We have seen it all and understood nothing
A story about a possible future Olympic discipline of speed traveling
We work an entire year for a seven day holiday outside our own country in which we aim to take pictures of ourselves at the same touristic attractions where other thousands of people have checked in before so we can come back home happy that we now have enough #tb photos to post in the next twelve months. This is all that’s left from our vacation and it’s a pity.
No wonder that increasingly more people have the possibility to become tourists once or multiple times per year. The plane tickets have never been cheaper (that is, if we talk about the economy class), the accommodation options are the most diverse ever, especially for those who want to avoid hotels or who do not have the budget for them (see AirBnB, Couchsurfing.com, HomeAway and many other examples), and the pictures from our social media feeds keep encouraging us to explore Cinque Terre, climb to Macchu Pichu, navigate on Lake Como or see the NYE fireworks above the Sydney Opera House. Could we not go as well?
Yes. If we choose to go to a place only because we saw others do it, hence we want pictures like them, we are the most eloquent example for the phenomenon of mindlessly adopting something without understanding its sub layers. And after all, why waste so much money on a vacation when you could spend only a part of them on image editing services in Photoshop?
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Speed traveling. This is what I call this phenomenon of cramming as many tourist attractions in the shortest amount of time. Looking back at the previous years, I would say that three things have augmented the mentality of traveling with a checklist: city breaks, hop-on hop-off buses and layover traveling. Let’s start with the beginning: for those unfamiliar with the notion of a city break, this means a short trip to a foreign city, which usually lasts about two days. Hop-on hop-off buses, popularized by the City Sightseeing company in over 100 cities worldwide, imply routes which promise that in maximum one hour and a half you can cram the most touristic attractions in a city in a single tour (in which probably the sun constantly gets into your eyes and the free red headphones slip from your ears). Layover traveling is another developing trend which presupposes a layover of few hours (at least three) which can be transformed in a micro voyage in your layover city, sometimes carrying after you a trolley into old city centres filled with cobblestone streets. In a lot of international capitals the airports have already started to offer special tours for those with little time available, some examples being Singapore, which offers two hour bus tours during the day and the night, Seoul, which offers eight types of tours of two to five hours, Tokyo and Doha. Moreover, those with at least a six hour layover in Beijing can go onto an organized trip to the Great Wall of China. Do you see what I am hinting at?
We became so obsessed by the “snapped, checked, solved” cycle in our endless run to see yet one more touristic sight that we have forgotten what traveling really means – immersing ourselves in a different culture, discovering another gastronomy, observing different regional customs or speaking with a local. Moreover, if we go to a foreign country to hang out with the same people and still order a burger and fries, it means we have lost the essence of traveling.
As an effect of mass-tourism, people no longer understand anything they see and go to a place only because it’s popular, and not necessarily because they have a real interest in that particular place. So, they no longer come in contact with the authentic local culture because they experience their few vacation days through a pink, superficial and unrealistic Instagram filter. That’s how we got to sit in queues in order to take a photo to show to our friends and followers that we ticked one more place on our bucket list. There’s no need to detail the case of Mona Lisa or other famous paintings that no one is really admiring today because of the wave of selfie sticks and highly–held hand cameras which sadly cloud the view. Unfortunately, probably those who admire da Vinci’s work the most are the surveillance cameras…
Considering that globally, since 1974 until 2014, the number of passengers who have flown internationally has increased by almost eight times, it is clear that tourism turned into a problematic issue for popular cities. Tourist places have become suffocated, thus generating unpleasant experiences for the tourists themselves, but especially for the locals who are doing their best to avoid big attractions on their way to work, school or dining out. Cities like Barcelona are struggling to find the balance between a healthy number of tourists to help the local economy and the happiness of locals who have repeatedly declared and protested that they would rather accept refugees than millions of tourists annually (according to the latest statistics Barcelona hosts approximately 32 million tourists annually although only having itself 1.6 million locals). The locals have also developed a slogan that describes their everyday experience: “Tourist: Your Luxury Trip, My Daily Misery”. Moreover, five years ago, the Park Güell’s local administration was even forced to limit tourists’ access to the monumental part of the park for the first time in order to cope with the masses of visitors, thus setting a limit for tickets available for each time interval.
Not only does intensive tourism affect the everyday chores of the locals, but also the level of rents in central city areas. Specifically, the old town centres (especially in old European cities), due to their usual proximity to most points of interest, slowly become the only neighbourhoods where tourists are staying. So locals are being chased away in other neighbourhoods by property owners who would rather rent an apartment or a bedroom for several hundred euros for a two or three nights stay than rent it for the same amount for an entire month. The situation has become so severe that cities like Amsterdam, London and Paris have taken action against abusive AirBnB property renting. Additionally, Amsterdam was the first city to restrict by law the number of days per year in which a property is allowed to be rented through AirBnB, setting a legal maximum of 60 days, which starting with 2019, was halved. Similar cases are recorded in the British and French capitals, but still not so drastic, the maximum number of days in which property owners can rent their places on AirBnB being 90 and 120 respectively. Therefore these cities and not only are already experiencing the symptoms of excessive tourism.
What I wanted to do with this article was not to point my finger at people or to accuse certain behaviours or desires. Though it seems that this is exactly what I did. If you recognized yourself at least a bit in the lines above (as I sometimes did too), there are a few things that you can do on your next vacation to no longer be part of the mass of people running frantically from one monument to another. You can start by visiting less, staying more in certain places in order to fully relish them, be it a museum, a café or a tavern. You can also venture out of capitals and well-known cities, but with care and respect for everything and everyone around. And probably the oldest trick, you can enjoy a city or a beautiful region outside of the high season and its typical roe of tourist coaches.
After all, maybe the most exciting challenge you can give yourself as a tourist is to give no indication whatsoever that you are one.
This article originally appeared in ELLE Romania, August 2018 issue, number 249