Imagine an American man. He sets aside time and money and ventures across the world. His head an array of visions of history and humanity, of culture and triumph. He brings his camera, his trusty smartphone and a laundry list of social-media-worthy sites in which to snap vainglorious pics of himself posing in front of.
Now, imagine that man gets up early, seeks out a taxi, stutters through directions in a foreign language and arrives at the first site… only to see 1,000 other self-absorbed twats in line, waiting to do the same thing.
Yup, that was me this past month.
Anyone who has traveled a lot the past five years has undoubtedly seen the growing crowds, the obnoxious selfie sticks and the insanely long lines pop up pretty much every place you could hope to go.
In 2009, I remember casually waltzing into the Louvre one morning, as though it were an after-thought. When my wife and I went back a couple of years ago, there was a two-hour line… and that was the pre-purchase line!
In 2010, I remember casually booking a boat trip with six or seven other people to visit Maya Bay in Thailand, the famous beach where the film The Beach was filmed. Today, Maya Bay is closed, due to damage caused by over-tourism. As is Borocay in the Philippines. As is Everest Base Camp. As is some fjord in Iceland because Justin Bieber filmed a music video there. Rumor is Machu Picchu might be next.
The past couple of weeks, my wife and I have been on vacation in Japan. One of the sites we wanted to hit was the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto, the famous mountain with thousands of orange shinto gates. Knowing there would be crowds, we got up at the ass-crack of dawn, hired a private driver, and got there as soon as the sun was rising. But even then, we struggled to get any decent photos, with a constant stream of other people trying to get their Instagram selfies in behind us. People literally ended up forming lines around the shrine to take the most desired selfie shots. I’m sad to report that, not being any better or less vain than others, my wife and I lined up to do the same.
As the existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said: hell is other people. Over-tourism is becoming such a problem that protests have emerged in places like Amsterdam, Venice, and New Zealand basically telling tourists to go the fuck home.
Environmentalists and conservationists are becoming concerned that sites are being damaged beyond repair by the surge of tourists. And then you have the tourists themselves–people like me–who get really fucking annoyed that they paid thousands of dollars to visit some place, only to stand in line all day and fight crowds and have all their pictures ruined.
Traveling isn’t what it used to be. And yes, I realize I sound like a cranky old man when I say that. But really, it’s true. The spontaneous magic of more and more places is being ruined by unruly crowds, eye-gouging prices, and constant selfie interruptions.
Why is this all happening?
How We Got Here
Tourism has exploded over the past generation, with almost twice as many tourists today as there were 30 years ago. This drastic rise in tourism in the past decade has been attributed to a number of things:
- The Rise of the Global Middle Class – While the middle class in the US continues to be gutted, there are hundreds of millions of Chinese, Indian, and Middle Eastern people who, for the first time, have the money to travel and see the world.
- Plummeting Airfare – The price of oil dropped in 2014 and hasn’t really recovered, resulting in airfare that’s cheaper than ever. Add on top of that the emergence of budget airlines, the proliferation of airline point schemes, and bullshit credit card perks, and getting across an ocean is more affordable and easier today than any other time in history.
- Millennials, as usual, ruin everything – I’m being sarcastic, but also kinda not. Millennials, unlike previous generations, value experiences far more than material possessions. While that’s awesome (and something that I, as a millennial, have long preached), it’s resulted in more and more young people traveling than ever before.
- Instagram culture – I don’t think the ‘Gram is causing more people to travel as much as it’s affecting travelers’ behavior once they get there. There has been a lot said about the selfie becoming so excessive that it’s becoming dangerous (people have even died trying to take ridiculous selfies). But I actually think the problem with Instagram culture is more subtle and pernicious: it objectifies one’s self and one’s experience.
I know this because I’ve noticed this in myself. More and more I find myself traveling to some location simply to “get a picture” and leave, without engaging with the location, its history, its culture, or anything else about it. Also, “getting the picture” has become far more precarious than it was in past years. Before, you’d just show up, snap a couple shots, and be done with it. See? I was there. Great.
Now, you gotta get the right lighting, the right angle, the right weather. You gotta make sure no one is in the background, that the camera is focused on you, that everything is aligned. You’ve got to make sure it’s on your better side, that your hair looks good, your outfit looks good, etc., etc. It’s like a fucking part-time job.
Put simply: it turns traveling into a chore. And by emphasizing the picture and the social validation of one’s trip rather than the trip itself, you hang the hat of your experience not on the quality of your actual trip, but on the appearance of the trip. Not a good thing to give a fuck about.
But I actually think Instagram’s influence runs deeper than just the tedium that comes with getting that perfect selfie holding the top of the Eiffel Tower with your two fingers.
It over-exposes us to travel.
Tourism is a modern invention. Back in the day, people didn’t travel for fun. You fucking died if you tried to travel for fun. No, there were only business trips and wars. Traveling sucked.
It wasn’t until the invention of the railroad and the automobile that people could even consider leisurely travel. As such, mass tourism is only roughly a century old. It could only emerge once there was the technological capability to take you to a far off place that you’d otherwise never see.
Key words: “…otherwise never see.”
The internet, and most specifically, Instagram, have done two things: 1) they have made travel banal — i.e., common and mundane, and 2) they have elevated the expectations of locations to such a degree that one cannot help but be disappointed by many of them once you get there.
What people used to feel when they saw the Mona Lisa for the first time (“Aw, it’s tiny. And my god, the crowds) is now becoming universal. Everything feels flatter, cheesier, uglier than what you expected. And this is a problem because this makes me want to stop being a tourist.
Think about it: the more people who go somewhere, the less unique or interesting that experience becomes, intangibly devaluing the travel experience. But more importantly, the more people who go somewhere, the less possible that experience becomes, increasing the perceived cost of travel.
There’s a hidden economic shift happening right now where the impact of the travel experience is becoming lower and less significant as time goes on. Put another way, while prices are lower than ever, you’re also getting less than ever. That’s not to say that travel isn’t a valuable experience. It is. It’s just that that value equation is shifting in the post-Instagram world.
But also, the more people who go somewhere, the more the economics of that whole location shift.
The economics of tourism fuck up the other economic systems in a community. When floods of tourists come, they don’t know the difference between genuine Japanese cuisine and cheap knock offs. They don’t know that the taxi driver is being an asshole. Nor do they really care. They’re here for the sites! They’ll be gone in a week. Entering tourist areas in Japan like Shibuya in Tokyo or pretty much all of Kyoto after spending 10 days in other parts of Japan was like entering a bizarro alternate dimension where prices got warped and had no relation to the actual experience you were paying for.
Tourist economics alter the other markets in a place because there’s no accountability. If the hotels and restaurants in Kyoto suck or over-charge, it’s not like people will stop coming. They have 1,000-year-old Japanese temples! The only ones!
I also know this because it’s true in New York City, where I live. New York is famous for its Italian food. But if you eat anywhere close to Times Square or Grand Central Station, you are guaranteed to pay an arm and a leg for garbage food with shit service. But go to the West Village or out to Brooklyn and you’re sure to find an amazing meal. You can get the best or worst Italian food of your life in the city depending on how close you are to tourist sites.
Over-tourism not only ruins the travel experience for tourists, but it lowers the other commercial experiences in a location, for both tourists and locals.
Now, factor in that the UN expects global tourism to increase ANOTHER 50% over the next 10 years… and yeah, we’re fucked.
The Future of Tourism
So, here’s my prediction: we’re coming up on peak mass tourism, if we haven’t already. For a century, there has been a steady trend towards more tourism worldwide. I believe that trend has reversed or is about to reverse, and we’re going to see a steady decline and possible elimination of mass tourism over the century as one or more of the following things happens:
1. Everything closes or gets destroyed – At the rate we’re going, most major sites in ecologically sensitive locations (think Machu Picchu) will likely have to close, either permanently or semi-permanently. Throw on top of that the effects of climate change and much of Amsterdam and Venice will be underwater in a few decades, not to mention paradises like the Maldives, Seychelles or Bahamas. Glaciers will be gone, ski resorts will close, desertification will dry out and ruin whole stretches of Europe and the US. Get ready folks, the great tourism apocalypse is coming!
2. Everything becomes lame – The over-crowdedness persists to the point where it feels impossible to even go to many of these places anymore. Paris and Rome are already almost there. It will likely only become more widespread, to the point where going to see the Vatican will be like standing in a concert… cramped, smelly, and impossible to enjoy because of all the douchebags holding cellphones up the whole time.
3. Elite travel only for the rich – You could file this under “everything becomes lame” but it’s worth highlighting in its own bullet point. When the crowds get too unruly and damaging, a lot of these tourist sites will switch their business models. They will shut out 90% of people and jack the prices up. Again, this is already quietly happening in some places, where the difference between a $50 tour and a $550 tour means you can either walk through the exhibit alone or walk through it with four hundred grunting Chinese people with fanny packs.
4. Travel becomes pointless – Travel photos are already becoming something of a cliche on Instagram and Facebook. I imagine that as the years roll on, we’re going to look at a lot of these #lifegoals photos with more of an eye-roll than an eyebrow raise soon. Yes, that’s a great shot of the Grand Canyon. Almost as good as six others I’ve seen. NEXT!
Ultimately, social media makes everything lame. The more this stuff gets posted, the more sick of it we’ll become. Trends will move on and the younger generations will one day make fun of their millennial parents/aunts/uncles for wasting their money on trips to Burning Man and Tulum, and the more the tourism industry will suffer. Not to mention the backlash from the environmental/climate/cultural considerations mentioned above. I think Millennials were the “peak travel” generation and we’re going to appear lame and crusty just like our parents’ obsession with McMansions in the suburbs seems lame to us.
5. Travel becomes obsolete – All indications are that we’re within five years of usable, affordable virtual reality. I’ve only messed around with VR a little bit, but want to know what some of the earliest programs are? Yup, you guessed it, virtual tours of famous world tourist sites. One VR gear I tried, I got to walk around Notre Dame (now destroyed) all by myself. It was grainy and pixelated, but it was empty! The tech was still shabby so it wasn’t that amazing, but imagine in 5-10 years when the tech does get good. People will have two choices: a) spend thousands of dollars to fight through crowds in Rome for a week, or b) download Rome into your VR headset for $20 and spend an entire afternoon exploring with no lines, no tickets, and no sweaty armpits?
Ultimately, more people are going to stay home. And that’s great for me. Because I’ll be one of those outdated cranky old men, fanny pack in toe, with extra money to blow on an exclusive private tour of Angkor Wat. And I’ll still be posting to Instagram, for all my other crusty old millennial friends to see and gawk at. Meanwhile, the culture will be on a VR-driven network of holographic artificial reenactments. They’ll be sharing their remixes of The Vatican telepathically via neuro-linked brain chips and accumulating social media followings for the most outrageous mash-ups of world sites…
And I won’t understand what the hell any of it means.