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.

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