• Paul D. Wilke

Checking the Boxes

Back in the early 90s, I took a semester and studied abroad in Salzburg, Austria. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Up to that point, I had barely left my home state of Illinois, and when I did, it was usually to go no further than Missouri or Wisconsin to visit grandparents.

Europe was for me a fantasy land, the place where all the history I read in books actually took place. At the time, though, I was a poor 20-year old college student living on a shoestring budget. That didn’t matter, I had pre-purchased a Eurorail pass that covered all my train travel, and as it turns out, most of my accommodations as well.

You see, when I was traveling, I’d go to the train station, look at the schedule, and then pick an overnight train to some out of the way city on the assumption that overnight trains to lesser-known destinations would be mostly empty, thus allowing me to sleep in relative privacy. Sometimes that worked out as planned, other times, not so much. This was how I ended up visiting Budapest (got robbed), Prague (almost got robbed), and Warsaw (did not get robbed) for the first time. This was at a time just after the fall of the Iron Curtain (1992) and long before eastern Europe became a top tourist destination. Crime was still a problem and tourist amenities were few and far between.

Circumstance forced me into a kind of poor man’s tourism, going to destinations that were out the way, free, or both. It’s incredible to think back to how low-tech travel was back then. The internet was still a novelty. I carried a wad of cash for everything and relied on fold-out city maps and brochures at train stations to make my way around. If I wanted to call my parents, I had to do it on a payphone. It was, needless to say, quite different from today.

In recent years, technology has revolutionized travel. Discount airlines, Airbnb, Uber, Orbitz, and Tripadvisor, just to name a few, have made European tourism accessible to broader segments of the population. Travel is now cheaper and more convenient than ever before. Barcelona, for example, is now one of the most popular cities in Europe, with 8.3 million international tourists visiting the city of 1.6 million people every year. Poor Venice has 50,000 inhabitants but gets over 20 million tourists every year. Larger cities are not immune: Parisreceives over 36 million tourists a year; London, just under 20 million. And so on. Pick any major European city, and you can be confident tourists arrive in droves every year right on schedule.

However, like all good things, this newly flattened world comes with a downside, appropriately dubbed “over-tourism” by the media. I suppose it was inevitable that Europe’s top tourist destinations would start to experience a backlash from locals fed up with hordes of fanny packers descending every summer like a plague of selfie-stick wielding locusts.

Not surprisingly, locals have become ambivalent about this boon, especially in the smaller tourist meccas. On the one hand, tourism is invaluable for the economy, bringing in billions of dollars. European cities compete with each other to win market share in the lucrative tourism industry, but the best-known places are still the ones that draw the most visitors every year. But it comes at a price. For many locals, the intangible costs can outweigh the real economic benefits.

It turns out that Airbnb, for example, when used on such a mass scale, ends up de-stabilizing communities. Barcelona for its part is taking the initiative by regulating sites like Airbnb. The goal is not to kill tourism, but to mitigate some of its more destabilizing impacts on the social fabric of the community. When tourism runs amok with unregulated short-term rentals, skyrocketing costs end up pricing the locals out of their own communities and social cohesion goes down as the number of transient tourists goes up.

For inhabitants of “over-tourist” destinations like Venice, the city begins to feel like Disneyland, an amusement park of museums, cafes, and attractions all packed beyond capacity with tourists. The sites that made the place a draw in the first place become stuffed with long queues. Many of us have sauntered through the historic city centers of Europe’s most famous cities — maybe the Ramblas in Barcelona, Unter den Linden in Berlin, Piccadilly Circus in London, any damn-where in Paris, the Vatican and Forum in Rome, and no doubt we’ve seen the same gift shops, selling the same tchotchke, just like everywhere else.

I’d only add that ‘over-tourism’ is not just an economic phenomenon, though that plays a major role. I’d include social media into this cocktail of disruptive technologies that exacerbates the over-tourism problem. Call it ‘check-the-box’ tourism, or going places to see things (check-the-box) so people can document they saw them and, very important, show the world they saw them. Not only that, but we feel a social pressure to make sure we hit all the iconic spots when we travel to a well-known destination, even if we’re not all that into it. Paris = Eiffel Tower. London = The Tower of London. And so on.

CtB tourism has always been around, but social media lubricates our egotistic tendency to self-promote our travel adventures with friends, family, followers, and even second and third-tier acquaintances. Our lives are stories, and we’re the stars, performing to unseen audiences and polishing our personal brands. Our little phones now make us director, star, and film crew all-in-one, ensuring we can easily record it all for posterity. What makes this phenomenon different now is the mass scale; even a modest budget allows one to hop on a plane and fly to Europe.

At some point, though, mass tourism became like Six Flags and Disneyland, nothing more than a simulacrum of culture with long queues. How else to explain waiting two hours to take an elevator up to the top of the Eiffel Tower? Or waiting three hours to get into Versailles? Or two hours for the chance to shuffle like a herd of cattle through the Sistine Chapel? All merely to get that perfect selfie?

I’ve done my share of CtB tourism, truth be told, though my preference has evolved over the years to those places with all the beauty, history, and charm you could dream of, but with only a fraction of the crass tourism and wax museums. I’ve learned that the quality of a vacation’s relaxation should be more important than running down a checklist of sites to visit. And yes, I’ve learned this by trial and error. If I’m condemned to spend my best days droning away in an office, I believe my free time is worth something more than a frantic scramble to check off a boilerplate bucket list, and I don’t want to waste that free time waiting in lines to see things just to garner a few more ‘likes’ on Facebook.

That said, all these new travel technologies are fantastic tools, and we should use them to enhance the quality of our vacations, to focus on the quality of the experience rather than the quantity. Do what you want to do and go where you want to go, as long as that is what you really want. Even if that’s just going camping or fishing at the local lake for the weekend. Good enough, if that’s what recharges your batteries.

Personally, over the years this has translated into vacations where I do minimal sightseeing. I’ve lounged around in a hammock all week at an obscure Turkish seaside resort, hiking the nearby ruins or reading a book in between naps. Or I’ve rented a farmhouse in the remote Brazilian cerrado for a week, with nothing but my family and telescope to keep me company (and another hammock). Or I’ve hiked a scenic trail in northern England where I was lucky if I saw ten people all day. Or I’ve merely hung out with the family for a week in a quaint beach town in southern Georgia, doing nothing but relaxing, eating too damn much, and again, taking naps. That’s my travel sweet spot.

So I’m not telling you CtB vacations are wrong, but I’m suggesting that there is a wider world out there far from the maddening crowd just waiting for you to visit. Many of you reading this already know that. But everyone’s different, and everyone finds that travel sweet spot in a different way. Make it count. You shouldn’t need a vacation from your vacation. So by all means, take your photos and post them on online, but after that’s done, put the phone away and don’t forget to enjoy just being right there in those beautiful moments that come and then go forever.

And anyway, isn’t the pleasant nostalgia of a relaxing vacation better than any rarely-viewed digital photo album? Nostalgia is one of the greatest gifts our minds give us, almost as good as dreaming. After all, it’s the past with all the bad stuff filtered out, reality remembered with less reality. Keep that instead, save it, and take it out for a little daydream every so often while you’re grinding the days away in your office box and staring at your computer screen. Trust me, the memory of those lazy naps and scenic strolls will be better than any two-hour wait in a sweaty line to see some over-hyped, over-crowded tourist trap.