The world of travelling is a multifaceted one. There are the everyday trips one takes for work or school, commuting to a set location during the week, usually within the confines of a city. There are the longer trips too, the trips which usually involve getting into an aeroplane to visit someplace a bit farther from where the traveller usually resides. These trips are frequently done for business purposes, but for those who have the means to afford it, these trips are undertaken for learning and leisure – where the traveller can be defined as a “tourist”.
On the surface, tourism in its most basic form is a straightforward process. A traveller visits a country for an overnight stay at a minimum, does some sightseeing, takes some photographs, and leaves. For tourist hotspots such as Bangkok or Paris, that overnight traveller can be multiplied by an excess of 19 million similar travellers, all contributing to what is a key part of the country’s economy. While there are various reasons that draw someone to visit a certain place, there’s a consistent factor that has attracted tourists of past and present - that of a place's architecture.
The glitzy, ultra-modern architecture of Dubai attracts a large number of tourists each year, exemplified by projects such as SOM's Burj Khalifa. On the other hand, places such as Venice in Italy and Stone Town in Zanzibar remain popular tourist locations as people flock to view examples of historically significant architectural works. Cities such as these reap the economic benefits of architectural tourism but can also suffer from tourism’s negative side effects.
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Venice has had long-documented problems with tourism. Romanesque architecture, Venetian Gothic, and Renaissance architecture are just a fraction of the architectural styles that draw tourists to the Italian city. However, the current population of 51,000 continues to decline by 1000 residents yearly, and a lack of affordable housing exacerbates this mass exodus of Venetian residents. With a large number of properties being rented to tourists and the conversion of local shops to souvenir shops - Venice can be viewed as an example of how tourism can, in many ways, transform a city for the worse. A city can be “stuck” trying to contort itself in line with tourist demands, leaving it without the vibrancy that made it such a captivating destination to visit in the first place – as the tourist is prioritised over the resident.
Sustainable architectural tourism, far from just being the presence of attractive, historical buildings – involves a healthy balance between the needs of the residents and tourists, where a city’s architecture is more than pretty buildings and instead a part of a healthy urban ecosystem.
It is a similar problem with Stone Town in Zanzibar. With a vibrant, amalgamated mix of Omani, Indian, African and modern European building traditions, Stone Town is a part of a city with an architectural heritage that is one of a kind. However, large parts of the town are privatised – and Stone Town’s architecture is deliberately left to gratify a tourist’s image of a distant, faraway past. Infrastructural problems abound in some buildings – immediately visible to the resident but to the tourist viewed as part of the place’s “identity”. Places such as Stone Town need to be viewed as constantly evolving, dynamic urban sites, referencing their past yet firmly rooted in the present. A present that necessitates tourists viewing the architecture of a “heritage” city as more than just an assemblage of attractive facades, and instead as three-dimensional buildings which should simultaneously serve the needs of tourists and host communities.
In the midst of a pandemic that has seen us grapple with how to sustainably travel, it is also of paramount importance to examine and interrogate our expectations of what a place is when we do travel. Jamaica Kincaid’s book A Small Place, where she examines the harmful effects of tourism in Antigua, is a timely read and relevant to a whole host of global contexts. Sustainable tourism – within the context of architecture – is all about viewing places one visits as living, breathing, societies, instead of just a picturesque backdrop.
For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere.. Jamaica Kincaid in A Small Place - Jamaica Kincaid in A Small Place
Hashim Sarkis, curator of the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale, asked the question “How Will We Live Together?” One of the answers may lie in how towns and cities and cultivate spaces that serve their residents whilst also allowing tourists and travellers to visit sustainably. It is a gentle balancing act, yes, but one that is very much possible.