It’s high season, and the world’s most famous sights are mobbed by tourists. The news media tell us overcrowding has reached the crisis stage.
I believe it. In May, I was in the Greek Isles. This was pre-season, when one used to be able to beat the crowds. Not anymore. In the blue-domed white seaside village of Oia (you’ve seen it in movies and postcards, even if you haven’t been there) the narrow streets were so packed I could hardly move. Ill-tempered people jostled each other, trying to take pictures of the scenery other tourists were blocking.
Travel, the world’s biggest industry, has become too efficient in exploiting its product. Airlines keep base fares low by breaking out every comfort and charging extra for it. Airbnb enables landlords to turn whole neighborhoods of apartment buildings into unofficial hotels. Cruise ships dump thousands of passengers at the same time into choice locales.
We are wearing out our welcome. Barcelona, which has a population of 1.6 million, was inundated by 32 million tourists last year. Visiting the city’s Guel Park, I saw a big sign on a neighboring apartment house that read, “If it’s tourist season, why can’t I shoot them?”
Who can blame the Barcelonans? Tourists have taken their local park away from them. New Yorkers who live near the High Line make the same complaint.
What’s behind the glut? I put much of the blame on the spread of the “bucket list” mentality. I don’t know where the idea that we ought to make a list of all the places we want to see before we die came from, but it’s been heavily promoted by travel company advertisers. They can enlist the fear of death to compel us to hand over our charge cards. If we don’t visit Bali while we can, we will die unfulfilled.
Under this threat, travel ceases to be relaxing fun and becomes an urgent quest to reach goals so we can cross items off our list. In other words, it becomes work.
I asked a travel professional – off the record – if he thought people enjoyed their vacations. He replied, “Once they’re back home looking at their photos, they think they had a good time.”
Many are tense, bored and homesick during the vacation, if my recent forced intimacy with cruise ship passengers is any guide. At dinner, nobody talked about the glorious sights we’d just seen. They talked about their pets and grandkids. If I steered the conversation to travel, they told stories of delayed flights and lost luggage, not their visit to the Louvre.
People who are especially determined to turn their holiday into work will go on a group tour, so they have a schedule to keep and a boss (the guide) to give them orders.
It’s a sad situation, when Venice and Bangkok are so packed with tourists that the residents can hardly cope – and the tourists aren’t even having a good time.
I have a solution, and I propose you send this column to your out of town friends before they book their trip to Thailand. They’ll thank you for it.
Last week, relatives came to town, and I had to take them around the local sights I am ordinarily too busy (read “too lazy”) to visit. We had a great time. Even the teenager looked up from his cell phone occasionally. In four days, we barely made a start on St. Louis’s manifold attractions.
Vacation in this uncrowded city, and you won’t be burdened by guilt over how much you’re spending. Hotels and restaurants are reasonably priced. You haven’t paid international airfare or cruise ship fees. Incredibly, many of the attractions are free. Getting around is easy and hassle-free, and fun if you take the Loop Trolley. The natives are friendly.
All you need do to have an enjoyable, relaxing vacation is rid yourself of the bucket list mentality, the delusion that if you’ve seen with your own eyes that the Mona Lisa is small and the canals of Venice are dirty, you’re going to die happy.
A final tip for St. Louis tourists. We do have one bucket list attraction, and you should skip it. To go to the top of the Arch, you have to wait in line, then cram yourself into a tram car. At the top, the views through the tiny windows are disappointing. Stay at the bottom, where the newly-redone museum is fascinating.
Then head for our true top attraction, which to my knowledge is unique in the world: the City Museum.
St. Louis: Visit it now, before word gets around and the place is spoiled.