BOOK REVIEW / Cuckoos and flaccid puppets: Malaria in the bloodstream: Jan Morris on an unequivocal critique of heritage culture and the Welsh tourist industry. 'A Postcard Home' - Robert Minhinnick: Gomer Press, 3.95 pounds
Saturday 22 January 1994
There are many people in Wales who think it fulfils both functions deplorably, on the one hand representing Wales and the Welsh in a tired parade of cliches, on the other blindly hastening the country towards a national degradation of heritage centres, theme parks and horrible marinas. Among them is the poet Robert Minhinnick, and this small book is a gentle polemic which is of far more than local import, and might well be addressed to tourist authorities anywhere
It is a cogent and persuasive plea for a redirection of the tourist industry, away from mere monetary exhibitionism towards a truly instructive and creative role in society. Of course Minhinnick pitches his argument high - what polemicist doesn't? The summit of Yr Wyddfa, Snowdon, is not always so hideously unwelcoming as he describes it, and perhaps the proposed development of Cardiff Bay ('martinis-on-the-jetty hokum') will not be quite so plagued by algae, industrial effluent and midge-clouds as he fears. On the whole, though, he is relatively restrained in his attacks, especially when compared with his poetical colleague R S Thomas, who believes tourism in Wales to be nothing less than a social evil, and despises all who practice or encourage it.
Minhinnick is not ideologically opposed to tourism, though he rightly scoffs at official statistics that vastly overstate its importance to Welsh well-being. A large proportion of the people who earn their living by it are incomers from England, the Welsh themselves all too often being flaccid puppets in the business. He wants it, though, to be publicly dedicated not to the exploitation, but the conservation of Wales - its landscape, its language and its cu1ture.
This means, as it must everywhere in the world, abandoning the heedless encouragement of mass tourism. The greater the influx of tourists, the cruder their quality (and Wales stands next door to the crudest reservoir of tourists in Europe) and the more corroding their influence upon the host country. Everyone admits that the inexorable migrations of holidaymakers distort the identities of vulnerable small countries; yet still tourist authorities everywhere, and not least Mr Redwood's quango in Cardiff, boast of the increasing number of tourists they attract each year.
Moreover, in matters of cultural usurpation, says Minhinnick, tourism is like a Trojan Horse. Once through the walls, it opens the gates for a whole pack of other invaders, speculators, geriatric settlers, cuckoo-in-the-nest drop-outs - 'good-lifers', as Minhinnick describes them, 'get-away-from-it-all Utopians, doom-tellers and sated or sickened participants in the metropolitan feeding-frenzy'. It is also, he suggests, like malaria: it enters a country's bloodstream, 'it can be dormant for years and then suddenly emerges in fever'.
Certainly, it has an amoeba-like quality. It is perceptibly shifting now, far example, from whole-hog bucket-on-the-beach hedonism towards political correctness and self-improvement. Eco-tourism has made some impact even on the mass market, and theme parks and heritage centres do at least encourage some interest in the history and manners of the host country, absent indeed among the traditional attractions of Benidorm or Butlins.
And perhaps, as Minhinnick is urging, it can still be changed decisively by a change of heart among tourist authorities. He wants the Welsh Tourist Board, in particular, to produce a Charter for Tourism unequivocally committing itself to supporting the environment and the language of Wales. As he says, its activities vitally affect both, and need not be detrimental - on the contrary, by using its influence to restrain rather than encourage heedless exploitation, this unloved quango could make itself a powerful force for everyone's good.
Minhinnick is not altogether despondent anyway. He even allows himself to think that tourism, like coal-mining, may not be a permanent industry after all. I wish I could believe him.
When I walk along the sand: at Morfa Bychan on the Gwynedd coast, though, below the church where the beloved poet Dafydd y Garreg Wen lies, looking across to Harlech and the grey-blue Rhinog mountains - when I walk this lovely strand on a summer morning to see the chalets and caravans proliferating ever further along the sand dunes, and yesterday's crisp packets blowing along the foreshore, I remember wistfully an expert recommendation recently made to the Government of Tasmania that went much farther than Minhinnick's proposal; namely that Tasmania's best bet was to declare itself a tourist-free zone.
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