Considering the Crush

Travel restrictions are still in place in a number of countries around the world. But I am taking time to consider what I am really missing out on.

My last international trip was to Italy, which currently has curbs on any non-essential travel, and when I was in Rome, I realized that I can no longer be on vacation in Europe without realizing I am vacationing. Turning the corner with my smartphone map, we ran into the crush to shoot photos at the Trevi Fountain. Everyone shooting the same photo and posting it instantly. Look where I am!

Who really is “winning” this one?

The poet William Wordsworth took the Grand Tour like any English gentleman during the period from the 1660s to the 1840s. The tour’s goal was to foster in the traveler an appreciation of the continent’s classical culture and antiquities, and could last for months, sometime years.

But today’s absurdity known as tourism squeezes as many sites and masterpieces into a day as possible, not to mention visitors into titanic buses. The photo opp has replaced contemplation and consideration, with a dollop of inconsideration on top. You’re trying not to curse from the middle of the person stream. (Want to see something truly absurd? Try the big squash on Mt. Everest.)

How far will the photo-tholon go for the perfect shot? Some travelers have angled for the perfect shot, right before plummeting off the rocky crag.

Politico wrote pre-Covid that it’s a “Boom time for European Tourism.” The article related how Barcelona city officials are trying to stop the construction of new hotels, how Amsterdam had to increase the fines for public drinking and urination, and how workers at Paris’ Louvre went on strike because of the crowds and conditions (read, trash and waste). In whole, ten European cities published a letter expressing concerns about the uncontrolled growth of Airbnbs and other rental websites.

This isn’t a recent development. In 2017, a CNN story about tourism in Barcelona, Venice, Dubrovnik, and Prague detailed how local residents decried hordes of tourists who make too much noise, pollute the environment, and drive up the local rents. Authorities in Venice had to set rules about leaving trash and the wearing of shirtless swimsuits in public. By 2017, perhaps in a show of weariness, the regular population of Venice had dropped by two thirds in fifty years.

In Barcelona, residents picketed against the eight million annual visitors to their city. Officials there have worked to stop over-development, online rentals, and enacted a tourism tax. In Dubrovnik, enthusiasm for Game of Thrones locales created a 10% tourism increase in 2016. On one day, 9300 visitors from seven cruise ships joined another 25,000 already staying in and around the city. (A typical tourist produces the same pollutants in a seven-day cruise as eighteen on land.) In Prague, bachelor parties and pub crawls were combated with a 10pm sound curfew. Cheap flights and travel services like Airbnb have driven the people crush.

European gentlemen of the Grand Tour sponsored art, language and poetry, classical culture, and of course, rubbing shoulders with other elites. But you can look back at their accounts as more instructive. One of my favorite coffee table books is “Yesterday and Today: The Holy Land.” Each two-page spread juxtaposes the 19th Century lithographs of the lands of Palestine and Jordan by the artist David Roberts with current day photographs. On one side you see time before cameras, with shepherds or Berbers leading a caravan. On the other, photos that show how much or how little things have changed.

Mark Twain famously quipped “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” But he also wrote “whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” Why follow the majority streaming in and out of the Pantheon, the focus of seated locals drinking Campari?

Wordsworth also had enough: “I traveled among unknown men,/In lands beyond the sea;/Nor, England! Did I know till then/What love I bore to thee/’Tis past, that melancholy dream!/Nor will I quit thy shore/A second time; for still I seem/To love thee more and more.” Home isn’t so bad sometimes.

No one will ever really win the contest. I often have my vacation on the empty beach boardwalk at dusk.

Again, Twain: “Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.”

Maybe now, I also get the people watchers. Another Campari please.

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