A friend of mine is currently touring Europe and recently visited Florence. He was lamenting the current state of tourism, specifically the unrelenting crowds in those attractions that are on the “must see” list of every traveler. He correctly pointed out that for many there is no longer any appreciation for what is really being seen. No quiet contemplation of art or enjoyment of simply being there, in the moment, in the presence of something beautiful and timeless. Instead, he noted, the focus of the traveler is simply on taking a picture of something famous, preferably with themselves in it, and many times, with the now ubiquitous selfie-stick. The main objective has become documenting to the world that, “look where I am!” and “here I am in front of the statue of David” “here I am in front of the Duomo”, etc. My friend also correctly pointed out that with the explosive growth of the cruise industry and package tours, hundreds of thousands of visitors now clog the streets of Venice, Prague and, of course, Florence.
I started thinking about the points my friend was making and I believe the situation he describes will likely only increase. We have only started seeing the beginning of the emerging Asian middle-class tourist and just wait until cruise ships start catering solely to that market, as package tour operators have done already. Despite what some in the media would have us believe, the world is getting richer and those who now have the means to travel want to do so. They want to exhibit the status of being world-travelers, just as we in the West have always done. And why shouldn’t they? There is no turning back.
While the over-crowded tourist hubs of today may distress us, as we long for a more simpler time, there is a positive side. There are still hundreds, if not thousands, of out-of-the-way places where the package tourist or cruiser is not likely to go. These are the places where the traveler can still have a cup of coffee on a quiet street, wander undisturbed through neighborhoods, and perhaps even engage with the local residents on a level beyond just being considered a “walking wallet.” And, the great thing is that these out-of-the-way places are just the ones that often need the extra infusion of visitor cash and are the most welcoming to the traveler. Places where the primary industry left long ago and the people there are just trying to maintain their traditional way of life. We’ve seen several villages like this in Germany, where young people have left for bigger cities but where the charm of the village remains. And these places can be found everywhere. We may be destined to appreciate the beauty of an art work by finding a picture of it in a book. But we can appreciate real live people, their culture, their language and their ideas by getting off the beaten path. I think that’s where the richness of future travel lies.