possible” from the top of the Collserola park down to the station for our suburban train back to Barcelona.  One of the most interesting facets of the conversation along the way related to public attitudes to this Natural Park.  While it seems much of the media and public discourse on the park is negative, pointing to issues such as the risk of forest fires and wild boars encroaching on peripheral residential areas, few stories celebrate the beauty and mere existence of this diverse natural area so close to the densely-populated built-up area.

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A sense of place trail through Barcelona

From the site of the Republican Army’s Spanish Civil War gun placements and shelters.

Working through Nick Lloyd’s Iberia Nature and Spanish Civil War tours I was able to take some visitors on a rarely-run, long Barcelona walk at the weekend.  We ventured through some of the city’s particularly meaning-laden places, as well as other places less well-known, applying a kind of sense of place framework as we went.

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Getting Close-serola

Barcelona, post-1992 Olympics, is a story that has been told countless times in print, conference rooms and tour guide banter: finally, after decades with their backs to the Med and their plumbing pointing straight into its immediate depths, the Barcelonins gave their stretch of coastline a spring clean and reacquainted themselves with their maritime souls.

It’s an account that washes over some contradictory and more place-specific detail.  For insight, talk to some old-timers in the sea- and portside neighbourhood of La Barceloneta, or ask questions about the former shanty town neighbourhood, El Somorrostro.  A good source of such insight might be La Barceloneta Rebel.

My point is that the situation today is generally the reverse.  From their homes and workplaces the attentions of many Barcelonins are directed to the beach, to a stroll in sea breeze reverie, or to a plate heaped with steaming cooked gifts from the sea and rice paddy.

Meanwhile, the thoughts of a small minority of Barcelonins slip through the backdoor to the hills behind this compact metropolis: La Collserola natural park.

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Immigrant home gardens and socialising future generations

As an English immigrant to this Mediterranean metropolis, whose “garden” consists of a few plastic and earthenware pots on a small balcony in view of a dozen similar balconies, I found myself relating to this research article whilst at the same time envying its subjects, i.e. immigrants who have private gardens in which to develop a sense of place that blends “the old place back home” with their new environment.

It’s not that I haven’t had space to enact similar practices to those described by the researcher.  Last summer a heavily-scented pink rose bloomed for a few days on this humble balcony, and in a private moment I dedicated it to my late grandmother–she would call me wherever I was living in the world, and this was my way of imaginatively, perhaps even spiritually, reviving that connection.

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