The above photo and headline appeared in the Daily Mail on May 27th 2015 causing an understandable uproar. A Greek site retorted almost instantly with an entry titled “Brits turn Greek island into disgusting hellhole for refugees” and the path was set for a dirty name-calling war. The photo shows “Anne Servante, a nurse from Manchester, [who] had come to Kos expecting a relaxing break with her husband Tony, a retired plumber.” What she finds instead are “penniless migrants who are in Greece to claim asylum sit outside their restaurant and watch them eat”, turning her “summer break […] into a ‘nightmare'”.
Strange as it sounds, I must admit that I feel a tiny little bit sorry for Anne and Tony. For a nurse and a plumber in the UK a yearly holiday in the sun is the one of the few luxuries they can allow themselves. The few days abroad are supposed to make them feel serviced for once. They pay (no matter how much – it’s probably a lot for them) and want to be treated as a king and queen. As most people who feel they belong to one of the lowest steps of the social ladder, they only have contempt for those below them. And this is where my sympathy ends.
This story illustrates – admittedly in a most extreme way – some of the main contradictions in tourism. Tourists pay money and are thus often convinced they’re entitled to special treatment as ‘customers’. While some look for authenticity (whatever that is, but that’s a whole different story), my guess is that this is not what attracts the Annes and the Tonies of the world to the Greek islands. They are consumers – of sun, sea, food and booze. If possible, nothing should come between themselves and consumption. The refugees (and not ‘migrants’ as in the DM) disturb this arrangement. They remind them that there is something else going on in this world beyond these endless streams of pleasure. There is war out there; there is hunger and death.
As for the businesspeople who live from tourism, they are understandably upset. The presence of refugees stresses the local communities in many ways, and the disturbance to their businesses is only one of these.
But war, hunger and death are very real things. As long as they’re far away, we can ignore them, but what happens if we find them on our doorstep one day? There is no possible way to reconcile the needs of paying tourists and the misery of refugees, who’ve crossed the Mediterranean fleeing from certain death, until they’re washed out on some Greek coast. Part of the tourist experience is life in a bubble, away from real world and its strifes. It’s the job of the tourism industry to protect them from reality. We may be fully entitled to blame Anne and Tony for cruelty and insensibility and especially the Daily Mail for its hateful report. But I think we should also be looking at the tourism experience as a whole and questioning its principles. How sustainable and how responsible is this fake world created, maintained and sold by the industry?
Some years ago, in this blog I quoted one of my favourite short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death”, to illustrate the behaviour of some European nations in the financial crisis. I think it is most suitable here again:
In the best tradition of the Gothic novel, it is the story of Prince Prospero and his attempts to avoid the horrible disease that has befallen the country – the Red Death. Together with other nobles he barricades himself in his abbey, carefully guarding every entrance to make sure nobody gets in. While the countryside around is dying a horrible death, Prospero throws a masquerade ball. A stranger, wearing the costume of a victim of the red death makes his way through every single of the seven rooms of the ball, bringing with him the Death they thought they’d locked outside.