Thomas Cook is making the news this week for a new programme it is trialing to enable guests to pre-book sunloungers before they come on holiday. From the end of February, customers at three hotels in the Canary Islands can reserve their personal place by the pool for the entirety of their trip.
How will I feel if I arrive at the hotel and the ‘free’ loungers are better positioned than mine are? I have to have the best seats in the house. And so a divide has been created, like a roped off area in a bar, or the priority boarding queue. I will sit there, basking on my sun lounger that has been singled out for special treatment, resenting those who are lying next to me who didn’t pay and are sharing my perfect sunshine. Or luxuriating in the shade, and feeling smugly superior to those poor souls sweating in the cheap seats.
What if another tourist knows I have bought my bed for £22? What if all the beds are gone and they offer me £10 for one afternoon? £20? What’s my price? Suppose I go off for a daytrip, leaving my bed empty for four hours… surely I should sublet it? Why not convert sunbeds into tradeable units? You have hired a car and I’ve pre-booked a sunbed. I’ll trade you four hours on my sunbed one day, for the loan of your car that afternoon. Understandably, if your car has a sunroof, we might need to offer you a longer lie down. Perhaps someone will create an app that uses blockchain to enable the redistribution of unused hours on sunbeds – Airbed.com.
Our holidays are becoming even more commercialised, even more commoditised, than the commercialised, commoditised world we were supposed to be leaving behind. Everything now has to be priced to be of value. We are in danger of becoming the cynics that Oscar Wilde defined as those who know ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing’.
The sustainable / responsible tourism sector is far from immune. For totally understandable reasons, we demand that those who claim that their business delivers positive impacts show us the numbers. If you tell me about your pioneering social or environmental initiative, then my first question is how much has been achieved? How many have been saved?
Oscar Wilde doesn’t have an opposite quote about the perils of over-reliance on the value of measurement. But it does have a name. It’s called the McNamara Fallacy, after the American army general in the Vietnam War who sought to evaluate failure or success by measuring relative body counts. The complex tragedy of war was reduced to a mathematical model.
As the social scientist Daniel Yankelovich wrote in 1972: “The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can’t be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can’t be measured easily really isn’t important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist. This is suicide.”
I get the need for measurement. We have to know if we are investing our time, money and energies in actions that will deliver the improvements they set out to deliver. But this isn’t all there is. It isn’t all that matters. And – perhaps most importantly when we are talking about tourism and holidays and why people should go on them – what really matters is that the time we spend away from work is a chance to experience the world another way.
Holidays are more than reserved space on a lounger. Birdsong is not worth more or less than sunsets. A walk in the forest doesn’t take on an extra dimension once I calculate its KPIs.
These are escapes from routine, mundanity, cubicles and timeslots. They are chances to take our watches off, and stop thinking about targets and quotas. They are visceral moments of reconnection. So what if the sunbed has gone. I’ll do something else, something unplanned, and maybe have the best day of my trip as a result.
If we are looking to make tourism better – which after all is what responsible, sustainable, transformative tourism is supposed to be all about, then the answers won’t all be found in a spreadsheet.
Yes, we have to make tourism quantifiably better. But we also have to protect those joys that can’t be measured.