Marino de Medici: Globalization of tourism, risks and benefits

By Marino de Medici:

These are difficult times for international tourism. Gone are the days when you could travel to Egypt and take the obligatory ride on a camel at the pyramids or swim in the warm waters of Sharm el Sheikh or visit the monasteries in the Sinai without worrying about your safety.

Nor is it healthy to travel to Thailand, that popular playground for Americans and Europeans that is now in the throngs of an upheaval that seems to grow more disruptive every day. In this hemisphere, many Latin American countries are not recommended for
tourism, starting with Venezuela that is in the midst of tumultuous events very close to a civil war.

Other countries — including Brazil that will host both the World Cup and the summer Olympics — are beset by security problems that put even the most careful tourists at risk of being assaulted and robbed.

Argentina, once a first world country endowed by great natural wealth, is unsafe as a destination not just because of mounting crime but of constant “picketing” or blockades of the main arteries that make it difficult for tourists to reach the airport. And of course, tourists, especially Americans, travel to Middle East countries at their risk and peril. Even Turkey, which seemed to rise in the ranking of stable and prospering nations is now a place shaken by deep internal conflicts that cannot but make any tourist nervous.

The obvious advice would be to stay home, but then there are new venues for cheap and rewarding tourism, ironically places where the turmoil is abating, such as Greece, which is not only beginning to climb out of its huge hole of national debt, but to look at a share of 15 percent in its revenue coming from tourism.

The globalization of tourism defies the higher risks of traveling simply by directing the flow of middle class tourism to cheap and relatively safe places. Western Europe is certainly safe but not cheap, although the economic downward spiral in Euroland has caused a reduction of the purchasing power of its citizens and consequently a leveling of prices to the benefit of dollar-bearing visitors.

Where once the European shop owners relied on the rich American and Japanese tourism, now they have to make due with the “new rich” from Russia and China. Asian tourism is descending upon Italy, France and Spain, in the shape of undisciplined hordes that stress to the limit the capacity of museum and historical places to accommodate the overflowing foreign visitors.

The basilica of Saint Peter in Rome, the cradle of Catholicism, does not charge for entry, but it should. Throngs of Asian and Latin American tourists invade it daily, seemingly more interested in shooting “selfies” than in admiring the works of art and the religious relics.

And then there is another form of tourism, flowing in huge numbers to the sun and the sea.

While North African countries are beset by political problems and lawlessness that discourage the sun worshipers in their beaches (Tunisia comes to mind, even though there are signs of progress there), other corners of the world are attracting an increasing mass of visitors from remote regions of the world. Again, Russians seem to be the leaders of this surge, as chartered 12 hour flights shuttle them from Moscow to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.

In fact, Santo Domingo, together with Cancun and the Riviera Maya in Mexico, is enjoying a true boom in tourism.

Punta Cana, at the eastern tip of the island of Hispaniola, already counts 110 resorts and hotels facing the Atlantic Ocean in the north and the Caribbean on the south side. The majority of the resorts are all inclusive; food, drinks and many activities are free. Alcohol flows in astonishing quantities and the Russians, among others, love it. They start early in the morning with the Dominican rum and it is not unusual to see them carrying it around in conspicuous thermos-like containers. The amount of food they consume from the buffets is also a sight to behold.

There are plenty of resorts for the rich too, with scores of palm-lined golf courses. Casinos and nightclubs abound. In fact, the Dominican Republic is the Latin American nation that receives the largest share of tourism revenues as a percentage of its Gross National Product, approximately 7.7 percent. Just as amazing is the fact that the number of visitors represents 40.3 percent of the country’s population. The average tourist spends $997,
with total receipts of $4.2 billion for the national economy.

The attraction of the Dominican Republic is due to the competitive availability of low cost air carriers and cheap all inclusive resorts. The infrastructure is slowly improving and a new highway now connects Punta Cana to Santo Domingo. Driving is something else: in Santo Domingo you take your life in your hands. Fortunately, Russians and others stay put in their resorts to eat, drink and be merry.

In no other sector as that of cruising is the globalization more apparent, indeed impressive. Over 20 million people go on cruises each year. The number of cruise ships is increasing by leaps and bounds: there are currently 298 ships and 64 cruise lines operating.

The Caribbean is the most appealing destination in the world, with 43 percent
of the total number of cruises. Alaska is next. The Mediterranean is fifth, with only 14 percent.

Globalization demands new and bigger ships. Currently there are 26 ships being built. The Oasis of the Seas is the biggest with her 220,000 tons and 18 decks. But there are some risks in cruising as well, as the disaster of the Costa Concordia has shown:
since 1979, 55 cruise ships have sunk. To be sure, the risk is less than in walking the streets of Buenos Aires, Rio, Nairobi or Johannesburg, not to mention Chicago or Detroit. But the numbers of tourism are now so big that mishaps are a miniscule percentage. So, go on and travel, and bon voyage!

Marino de Medici is a Winchester resident and formerly the dean of foreign correspondents in the United States.