Over Tourism and Over Reactions
Enjoy the Journey – When You Get There, You May Not Be Welcome
From Corfu to Korcula, from Montenegro to Rome, from Tallinn and Helsinki to Venice and all points in between, you’ve almost not seen them. There – skirting name-brand shops or slipping passed patently touristic watering holes, you barely notice them. Locals. Young adults and the very old.
They hide in plain sight on market squares and historic promenades. They fade into the background in street cafes – and huddle in the shadows of opulent monuments and fountains. Almost furtive, as though willing themselves into invisibility, they try to go about their business, denying the very existence of the thousands of tourists who support their fragile economies. If they acknowledge your presence at all – it is often with a disapproving scowl. Like mice, they skirt edges of the clamoring crowds.
Planes, trains, busses and cruise ships disgorge tens of thousands of travelers and tourists on a daily basis. These are easier to spot – wrestling with guide books, maps and cameras – yammering in incomprehensible languages and dialects, wrinkling up their noses at unfamiliar restaurant fare, and blinking owlishly at fistfuls of unfamiliar currency.
About the only thing good about crushing numbers of transient tourists trampling through ancient artifacts is the money – and even that’s a two-edged sword. Little of the profits go to locals. Soaring real estate prices force locals out of the market. Grocery stores, bakeries, shoe repair, butcher and even stationary shops are driven out of business – supplanted by haute couture, jewelry stores, Harry’s Bars and garish over-priced gift shops. The store clerks, street vendors, hotel staff and even potential predators are rarely from “there.” They’re from somewhere else and as foreign as the tourists that ebb and flow over ancient bridges and piazzas.
Ports and other destinations get their “pound of flesh” up front through tourism levies and taxes, bettensteuer, overnight accommodation taxes and one form or another of sojourner taxes, tass di soggione or taxe sejour. But again, enhancing the tax base and fattening public coffers has little direct impact on the locals and isn’t enough to assuage the pique of the populae.
No wonder the “mice” are put out. Some are more than put out. In Venice, protesters blockade cruise ships with gondolas and “swim-ins,” and take to the streets to block tourist access with “Tourists Go Away! You are Destroying this Area,” placards. In Mallorca’s capital mobs of locals spray “Tourist go home: Refugees welcome,” and “Tourist: You are the terrorist” graffiti on historic buildings. In Barcelona masked locals have slashed tour bus tires, spraying the windshield with: “El Turisme Mata El Barris” (Tourism Kills Neighborhoods), and punctuated tourists’ bicycle tires, leaving the message: “We are fed up with the occupation by tourist companies of the public place of the neighborhood.”
A burgeoning animosity is building that puts the lie to Mark Twain’s famous: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” quote. Indeed, for many locales – travel is having the opposite effect.
Cruise ships may be the biggest “offenders” – and can disgorge over 3,000 tourists per day – per ship, with many popular ports “hosting” three to four ships at a time. Trains, planes and automobiles add their own unique torments. Just imagine trying to go about your life when your neighborhood’s population is quadrupled over a matter of hours.
In Amsterdam, tourists are given rules governing jamming cameras in people’s faces, trespassing, and littering. In the old days local governments created ethical codes of conduct for local businesses to enhance the tourist experience. Now, from Andora to Reykjavik, governments are more likely to publish codes of conduct for tourists designed to minimise antagonising the locals. Some are increasingly following Italy’s lead – banning tourist access to landmarks such as the Piazza Barberini and the Piazza del Popolo as a sop to the popolo (tourists are still allowed to toss coins into the Trevi Fountain) – and levying crippling fines for non-compliance (adding additional layers of “tourist taxes”).
Tourists aren’t about to stop travelling, and popular destinations – threats of terrorism aside – are just going to become more popular. The chances are you have invested a lot of time and treasure to explore new sights and experiences – and no – you shouldn’t feel all guilted-out out for having made your latest trip a reality.
So – what can be done? Make your own travellers code of conduct. You may not be able to avoid being one among many – but you can try to ensure that you reduce the stampede of insensitive cattle but at least one.
Show respect for local cultures by learning about their currency – mapping out your itinerary in advance, and researching the local cuisine and eating habits. Dress respectfully – certainly when visiting places of worship and cemeteries, but also museums, restaurants and even public malls and squares. Eschew the garish “Hawaii shirt,” obscene T-shirt, shorts, and that clunky camera with an obscene lens in favour of comfortable clothing – in subdued pallets. Except during the peak of summer heat, jackets and even ties for men, are rarely out of place.
Be aware of your surroundings – the threat of pickpockets and other loathsome predators may be real – and yes, you are the reason they are there, but don’t make their jobs any easier or inflate the already high crime statistics by becoming too soft of a target. “Going where the locals go” isn’t the panacea it used to be – after all, these few havens may be all the locals have left. However, if you do find yourself in a local watering hole, pay attention to what the locals are ordering (and paying).
Above all – be nice to the mice. They were there before you – and at least for the near future – will be there after you are gone.
Cover by Jeff Ackley