Overtourism: our “Bucket List”-checking, Instagramming Problem

An article recently appeared in The Atlantic about the problem of “overtourism”, with the headline “Too Many People Want to Travel“. The problems raised by an increased volume of tourism are serious, and the article mentions several examples, from the recent deaths on Mount Everest, due to overcrowding, to environmental damage. In the news, too, we see a range of problems facing popular tourist destinations. Last week a cruise ship crashed into a Venice dock, just the most recent offense in a longer trend of the city’s “low quality tourism” problem.

Overtourism is caused, in part, by the cultural factors of checking off ‘bucket lists’ (and the best-selling book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die) and social media being used to share travel photos. When you visit the Louvre, you must take a picture of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, even though it looks just like you thought it would, and everybody else is holding their phone up, straining to get a picture of the dark, small portrait.

This is what it looks like in real life–La Gioconda, surrounded by people taking selfies with her

The article points out that Instagram, Yelp and TripAdvisor are amongst the social media platforms contributing to overtourism.

“Social media are at work, too, with apps such as Instagram leading tourists to pitch over cliffs and clog vital roadways in search of the perfect pic, and sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor making restaurants, museums, and beaches discoverable and thus ruinable. Overtourism itself is a media phenomenon as much as it is anything else.”

Annie Lowrey (2019), Too Many People Want to Travel, The Atlantic, 4 June

The idea that travelling is being ruined by photography predates Instagram–Susan Sontag’s essays On Photography talked about the shaping of tourism since the early days of the medium.

“It seems positively unnatural to travel for pleasure without taking a camera along. Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had…Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs. The very activity of taking pictures is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel. Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter.”

Susan Sontag, 1977, In Plato’s Cave, On Photography, p. 6.

My initial reaction to the headline was to think that it was very classist. It’s unfair to the blame these problems on the people who can now afford to travel, whereas in the past they simply couldn’t afford to do so. It’s not as though these masses didn’t want to travel before, and now Instagram has inspired them to hop on a flight. A range of macroeconomic developments has made it possible for them to travel more. And now that they can, they’re ‘ruining it’–it’s become too ‘common’, the critics are saying.

It reminded me of the snobbery towards tourists in A Room With a View, E.M. Forster’s Edwardian classic about English tourists in Florence. When the local Anglican chaplain Mr. Eager asks the heroine if she’s in Florence as a student of art, she replies that she is a tourist.

“Are you indeed? If you will not think me rude, we residents sometimes pity you poor tourists not a little–handed about like a parcel of goods from Venice to Florence, from Florence to Rome, living herded together in pensions or hotels, quite unconscious of anything that is outside Baedeker, their one anxiety to get ‘done’ or ‘through’ and go on somewhere else. The result is, they mix up towns, rivers, palaces in one inextricable whirl.”

Mr. Eager, A Room With a View, Chapter 6
I love a good Merchant-Ivory adaptation…

The overtourism panic sounds like the snobbish views of Mr. Eager, who looks down on tourists from a privileged position as an expat and mocks their guidebook-recommended itineraries as being superficial and inauthentic. This kind of attitude dismisses the idea that tourism has value, both for the travellers and the travel industry. It pours money into an area–it does so in an imbalanced and seasonal way, perhaps, but try telling those whose jobs depend on tourism that fewer people should be travelling.

It contributes to culture learning and exposes visitors to new ideas, new food, new ways of life. The expansion in the number of people travelling, broadening it beyond just the few elites who could afford it, means more people get to experience these things. Some might be nostalgic for the early days of commercial air travel, when every seat was first class and people dressed up, but that’s a classist attitude that suggests things were better when average, working class people were priced out. The cheap airlines and holiday package deals might be causing problems, but they’re also making travel accessible to more people–and in a late-capitalist culture where we’ve been told we should value travel and ‘experiences not stuff’, how can that be wrong?

Lowrey acknowledges this side in the conclusion, admitting that the increase in tourism has some positive impacts as well.

These phenomena inevitably mean more complaints from locals, and more damage and lines and selfies and bad behavior. But they also mean more cross-cultural exposure, more investment, more global connection, more democratization of travel, and perhaps more awe and wonder. Even overtourism has its upsides.

Lowrey (2019)

While I readily acknowledge the negative aspects (especially the carbon footprint), I still think that ultimately, more people seeing more of the world is a good thing.

US Soft Power Reassessed

Joseph Nye’s recent piece, American Soft Power in the Age of Trump, picks up on the key themes of his previous foundational work on soft power and acknowledges some of the problems America’s image abroad is facing in the Trump era. Even just a few months into the Trump presidency, Pew global attitudes surveys were showing steep declines in U.S. favorability ratings around the world. When asked to rate their “confidence in the U.S. president to do the right thing regarding world affairs”, 31 of the 37 countries surveyed had double-digit declines between Obama and Trump:

From: Richard Wike, Bruce Stokes, Jacob Poushter and Janell Fetterolf, U.S. Image Suffers as Publics Around World Question Trump’s Leadership, Pew Research Center, 26 June 2017, p. 4

It’s interesting, too, to note that Russia reported a huge improvement: Only 11% had confidence in Obama, while 53% have confidence in Trump–a 42 point increase. Fifteen countries had that kind of dramatic reversal in opinion (more than 41 point decreases), but Russia was the only country that had it in that direction.

Without using the phrase itself, Nye picks up on the dangers of Trump’s “America First” policies. Blatantly telling the world that we’re putting our interests above anyone else’s needs, or even above the common good, is clearly detrimental to our image abroad and certainly undermines American soft power.

“Domestic or foreign policies that appear hypocritical, arrogant, indifferent to others’ views, or based on a narrow conception of national interest can undermine soft power. For example, there was a steep decline in the attractiveness of the US in opinion polls conducted after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 . In the 1970s, many people around the world objected to the US war in Vietnam, and America’s global standing reflected the unpopularity of that policy.”

From: Joseph S. Nye, Jr., American Soft Power in the Age of Trump, Project Syndicate, 6 May 2019

Nye ends his piece on a somewhat optimistic note–America’s image abroad has recovered before and it will recover again–but personally, I think it’s still very much endangered. If Trump gets re-elected in 2020, the world will think the American people support him (not an unreasonable conclusion), and that America is accurately described by those qualities in Nye’s list–hypocritical, arrogant, indifferent to others’ views, and promoting policies that are based on a narrow conception of national interest.

I’ve been following a few of the 2020 candidates on the Democratic side on social media, and the comment sections are very worrying. So much abuse and animosity from Trump supporters, and any Democratic supporter who comments with anything positive faces abuse, as well. Whether they are real people or trolls (or real trolls?), it is concerning. These social media platforms are not a space for discussion of the issues, which is a shame–they should be able to function as a sounding board for candidates to elicit voters’ views on policies and to figure out what issues matter most to voters. Instead, these spaces become littered with insults, abuse, swearing, American flag emojis, and hashtags like #Trump2020.

I’m not sure what the solution is, but the 2020 election is an important factor in our consideration of U.S. soft power, and its future resurrection or continued decline.

What I’m Reading: Rewire

A colleague who studies social media passed this book onto me–I thought it sounded interesting, but I didn’t realise how surprisingly relevant to exchange diplomacy it would be, too. Zuckerman points to the example of his friend Johan Ugander, who co-authored a paper on international ties on Facebook. As a Swedish-American, he has more international ties than a typical social media user. This has knock-on effects, in terms of exposing those in their social networks to news and other shared content from different places. In exchange diplomacy, this is really part of the ‘multiplier effect’, where exchange participants pass on their knowledge gains post-sojourn to those in their social circles.

“People like Ugander who’ve lived their lives in different corners of the world are likely the key if we want social media to give us a broad view of the world and help us care about people we don’t otherwise know. With a Swedish citizen in my network of friends, I’m likely to be exposed to news and perspective I otherwise would have missed. Whether that exposure turns into interest and attention is a function of my receptivity and Johan’s ability to provide context around the news he’s sharing.”

Ethan Zuckerman, Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013), p. 116

Exchange diplomacy is all about connection and cosmopolitanism. The underlying logic of exchange diplomacy is that connections between people of different nations/groups/ways of thinking will lead to a sense of shared humanity and a cosmopolitan mindset.

Has the ease with which we can connect digitally with others around the world made the face-to-face connections of exchange diplomacy obsolete?

I would argue that it hasn’t at all, because there is a gap between the potential to connect digitally and the actual ways we use these digital tools. We may be able to access platforms that enable discussion with foreign publics, but we don’t necessarily use them. Our online social networks mirror our offline friendship circles, and we develop filter bubbles just as we spend time with like-minded people in real life.

Furthermore, exchange diplomacy processes might be enhanced with the development of social media, not rendered irrelevant by them. As Zuckerman suggests, world travellers might play an important role in broadening online networks and making them more cosmopolitan–if we have a personal connection, a friend-of-a-friend, then news about a distant country we’ve never visited can feel more relevant and meaningful.

The soft power of children’s literature

I’ve just come back from a long weekend in the Lake District, visiting Beatrix Potter’s beloved home Hill Top Farm and the sights of Hawkshead and Bowness-on-Windermere. It was lovely, but very touristy–apparently we weren’t the only ones with the idea of visiting the Lake District in the springtime.

On her writing desk was a copy of the original Peter Rabbit story–she wrote it in a letter to her former governess’s son, then borrowed back the letter to make a copy. She wasn’t able to find a publisher, so she self-published 250 copies–when they sold out, Frederick Warne & Co. (who had rejected her) reconsidered and offered to publish it, if she would re-illustrate it in colour.
Her doll house, used as the setting for The Tale of Two Bad Mice.

One thing that surprised me was the number of Japanese tourists being dropped off from coaches on the narrow country lanes of Near Sawrey, outside the gates of Hill Top. I found this BBC article from a few years ago about the popularity of Peter Rabbit in Japan. Apparently the book is used by English learners, and loved not just for the characters but also for its depictions of the English countryside. There’s even a Beatrix Potter reference library housed in a replica Hill Top (1.5x size), complete with farm animals at a children’s zoo in Japan.

Dual language signage in Hill Top. The guide in the room said “Mind the step,
Suteppu o ki ni shite kudasai,” and laughed, “It’s the only Japanese I know!”
Early hedgehog sketches–her pet hedgehog was the model for Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle

My friend Amber Pouliot organised a conference on literary tourism a few years ago, Placing the Author. It focused on 19th century authors, including the Brontes (Haworth also has signs in Japanese, by the way), Mary Shelley, William Wordsworth (I didn’t visit Dove Cottage, but I did see his grammar school in Hawkshead), and Jane Austen. I thought of her and the conference when I was planning my Easter teaching break–unintentionally, it was full of literary tourism. In addition to Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top, I also visited the Roald Dahl Museum in Great Missenden recently and loved it.

The reconstructed writing hut where Roald Dahl worked
They had a brilliant way to experience it–a reconstruction of the original behind glass, and then a touchable replica version for kids (and grown-up kids) to play with

I also went on the Harry Potter Studio Tour over the break, which was amazing and packed with tourists from all over the world. It’s so incredible to think of the size of the HP fandom, and that it all revolves around reading (unusually long) books, and that Rowling was the first person to make $1 billion from writing books. Taking these three visits together, it got me thinking about British children’s literature and how it’s been such a massive source of soft power for the UK. In the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, children’s literature featured prominently. J.K. Rowling read an excerpt from Peter Pan,and the dream sequence included villains from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Harry Potter and 101 Dalmatians, ultimately defeated by Mary Poppins(es). Then there’s Alice in Wonderland, Winnie-the-Pooh, Wind in the Willows, Robin Hood, Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Paddington–so much of the American/Disney cultural imperialism is rooted in British cultural imperialism. Just about the only British children’s stories that didn’t cross the pond are Watership Down (super weird story with violent rabbits), and Enid Blyton, which is just too twee for America (they did make it to Australia/NZ/Canada, though).

Why does children’s literature have such a significant soft power element? I think it’s the nostalgia we have for the stories we read as children–especially memories of being read to, by parents or teachers or other caregivers. The act of reading together is an act of love, of quality time. When you move onto independent reading, too, there’s the joy of discovery–of escapism, of encountering new ideas and vicarious experiences.

Children’s bookshop owner Kathleen Kelly in Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail


If children’s literature has this power to influence its readers, it can also shape the way they think about its country of origin.

What I’m Reading: Outsmarting Apartheid

Before reading this, I already suspected that South Africa would be an interesting case study in the Fulbright Program–their history, politics and culture make their international relationships both challenging and vital, especially during the four decades covered by this book. I also already knew the story of Amy Biehl, an American Fulbrighter who was tragically killed in South Africa, and I included her in my book chapter on Fulbright women. I could see why South Africa merited its own volume of Fulbright stories, and now that I’ve read it, I suspect there are even more out there just as fascinating.

My favorite interview was with Klaas Skosana, a Cultural Assistant at the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria during the late 1990’s. He has a great perspective and picked up on so many themes that other interviewees (and other studies of exchange diplomacy) touch on, too. In addition to his work at the Embassy, he also went on a short-term exchange to the U.S., a month-long ‘study tour’. I’ve always been a little skeptical about these brief visits, and wondered how much participants can really get out of them. His reflections on that short visit, though, are not in isolation–they are a part of a larger body of experiences and knowledge about international relations and intercultural communication. That brief trip may not mean a great deal in and of itself, but it needs to be understood in that bigger context.

“Personally, I benefited from the study tour, and it was only thirty-one days. But it is like I spent years in the U.S., because I was exposed to various parts of the U.S. I knew that when I was walking down the street of Washington, DC, the chances of meeting somebody who had a PhD were great…I saw a list of people that I sent to the United States and what positions they are occupying today, and I think they all have positive things to say about what they have seen in the U.S. You take what you can from a country. You cannot focus on everything about a country, but fix your brain on a few aspects, and you will remember them forever…I think that the U.S. intervention was commendable, and it did, in many ways, ‘outsmart’ aparthaied because it exposed people to various perspectives.”

Whitman D (ed) (2014) Outsmarting Apartheid, Albany: SUNY Press, p. 296

This book was a long-neglected read–according to my Amazon account history, I bought it in February 2015! It’s been sitting in my bookshelf’s section for “This will be useful for revising and publishing my dissertation” books, and I hadn’t read it because I’ve made little progress on that project over the past four years. But it’s never too late–as my finally reading this book shows, as long as you’re still breathing, there’s always hope for neglected projects.

ERASMUS on the eve of Brexit

Today in the Guardian, there was a story about the uncertainty that UK students are facing as they prepare to participate in ERASMUS exchange programmes in the EU. It gives a great, concise summary of the situation that universities on both sides of the English Channel are facing.

Last Wednesday the European parliament voted to guarantee funding for UK students already studying abroad on the Erasmus+ student exchange programme, in the event of a no-deal Brexit on 29 March. It also promised to continue supporting European students already in the UK on the scheme.

But uncertainty hangs over the 17,000 British students who had planned to study in Europe under Erasmus+ from this September. A technical note, published by the government at the end of January, failed to guarantee any funding for the scheme if Britain leaves the EU with no deal.

In recent weeks both Spain and Norway have advised their students planning to study in the UK to go elsewhere.

from: The Guardian

We’re 10 days away from the 29 March 2019 leaving date, and it’s all feeling quite chaotic. Every day there seems to be more non-story news coming out of Westminster, with the House of Commons soundly rejecting both Theresa May’s deal and the prospect of a no-deal Brexit. Meanwhile, as the Guardian piece points out, UK and EU students and universities are left with no idea of what’s going to happen next. The EU’s ERASMUS+ website has a page on potential post-Brexit changes that may or may not happen…

For many students, particularly foreign language and area studies majors, the ERASMUS exchange programme is an affordable and practical way of fulfilling study abroad requirements, as well as gaining valuable professional and personal skills.

Since its establishment in 1987, the ERASMUS programme has had over 9 million participants. Its original aim was to create a sense of European identity and cooperation amongst the youth of European Union member states. Given the massive age gap in remain-leave Brexit voting patterns, it seems that young people in the UK really have adopted this supranational European identity.

If the UK really does leave the European Union, whenever and under what circumstances that may be, I hope it can continue to participate in ERASMUS+ in some form…

Further reading:

Christopher J. Grinbergs & Hilary Jones (2013) Erasmus Mundus SEN: the inclusive scholarship programme?, International Journal of Inclusive Education, 17:4, 349-363, DOI: 10.1080/13603116.2011.651824

Mitchell, K. 2012. Student mobility and European Identity: Erasmus Study as a civic experience? Journal of Contemporary European Research, 8(4), pp. 490-518.

Papatsiba, V. 2005. Political and Individual Rationales of Student Mobility: a case-study of ERASMUS and a French regional scheme for studies abroad. European Journal of Education, 40(2), pp. 173-188.

BRACHT O., ENGEL C., JANSON K., OVER A., SCHOMBURG H. and TEICHLER U. (2006), The professional value of Erasmus mobility. Final report presented to the European Commission – DG Education and Culture, retrieved from https://www.eumonitor.nl/9353210/d/belang%20erasmus%20onder%20professionals.pdf

Unpaid work, part 3: Internships

image from: Flickr Adam Fagan

Internships have long been considered an essential part of pursuing a career in the creative industries. They’re a necessary evil–of course it’s wrong to make people work without pay, but that’s just “the way things are”. If you want a job in television/journalism/other creative industries, you’ve got to “pay your dues”.

There are countless examples of intern exploitation and harassment, often overlooked and dismissed as “the way things are”. Critics are told ‘if you don’t like it, then don’t go into television,’ for instance, or ‘You’re just not cut out for journalism,’ etc. Media industries scholarship has called out such practices, including the concept of “self-exploitation”, where workers voluntarily work overtime (unpaid) because they think it will further their career trajectory/pad their resume, etc.

I’ve contributed to the phenomenon in the past, before I knew about this critical perspective and realized how exploitative internships are. As my department’s placement assistant, I helped arrange work placements for our students in broadcast journalism, film and photography, and television production. For most of my students, it was a 3-week, unpaid placement, usually as a researcher or a runner. Most had positive experiences and some were offered paid employment at the end. The complaints they shared often had to do with not being given interesting tasks, and I recall one student being upset about being asked to work on Saturdays. Despite the fact they were generally good experiences, I still feel a bit guilty for my role in reinforcing the unpaid internship culture.

Unpaid internships are of course, wrong for the simple fact that they are making people work without pay–that alone is bad enough. But there’s another, more subtle thing they do: they keep people from entering the creative industries who can’t afford to work without pay. If you’re going to do an unpaid internship, you need a place to stay for free, close to where the jobs are (London/NYC/LA). As a result, you’re probably either going to live with your parents or they’ll pay your (very high) rent for a place in the city. This excludes a huge segment of the population–in the UK, it excludes basically all but London.

This leads to a situation in which the proportion of people from privileged backgrounds is much higher in the creative industries than it is in the general population. Public school (US private school, tuition-fees charged) graduates are disproportionately represented in the media. “43% of people working in publishing, 28% in music, and 26% in design come from privileged backgrounds, compared with 14% of the population coming from this same social origin.” (Oakley et al., 2017).

What does this mean in practice? It means that the people who make the media mostly have the same privileged perspective. When they choose which stories get told, they’re going to choose things that matter to them and are relevant and interesting to them–so we miss out on the stories of underrepresented groups, of working-class concerns, perspectives from people of colour, etc.

Internships aren’t just a problem in the media. Yesterday US Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez highlighted the problem of low-paid internships in Congress, and drew attention to the larger ramifications of that phenomenon.

“Low pay is also a big reason for lack of socioeconomic diversity in DC, aka why many spaces in government can feel like a silver spoon club: only people who work 80+hr weeks w/ multiple jobs without an outside life, or whose parents can supplement their pay can have the opportunity to work in the nation’s capital. That has real consequences for government being out of touch w/ the people we serve on all levels. There’s a TON of work that needs to be done when it comes to the workplace (parental leave, hiring practices, living wage, healthcare as a right and not a perk, etc), but it starts with paying people enough to live as a minimum requirement, and not a luxury (and I guess that gets you called a communist these days 😂).”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@ocasio2018) on Instagram, 25 February 2019

To address that problem, her office staff are paid a living wage, which in the DC area equates to full-time workers earning no less than $52,000 a year.


It’s a very unusual move on the Hill and likely one of the highest entry-level salaries in Congress. I do it because I was outraged at how many staffers I saw on the Hill work FULL-TIME leave their day job for a second shift as a barista or elsewhere afterwards **just to afford the basics** – not even to get ahead or save up for something big. It’s totally wrong.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@ocasio2018) on Instagram, 25 February 2019

There are a lot of problems with the system, but moves like this give me hope. It looks like unpaid and low-paid internships are increasingly being recognised as contributing to systemic inequalities.

Further reading:

Ergin Bulut, Glamor Above, Precarity Below: Immaterial Labor in the Video Game Industry (2015)

David Lee, Internships, Workfare, and the Cultural Industries: A British Perspective (2015)

Kate Oakley, Daniel Laurison, Dave O’Brien, and Sam Friedman, Cultural Capital: Arts Graduates, Spatial Inequality, and London’s Impact on Cultural Labor Markets (2017)