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November 13, 2007

All Those Horrible, Terrible Tourists

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

My sorta-neighbor (well, we both live in the Seattle area) travel entrepreneur Rick Steves mentions in his guidebooks that this or that site is too touristy. He's not alone: other guidebooks and many travelers express the same lament.

Unfortunately for him, my newly-minted but probably not original Iron Law of Travel Writing holds that, if a site is praised in travel books/films/videos/etc., the tourists will come. Lots of them, eventually. And local shops will begin stocking souvenirs and other trinkets. It certainly happened to Steves when he gave a huge boost to the five small Cinque Terre towns at the eastern end of Italy's Ligurian Coast by featuring them in his guide books and television show. The undertone to his treatment of Cinque Terre in his latest Italy book is that he wishes the place wasn't so overrun, but deserves to be a highlighted destination nevertheless.

I don't consider myself a travel snob [pats his own back] but gobs and gobs of tourists in a limited area can get annoying. Here are some examples from my own travels.

  • I visited Prague in July, 2000 and it was somewhat crowded. I visited it again on the last day of September 2006 and it was even more crowded; crossing the Charles Bridge (Karluv most) was a struggle. This was when the tourist season should have been over.

  • I was in Cinque Terre early this October and the place still had lots of tourists -- again after the expected peak. This made me wonder how crowded the little towns were during the height of the season.

  • The Waikiki beach and hotel area crowds are surely nearly all tourists.

  • Florence is usually jammed. This is especially so on and near the Ponte Vecchio and in the squares near the Ufizzi Gallery and the Duomo. On Sundays, many tourists are Italians from nearby towns and smaller cities. This is because nowadays (more so than even a few years ago) stores in the tourist areas are open, whereas Sunday shopping is much more limited elsewhere.

To be sure, London, Paris, New York and other tourist destination cities gather plenty of sightseers. But these places are so large that tourists can be overwhelmed by the even larger crowds of locals -- except around mecca sites such as the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty and Tower of London.

Travel writers seem to take pride in discovering the undiscovered: an Italian hill-town or a French village untouched by tourism until the next edition of the travel book hits Barnes & Noble's shelves.

I was offered food for thought about this several years ago when visiting St. Cirq-Lapopie on a hill above the Lot River in southwestern France. The place had been "discovered" (which was why we were there) and already had its establishment of restaurants and gift shops. There were nearby towns, none of which were touristy. I got to thinking that St. Cirq probably looked much like the others a few decades ago: pretty dull. The only distinction St. Cirq had was a nicer hill site and good views of the river valley below.

So what did the first tourists to St. Cirq experience? A dull little hill town with a nice view and nothing for them to do but take in the view and go hiking nearby. True, there are people who would consider that travelers' nirvana. Me, I appreciate decent restaurants and like the lively street experience shops and shoppers provide.

While too many tourists in a small area can be annoying at times, the absence of tourists and the vitality they encourage is, to me, even worse.



posted by Donald at November 13, 2007


Second tier cities in Europe that are not heavily dependent on tourism and have retained an individual identity make interesting destinations.
In France: Lyon, Montpellier, Toulouse.
In Italy: Genoa, Turin.
Because of their size they all have good restaurants and shopping.
And regional museums often filled with hidden treasures.
Of course, for the most part they're not conventionally pretty, in fact large stretches can be characterless and grim. But each has a distinct flavor. I guess you've got to be a city lover. If you are and you can give each one at least three days, it will get to you.

Posted by: ricpic on November 13, 2007 7:02 PM

On Waikiki:

You better believe it. Unless you work there or have some sort of business there, no local ever goes to Waikiki, except maybe to Kapiolani Park and the Zoo at the far end of it. It's got jacked up prices, absolutely no parking, pushy panhandlers, loads of disgusting bums and way too many people. Sure, there are some good resturants there, but where are you going to park?

Funny thing is, Waikiki abuts a couple of urban Honolulu neighborhoods filled with cheap but excellent holes-in-the-wall and funky shops. One of them, Kapahulu, is literally a ten minute walk away, but you'll never see a single tourist there.

Life in a tourist Mecca is pretty interesting (and maddeningly frustrating). Damn, I should start a blog!

Posted by: Spike Gomes on November 13, 2007 8:29 PM

The next time you're in Italy, be sure to visit Ravenna. It's off the beaten path, but is well worth the effort. Uncrowded. Nice people who are not jaded by tourism. Friendly, helpful and honest. Great historical sites and the best mosaics this side of Istanbul.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on November 14, 2007 12:56 AM

People who publicly lament that some place has become too "touristy" are typically part of The Annoying, Insecure Middle. I don't mean in terms of wealth or class necessarily, though there may be some overlap. I mean, divide up society into 3 or so classes based on "travel savvy":

The elite know which places are unspoiled and want to keep it that way, or might not care since they'll just pick up and travel somewhere else unspoiled once the middle hears about it.

The bottom goes wherever is popular among guidebooks, movies, TV, etc.

The middle are those who catch on to a trend when the secret is just getting out from the elite, and then they complain when the bottom gets hold of the secret too.

Contrary to Marx and Veblen, there is almost no group vs. group competition. Almost all day-to-day stuff is among individuals within a particular class. Those in the elite try to out-do one another in who can keep their spot secret the longest. Those in the bottom try to out-do one another by simply traveling where they're told -- as opposed to not traveling at all, which is, like, so backwards.

Those in the middle try to out-do one another by seeing who can whine the loudest about a place becoming too touristy, as though they thought that's how an elite traveler might behave. An elite person would just pick up and leave quietly to find another spot, no big deal. But if you're not savvy enough to be at the top, you don't know where else to go, so you're stuck against an advancing wave of bottom people. Oh no!

A similar case is those who broadcast how often they go to The Theatre and enumerate all the plays they've seen recently, vs. those for whom culture is taken for granted, vs. those who rarely go but make sure to see whatever the must-see play is.

Posted by: agnostic on November 14, 2007 2:03 AM

No wonder Ravenna is quiet. When we've tried to do a day trip there by train, the train has arrived as the attractions close and departed as they re-open.

Bruges. Try Bruges. Lovely. aka Brugge.

Posted by: dearieme on November 14, 2007 7:52 AM

Agnostic, I would love to hear your thoughts on people who have this kind of reaction:

Jack: "oh, you like Nirvana, so do I?"
Mike: "Yeah, I was listening to them in 1988 before 'Bleach' came out."
Jack: "oh, ok."

For some reason, some people get some great power from that. The fact that they have never heard of Otis Redding never seems to bother them.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on November 14, 2007 9:49 AM

Years ago I spent a couple of days in Florence as a side trip from my college's study-abroad program in Rome. It was totally overrun with tourists, the joke among my fellow program participants was that you could hear dozens of languages spoken with the conspicuous absense of Italian.

Posted by: Peter on November 14, 2007 12:03 PM

Whether the subject is tourism, neighborhoods, or (anent Ian Lewis's comment) music, it's common to find a sort of "I discovered this, but now -they- are onto it, too, and ruining the whole thing" attitude.

I'm certainly not immune to it when somebody eagerly tells me about something they've discovered that I knew about decades ago, but I try to keep it in check.

I'd better stop before I start to convince myself that there have been threads about this here before.


Posted by: Narr on November 14, 2007 1:53 PM


That's a bit out of date. Replace "Nirvana" with "Arcade Fire" or "The Decembrists" and it would be more relevant today.

There was an interesting post on anti-hipster blog that detailed the exchange between a hipster and a Juilliard graduate at a party.

In general, I love Rick Steves. He's one of the few travel shows I can watch without gritting my teeth, as he basically focuses on the elements of travel that appeal to me, namely good food and drink, history and local culture (as opposed to packaged culture) and having an unhurried quiet approach to the process.

As for being an elite traveler, I can't imagine it would be too hard to do (in the first world, at least), if you know the local language and carefully booked in advance. If I had the money, there would be a plethora of places I'd like to go that no one ever goes to, just because one of my favorite wines is made there, or a favorite novelist or poet dwelt there.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on November 14, 2007 2:25 PM

"That's a bit out of date"

No doubt. Heck, I was a bit out of date when they were popular.

On touristy Italian places, I think tht Venice needs to be mentioned.

As far as I understand, it was both the Financial AND Shipping capital of the world in the 1300's with a Top population of over 300k. Now, the entire city seems to run on Tourism with a population of 60k.

And the locals are simply their to own and run a touristy business.

It's sorta depressing.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on November 14, 2007 3:17 PM

I think we should distinguish situations where popularity actually changes the experience for us, very cases in which popularity merely changes exclusive knowledge of the activity.

For example, if no one knows about Versailles, I can wander about the halls with impunity. If it's too popular, the experience of Versailles is changed because now there are crowds everywhere.

On the other hand, say I discover an obscure movie on DVD and tell everyone about it. The fact that 100,000 people then choose to buy that same movie does not change my physical experience of the movie.

A true snob cares about both. But one can be indifferent to exclusivity and yet be bothered that the experience of Versailles (or Paris, London, etc.) is changed substantially. In contrast, some people just want to call "First!"

Posted by: aj on November 14, 2007 3:29 PM

I was in Rome in early November. While tourists turn the Forum and other guidebook hotspots into anthills there are other historical sites that are practically deserted: the enthralling church of San Clemente with its layers of history was tourist-less; Trajan's fascinating markets were empty of people; the lovely Palazzo Altemps had no-body else in it, ditto Palazzo Alle Terme. I even had the Palatine to myself one afternoon.

Posted by: american fez on November 14, 2007 3:50 PM

Well, dearieme, like I said...Ravenna is not a tourist town. The next time you visit, spend a few nights and stroll around. I promise you it's worth the effort. By the way, while I was strolling, I accidentally came across this beautiful memorial. I walked in and came face to face with the tomb of...Dante.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on November 14, 2007 4:08 PM

Ignoring the fact that Steves frequently comes across as a hayseed ("Hey, monsewer, parrlay voose france-say?" -- and he's supposed to be teaching us after having been there a so many times), there are two problems with the way he approaches places like Italy.

First, tourists have been going to Italy for more than a thousand years, and there is no such thing as "undiscovered Italy." And as for the landscape, farmers have been cultivating every inch they can for two thousand years. As you say, Cinque Terre is full of tourists.

Second, while Italy has some great natural beauty, we have greater natural beauty in the US, but we don't have cities like Rome, Florence and Venice. They are so crowded because they're so great.

They are the "real Italy." Anyone who goes to Italy without seeing Rome, Florence and Venice has not seen the greatest Italy has to offer.

Posted by: john on November 15, 2007 4:44 PM

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