Updated: Sep 24, 2019
We first heard the term "overtourism" when Venice, Italy talked of implementing a tourist tax. The small canal town was so overwhelmed with tourists coming off buses and cruise ships that it was desperate to sift the serious visitors from the "don't really care, but the cruise ship dumped me off here" people. Nobody blamed Venice. We'd seen the photos, heard the rumors, something needed to be done. Then there was Lake Elsinore, California, the home of the poppy Super Bloom. The small town that had to shut down an entire canyon after a complete societal meltdown of people trying to get "the perfect shot" for Instagram. There was the term again. A scary sort of catch all phrase that promised a reaction of epic proportions. People blamed social media and ready access to high-tech cameras for the spike in selfish travelers. Overtourism has gotten so bad that the residents of the Rue Crémieux in Paris, France are considering gating off their street to keep the tourists out. While this kind of news boils my blood and breaks my heart, I honestly don't blame them. I don't.
I've lived in tourist towns. In fact, I lived for many years in the town that is widely regarded as the Gateway to the Grand Canyon. Every summer an influx of people from the mid-west to Asia would make their way through Route 66 and our tiny little town. I would chat them up as I rung up their dinner bill or snapped a photo for them with the local mountains in the background. I would apologize saying I couldn't get the stucco building out of the shot, and the man would say, in a thick German accent, "Oh no. I like this building."
One girl's boring stucco wall, is another man's treasure. I'm sure the tables would be turned if I were visiting the cobble stone streets of Bavaria. There was a sense of pride and ownership that people would come from all over to see our little corner of the world and marvel at it's beauty. It connected me with other people and it was an amazing equalizer. Travel, done well, benefits the tourist and the local.
However, the tide has turned. The wind has shifted. It isn't the same as it used to be. Travel is different. Tourism is different. More anxious, more selfish. Travel was once synonymous with cargo vests a la Rick Steves, and now has become associated with private jets and self made models in yoga pants. I don't need to elaborate on the tragedy of this shift here. If you are reading this, you've already mourned this change.
I moved back to that same town a few years ago and was horrified by what I saw. The posture was different. Traffic jammed our tiny historic streets. Major hotel and food chains swept in, promising "more jobs" to the locals, when in all honesty it simply brought more minimum wage jobs and a skyrocketing cost of living. Trash and debris riddled our roadsides, while tour buses took up more than their fair share of parking. It was grotesque. Once obscure sites of canyons and waterfalls have now been filtered, geotagged, and selfie sticked into an oblivion. The feedback on social media seems to be the driving force of most visitors now. It wasn't about giving the destination your attention, it was about getting attention for the destination. For every no-name boho chic girl looking casual in front of Trevi Fountain, there are thousands more standing shoulder to shoulder giving her space to have her "social media moment". And that shift has made a tragic difference.
There is nothing inherently wrong with snapping photos, sharing your experiences with the world, and visiting other places. In fact, at it's heart travel is about documenting and sharing in the experience. But, there is a fine line between seeing the world for yourself and seeing it for your self. The shift from us to me is subtle, sneaky, and often put through a filter.
So what are we to do?
For starters I say we confront our own B.S.
Yes, I have an Instagram account. Heck, I have a blog, podcast, and Facebook page all devoted to the subject of travel. I snap photos, edit them, hashtag and send them out into the cyber world. Am I part of the problem? Maybe. But I don't think so. Here is why...
I'm a good guest.
Months before my parents took my sister and I to Europe my dad sat us down and gave us a long lecture about how to behave in another person's country. "You are a guest." he would say. "You need to try and learn the language and understand their customs. Don't expect them to do it your way. You are visiting them. And when someone comes to your country, treat them as a guest." Then he proceeded to load a cassette tape of German lessons for kids.
I think my dad was on to something there. His years of traveling the globe as a sailor had taught him many things, least of which was to not wear out a welcome and to be gracious to strangers.
I feel like in the age of social media and "likes for fame" we've failed to separate the real world from the virtual one, and have become bad guests. I've seen someone hold up foot traffic at the Acropolis to get the perfect photo, while she swished her skirts around for a carefree look. I have seen people ignore warning signs and plopped in the middle of a field of tulips in Mt. Vernon. Heck, I talked with girls who told me they preferred Santorini because it made for "better photos". Yes. These people were choosing their destination based on what kind of photos they could take. And no, they were not professional photographers. When the behavior reaches this scale, anyone would wear out their welcome quickly. We need to ask ourselves... is it worth it for locks on iconic streets?
This subject is tricky for me. I love photos. I love looking at other people's travel albums. The walls of our home are covered, literally, in gorgeous shots from around the world. I'm sure I have inconvenienced someone as I snapped a photo. Nevertheless, I try my darnedest to quietly slip in and out of places. To document, solidify memories, and to create art. All the while we make eye contact with shop keepers, learn local phrases, buy from small artisans, tip our cab driver, quietly slip on and off the mass transit, read the plaques at museums, and we invite people to visit our country as well.
Travel is reciprocity. You go as a guest, and you are hospitable to guests. When everyone observes this, travel is beautiful. It does all the things Rick Steves tells us about. We connect, we share, we equalize. It isn't about you, because look at how huge and vast and giant our world is? Document it, of course. Take a photo, of course. Post it, tag it, broaden your world, absoTOOTly. But, put the phone down. Put it down and offer to take a photo of a family struggling for a selfie instead. Put your trash in the bin. Smile at your waiter and greet him in his language. Breathe deeply and note the way the rough street feels beneath your feet. Buy a souvenir from a local vendor and tell them how much you love their country.
The alternative is so much worse. The alternative is embittered residents (rightfully so, I might add), exploitation of the local area, enabled, selfish social media stars, and gates on iconic streets. The alternative is the opposite of travel, real travel.
There are no clear cut answers. No tidy calls to action. The solutions are complicated and nuanced. It is about behavior on an individual level; a fine, intricate web of personal responsibility.
Through the ether of subjective responsibility, I feel confident that the answer not less travel. It's not about restricting access to these places to a "select worthy few".
Be that as it may, I can't say I'm psyched at the idea of a family who sold all of their couches to see the world just because they typed the word "wanderlust" into a search engine. I think we need to ask ourselves why... Why did you start that Instagram account? Why are you taking that photo? Why are you posting it? Is it for you?
I think it is also about understanding your own power as a person. The power behind a "like", a tag, a photo, believing that a tea will make you look like Kim Kardashian, the people you meet as you go about your day... it is all very powerful in a devastating sort of way when you scale panicked selfies on ancient cities and frail ecosystems.
Before we mindlessly consume an image of a toddler in Audrey Hepburn replica clothing in Rome, perhaps we should wonder if "liking" a photo like this is encouraging the selfish machine of Instagram travel. Perhaps we need to check ourselves before we hold up traffic to take a photo of a yoga pose on a scenic vista... ask yourself "Does it look like someone inconvenienced more than 10 people to get this photo?" If the answer is yes, maybe rethink liking that photo... or taking it in the first place. These little actions will add up to big things, eventually. There are no easy answers here, but I think it is a start.
We need to be better guests when we visit a country, and we need to be extra careful of what kind of behavior we are encouraging on our own social media. Are we about seeing the world for ourselves, or for our selves?
We all want connection. We all want to see, document, and experience the world around us. And there is nothing wrong with that. But we must be conscious of our actions, virtual or otherwise. When we are bad guests, we lose the very soul of travel, become self focused and destroy the thing we came to see.