A world begging to be seen

Beautifully empty tourist sites are being shared on social media during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ironically, their aesthetic power might spur on the next wave of overtourism once travel restrictions are lifted.

The corona pandemic has been particularly hard on the tourism sector. Certain operations have seen a decline in business by up to 90%, and the entire sector needs to rethink its approach as global travel has come to a standstill. The World Travel and Tourism Council has warned the COVID-19 pandemic could cut 50 million jobs worldwide in the travel and tourism industry.

Shifting their focus to ecological impact, some experts have discerned a silver lining. Satellites orbiting the earth have documented a discernible drop in air pollution. CO2 emissions are down and air quality has gone up. Given these tangible results, some have noted, we might take the crisis as an opportunity to revamp the tourism industry, and push for sustainable policies while the industry recovers. After all, the next crisis is incoming.

A structuralist view on the problem indicates that COVID19 and climate change are both rooted in the world’s current economic model, in which we pursue infinite growth at the cost of our environment. They are both caused by excessive industrial production and the commodification of life, such as in wild animal breeding.

Yet the zealous climate discourse touted by some will cause ire among many people who’ve seen their lives dramatically curtailed, let alone those who have lost friends or family members. A lot of political goodwill will be needed to effectuate the dramatic changes needed to save the planet, and making it a front-facing political strategy at this time may cause more harm than good in the next few months.

In fact, most people seem impatient to return to their pre-pandemic lives. A recent news article in the Telegraph (and elsewhere) asked “When will we be able to go on holiday again?” Premature as such a question may seem, it signals an eagerness to return to business as usual.

Empty hotspots

COVID19 delivers employees in the tourism industry to an unknown fate, but the industry they have served is resilient. It is a prime example of capitalist creativity, in which new aspects of lived reality can continuously be taken into the fold as the need arises.

A noteworthy example in the last weeks is the abundance of paradoxical ‘empty hotspots’ posted on social media. City squares, where tourists were scoffed at by locals this time last year, are now empty. No more tour bus tires to be slashed, no more “tourists go home” graffiti needed. We now face the image of undertourism: a place designed for the masses that remains deserted.

The Ur Example: Venice, the most widely discussed overtoured place on the planet. Weeks after the lockdown, reports started coming in that “Nature is taking back Venice”, with one Guardian noting that “the ancient city has been transformed almost overnight”. The many pictures of the city’s blossoming flora and fauna are a prime example of what Walker Percy once called “the recovery of sovereignty through disaster”.

Similar accounts came in from cities all over the world, as well as beautifully rendered videos of deserted streets in Rome, Rio de JaneiroLondon, Cape TownShanghai – many of them captured by drones soaring over the landscape. Just fill in the name of your favorite city, add the word “empty”, and enjoy the sights.

‘We are the virus’

The hypocrisy of these acts of aestheticization did not remain unnoticed. On Twitter, the Corona-brings-relief posts were immediately subject to ironical inversion, as people took to Photoshop and began mocking the odes to natural resuscitation. The shitposts included phrases such as “the earth is healing” and “we are the virus”. As always, the jokes very rapidly outnumbered the earnestness.

The meme was no doubt spurred on by the ecofascist undertones of the original posts, in which environmental good is welcomed at the expense of (or at least by drawing attention away from) human death and suffering. It also demonstrates the absurdity of positing any “natural” state of the planet — it all depends on where you decide to place the marker of authenticity.

Virality is a keyword in all of this; by overtaking the original posts and redirecting attention to their absurdity, the meme has successfully mitigated some of the ecofascistic messaging. But we only laugh at it because we understand what it ridicules: our own tendency to think of place in terms of authenticity. As an ideology, tourism turns the empty hotspot to good account. Jokes aside: doesn’t the place look inviting?

Exposed at last

It is the act of commodification itself that remains unquestioned. When viewing the images of empty Venice, we should remind ourselves of the fact that sights are accessed by privilege. Viewing is not a simple ‘shared’ activity among millions: its commodification turns it into a scarcity. As Walker Percy suggested, looking is a bit like sucking: the more lookers, the less there is to see. The first people who are able to dream of travel again are those already on the way in their private jets. Next in line are those who will be able to afford to buy a ticket as soon as the lockdown ends.

The sense of eeriness we experience when looking at empty tourist sites (prefigured ad nauseam by the apocalypse movies we’ve watched in the past decades) is simply a function of our fascination. What we see when we look at these pictures is a world begging to be seen, and indeed, capable of being seen once again. Walker Percy connects this re-established visibility to the Huxlean novel when he imagines a remnant of humanity, after some twentieth-century catastrophe, rediscovering the Grand Canyon:

“They stumble across the Bright Angel Lodge, now fallen into ruins. The trails are grown over, the guard rails fallen away, the dime telescope at Battleship Point rusted. But there is the canyon, exposed at last. Exposed by what? By the decay of those facilities which were designed to help the sightseer.”

When travel restrictions are lifted, we should not be surprised to see, instead of an internationally coordinated reorganization of tourism towards a sustainable endeavor (whatever that may mean), a boom in international travel, spurred on in part by the implicit but perpetual touristic promise of privilege. If we want to prevent climate disaster, the only way forward is to begin understanding the deeply contrived nature of that promise.


Percy W (1975) The Message in the Bottle : How queer man is, how queer language is, and what one has to do with the other. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Available at: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/1230725.

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