German vacationers on the sun-soaked Mediterranean island of Majorca get a special kind of welcome these days at Es Trenc. On the beach encircling the turquoise bay, someone has spray-painted a one-word message to them on the side of an old concrete shelter: raus--"Beat it!"--along with a giant swastika.
Majorcans are getting thoroughly sick of tourists. Not only of Germans--tourists from just about anywhere. No one denies tourism's vital role in the local economy. The industry has transformed Majorca from one of Spain's poorest parts to the richest in per capita income. But the island's 630,000 year-round inhabitants are increasingly convinced that 14 million foreign visitors a year are far too much of a good thing. Water is rationed. Pollution is worsening. Big hotels have mushroomed, and Spanish has fallen to second-language status on much of the island. "The tourists are unbearable," says Frederico Medina, 32, a local gardener. "They act like they own the island. They're like ants. There are just too many of them."
You hear the same complaint in holiday havens from Trinidad to Thailand. Sure, tourism can pay good money. But it can also impose painful costs on the pristine environments and easygoing lifestyles that attracted vacationers to begin with. These days the industry's most urgent question may be how to keep the crowds at bay.
For some places it's a matter of sheer survival. A prime example is Italy, where great cultural centers like Florence and Venice simply can't handle all the tourists they get every summer. In Florence, where the city's half-million or so inhabitants have to live with the pollution, gridlock and crime generated by 11 million visitors a year, there's talk not only of boosting hotel taxes but even of charging admission to some public squares. The idea is to discourage at least some visitors, as well as to pay for cleaning up the mess. The same principle applies in Venice, whose supplies of fresh water can't keep up with the peak-season needs of tourists and residents. Three years ago the city imposed a new "toilet tax" on all users of public restrooms.
Elsewhere the aim is to attract just the right sort of visitors: heavy spenders. Low-end package tourists (like the vast majority of Majorca's foreign guests) tend to stay at big foreign-owned hotels and buy few local products. "Mass tourism usually leaves little money inside the country," says Christine Plusch of the Task Force for Tourism and Development in Basel, Switzerland. "Most of the money ends up with the airlines, the tour operators and foreign hotel owners." That's no problem in places like the Seychelles. The palmy Indian Ocean archipelago has never bothered with large-scale tourist investment, catering instead to wealthy sailing enthusiasts and honeymooners. Today the island's standard of living is among the region's highest.
In fact, the travel business often does best when its growth is tightly controlled. Rigorously unspoiled Lanai is the only Hawaiian island where tourism was up this spring over last. It's a pricey place, even by Hawaiian standards, but visitors say the extra breathing room is worth top dollar. Or take the mountain region of Bregenzerwald, in the Austrian Alps. The land is zoned exclusively for small-scale construction, using only local stone and wood, and a homegrown network of farmers and artisans has been set up to supply hotels and restaurants with all the necessities. That kind of planning helps put more money in local pockets--and it's giving the region a big competitive edge over many overpaved, overbuilt Alpine retreats.
Development can be as hard to stop as any force of nature. A few years ago, Western hotel owners in Gambia began converting their establishments into all-inclusive, prepaid resorts. The West African nation's small-business people were furious: the change would doom locally owned restaurants, boat charters and dive shops, leaving Gambians only the scraps of the tourist trade--low-end service jobs at the resorts and dirt-farm wages from raising produce for the hotel kitchens. Widespread protests forced the Gambian government to ban the self-contained tourist enclaves in 1999. But a year later, the ban was repealed. The big hoteliers had gained the support of local Muslim clerics, who saw the all-inclusive resorts as a good way to protect Gambians from thongs, rock music and other Western enticements.
Still, the inhabitants of some major tourist attractions are actually managing to turn back the tide of development. On Majorca, a new tax of up to 2euros per guest per night has helped roll back arrivals. Bookings this year are down 20 percent, partly because of bad weather and the global economic slowdown, but tourism experts say the surcharge helped. Few Majorcans are complaining. Three years ago the local government outlawed construction of any new hotel unless an old one--with more beds than the replacement--was torn down first. Islanders cheered when the first high-rise hotel was demolished in the town of Calvia two years ago. The site is now a park.
Other places have a chance to do it better from the start. In southern China, tourism was booming in the town of Zhongdian, the supposed model for James Hilton's novel "Lost Horizon," even before May, when Beijing's State Council officially renamed it Shangri-La. Last year the place attracted 1.24 million visitors, according to Tsring Nima, the local deputy director of tourism. Now the Shangri-La government has set itself a growth target of 12 percent a year. Development will be carefully monitored and controlled, Tsring insists. Majorcans can only wish him luck.