Just two weeks ago, I completed my last day’s full-time work, dealing with A-level results: then we headed south to retirement (though not to the exclusion of North Northumberland) in Oxford. Did we find that fine city a model of contentment, the dreaming spires dozing in the recent glorious late summer sunshine?
Hardly. We encountered instead a minor furore. Oxford seems to be turning on the tourists who throng its streets.
Did I say throng? Some would say the tourists don’t just throng: they crowd, obstruct and block entrances, pavements and whole roads. In fact, tourists are driving some residents mad.
The story popped up on local TV news the day we arrived and made it into national papers. Former Lord Mayor Mary Clarkson describes summer tourists as turning Oxford into “hell”. She demands that tour operators and language schools instruct their clients to walk in single file or in twos, and that party leaders should avoid gathering their flocks around gateways and entrances. More reasonably, perhaps, she suggested tourist coaches should park further from the city centre.
How does that work, then? According to reports, tourists spend £738m into Oxford each year. According to my superficial research, that’s around what the whole of Northumberland earns from tourism. This storm in a teacup smacks to me of biting the hand that feeds.
Of course tourism can create problems, and Oxford’s complaint is arguably just the latest expression of a backlash across Europe. Tourists have been threatened in Barcelona, where hostile graffiti about them mar walls.
Venice suffers both crowds and damage. Liners dwarfing every building except perhaps St Mark’s famous Campanile sail past the end of the Grand Canal. The damage to La Serenissima’s ancient foundations cannot be insignificant: but Venice will not – cannot afford to – ban those monster ships from its historic centre.
In Sydney last Christmas I saw one of the largest cruise ships in the world tied up under Sydney Harbour Bridge. It looked magnificent: but locals told us that these Titanic ships moored so centrally blighted the harbour-side shops and restaurants that they blocked.
In the UK, Orkney resents its visiting cruise ships: tourists board fleets of buses in their thousands (the vehicles are hired in from the mainland), spend relatively small sums in local shops while making it difficult for others to visit such amazing prehistoric sites as Scara Brae and Maes Howe, then hurry back to the ship for dinner.
So does Oxford really have a problem? It’s unlikely to wrestle with a cruise-ship problem. The Thames, or Isis as locals call their river, accommodates only small pleasure boats: its floods of tourists arrive mostly by bus, in hundreds, not thousands.
A recently-settled Oxford resident, I confess it can be tiresome circumventing hordes of camera-wielding sightseers while walking into town. Nonetheless I find it hard to take seriously any complaints about an industry that draws many £m to a single city. Oxford rejoiced when BMW revealed that it will build its new electric Mini in its current Cowley plant, safeguarding thousands of jobs. Even the home of the dreaming spires needs employment, then. So why kill the golden goose of tourism?
In defence of tourism’s critics, the pictures accompanying this blog tell their own story. I had it in mind to write this piece when, out, shopping, we came upon a coach struggling to turn in or out of a side-street. A passer-by, spotting my camera, said, “You want to get round the other side, mate. Then you’ll see the phone-box it took out.”
He was right. As a community support officer tried to restore some kind of order to the street, a red-faced bus driver was indeed disentangling his huge tourist bus from a phone-box.
Maybe the city has a point, after all. But I can’t regard it as wise for anywhere to fall out with its tourists.
I suspect Oxford should be careful what it wishes for.