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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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.