Travel has become a victim of its own success. Here's what to do about it. (Editorial)

OF COURSE EVERYTHING was better in the good old days.

When Bali was still an undiscovered paradise. And St Tropez a rustic little fishing village. When a single InterRail ticket would provide for unlimited roaming in Europe without worrying about seat reservations and high-speed supplements.    

Those days are long and truly gone, never to come back.

TRAVEL IN THE 21st CENTURY

Have you been to Cinque Terre recently? Or the Sistine Chapel? Or the center of Paris, Amsterdam, Florence, or any other major European city? Did you notice the crowds? Of course you did- you were were practically crushed to death by a stampede of selfie-snapping fellow tourists. 

At the beginning of the 21st century, a number of global economic and political shifts have changed the face of tourism forever, and as a result, the world’s (but in particular Europe’s) cities and sights are slowly turning into Disneyland.

The dreaded word in European city halls is ‘Venice’. Because people fear the fate of the former Most Serene Republic on the Adriatic: a historical set piece for tourism, where regular inhabitants have been chased out by stratospheric property prices and the inability to find a supermarket to buy loo paper and pasta sauce (whereas there’s no shortage of tacky tourist shops selling identical tourist tat and cheesy t-shirts.)

GLOBAL TRENDS

What has changed? Why are Paris, Amsterdam, Rome and Prague facing Venicefication? There’s been much talk about budget airlines and the popularity of European weekend breaks. But don’t blame RyanAir, as there are bigger, global economic forces at play: the end of the Cold War and the economic liberalisation of China and India. The same factors that are wrecking Europe’s global competitiveness and welfare systems are driving Venicefication- in Europe as well as the rest of the world.

In the past 30 years, 500 million Chinese have been lifted out of poverty. 250 million Indians are now middle class. The Eastern Block is gone, and Poles and Russians travel freely. This is great news. More people live longer, happier, wealthier lives. 

As their income expands, people’s aspirations shift from material goods to experiences- seeing the world. They start with their own country- if you think Venice is busy, wait till you see no matter which touristic attraction in China or the Taj Mahal in India. Domestic tourists now far outnumber foreign visitors in both countries- by something like a factor 100! 
First stop: The Taj. Next stop: The Louvre. 
And as people become more affluent, they start travelling further- and whatever one may think of Europe’s economic competitiveness, its history and culture are still the number one attraction for new travellers, coming from either the New World or a New Economy.  

It’s elementary supply and demand- the world’s (and especially Europe’s) supply of attractions is  basically fixed (nobody builds medieval cathedrals or Roman amphitheatres these days) whereas demand has gone through the roof. The result: Kumbh Mela-style crowds drown out local life in Europe’s historical town centers.

The problem is of course exacerbated by the herd mentality of the average tourist, and the travel industry’s propensity of thinking in terms of ‘must-see’, ‘can’t miss’ and ‘hidden gems’ (usually hidden in plain sight in the list of ‘Top 10 things to do’). Everybody wants the most bang for their buck and invariably that translates into ‘hitting up’ the ‘top tourist sites’ and ‘checking off’ Tripadvisor’s Top 10 attractions.

And as is often the case in life, the 80-20 rule applies. 80% of tourists visit 20% of the attractions. Or maybe I’m being too generous here, and 90-10 is more like it. 

And so the global desire to travel and sightsee has become a victim of its own success, creating miserable experiences for everybody on their ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ trip to see the world’s iconic sights. 
Excuse me, is this a must-see? (picture: Reuters)

THE FUTURE OF TRAVEL

Already governments and municipalities are stepping in. Several European cities have imposed regulations to restrict the growth of AirBnB, which is deemed to be taking housing off the local market. 

Expect to pay more. At some point municipalities will start taxing tourists more heavily. Where official authorities are loath to act, the free market will provide solutions. Want to enjoy the Sistine Chapel quietly? My friend, special price for you! Only €330 and we'll let you in after hours when the riff-raff has gone.

At the same time, don't expect too much: nobody wants to kill the proverbial golden goose. In Paris, chic department store Galeries Lafayette has a special entrance for Chinese tour groups. Coach loads full of mainland Chinese are welcomed by Mandarin speaking hosts who help them find the quickest way to  dispose of their cash, in return for branded fashion items. And every store on the haute fashion Rue Faubourg St HonorΓ© employs Chinese staff. Everybody wants to ride the gravy train of tourist spending. 
80-20 Rule: 80% of tourists in Paris in the queue to enter the Louvre. 

HOW TO TRAVEL IN THE 21st CENTURY: 5 TIPS

If you’re like me, and you prefer to do your sightseeing without the company of 50.000 others, what can you do? Here are five tips.
  • Remember the 80-20 rule. It means 80% of sights are not flooded with selfie-shooting hordes. These are the Minor Sights of each destination. Search them out- be adventurous. Often these Minor Sights are every bit as fascinating as the major sights- they are just less well-known. Now you know why you needed to visit this website!                                                                                            
  • Get off the beaten path. This doesn’t mean you have to travel to some godforsaken out-of-the-way boonies. Even in Venice, you can get off the beaten path by simply taking a left or right turn from the main drag. Tourists travel in herds- its easy to shake them off by checking out what’s ‘over there’. Often 100m is all it takes.                                                                          
  • Choose quality over quantity. Slow down. The typical first-timer aims to hit all the highlights and crams Venice, Paris and Amsterdam in a 10 day itinerary. The result: they spend all their time in the company of several thousand people doing exactly the same thing. There is no time to do anything but the most obvious ‘must-sees’. Rather than zipping from Rome to Florence to Venice to Pisa in 8 days, spend 8 days in Northern Lazio, or any other Italian region.                                                                                          
  • Find accommodation just outside the historical centers. I’m not suggesting you stay in a concrete box with a view of the highway. But most European capitals have 19th century neighbourhoods that retain a very local feel, are still walking distance from the top sights, but are spared the massive crowds. Places like Monteverde in Rome, Oud-West in Amsterdam, and the 9th-20th arrondissements in Paris are good places to stay. 

  • Timing is everything. Avoid Venice in August. Sunday 3 PM on a free-entrance day is not a good time to quietly contemplate the Louvre. And Golden Week is best avoided if you want to walk the Great Wall in solitude. Even in busy places, being an early riser can help you avoid the crowds. Or go at lunch time, when many tour groups break for, ahem, lunch. And if you're not tied to the main holiday periods, be sure to take advantage of that freedom.  


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12 comments:

  1. tweeted and shared on FB, I agree with your idea and vision completely. Good work

    ReplyDelete
  2. Well, I have to disagree, there are lots of places that can be seen with thousands of other people as well as without them. E.g. you can see Prague like this http://www.traveltipy.com/prague-as-seen-from-charles-bridge-towers/old-town-bridge-tower-prague-czech-republic336/ as well as like this http://www.traveltipy.com/empty-streets-in-prague-where-all-the-people-gone/p1070930_/ All you have to do is just wake up arealy in the morning :)

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    Replies
    1. Hi Julius, you say you disagree, but you disagree with what exactly?

      That there are large crowds? Your first picture shows crowds can be a problem, but what you correctly point out is that apart from the 4 strategies I listed above, there is another one to deal with this problem: timing.

      I fully agree with you in that respect- your timing can have a huge impact on your experience and if you're an early riser you can have those streets that are crowded at day time all to yourself.

      Unfortunately that strategy is less successful with places that have fixed opening hours like the Louvre- although even there there timing can make a real difference. Time of the day as well as time of the week or year.

      Happy travels!

      Delete
  3. Nice job, MINORSIGHTS. You nailed it with these tips.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks BradJill, I appreciate this, especially coming from somebody like you! Any Minor Sights in Hong Kong you'd like to share?

      Delete
  4. I have a question, what do you tell your friends and acquaintances when they look at you dumbfounded and want to know why you spent a month in Rome? seriously! I cannot come up with a answer they understand.

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    Replies
    1. I don't know, find different friends? Only (half) kidding of course. But seriously, their ignorance is their problem, not yours. We lived in Rome for 2 years and have been back 20+ times since. On every visit we still find new things to see and do, sights and places we hadn't visited before... 2500 years of history cannot be ticked off in a 3 day itinerary.


      So one month in Rome to us sounds like a great way to get started!

      Delete
  5. The 'word'- VENICEFICATION- though I came across for the first time- of top tourist destinations is an eye-opener to first timers like me,to get a fairly true picture, of things to expect! And the tips given are welcome. Pics says louder than words. A fab article to be applauded!
    Kudos team MINORSIGHTS ✍ πŸ‘Œ πŸ’

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Manikhchand, you make us blush!

      Delete
  6. Loved reading this, Michiel. Once upon a time, as a brand new tourist, I wanted to cram in as much as possible, typical middle class mentality of trying to get your money's worth till we spent 2 weeks only in Paris. Now looking forward to 7 days in AMS only!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Shweta, hope you enjoy your stay in Amsterdam. You'll find a few suggestions on Minor Sights...

      Delete

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