When I was still a green sprout of a kid in the way back time, Alice Cooper came out with an album called, ‘Love it to Death’. Being an oblivious kid, I wasn’t entirely clear how one could love anything to death. Well, fast-forward many years later and, while I may still be oblivious on some counts, I’m long past being a kid and have long since become acquainted with the idea of loving something to death.
For instance, on a recent visit to Rome, I went on a group tour of the Colosseum, one of antiquity’s most iconic structures. I chose a tour for the simple fact that the almost 2000-year-old Roman marvel has become so popular that visitors wanting to see it on their own have to ‘book’ a time slot in advance online. The most recent statistics I could find say that 7.4 million people visited the Colosseum in 2018, making it the most popular tourist attraction in the world. In comparison, the Statue of Liberty racked up 4.3 million visitors in 2018.
Divide 7.4 million by 365 days and you get an average of over 20,000 people visiting the Colosseum each and every day of the year. The day I visited, it felt like all 20,000 were there with me. Now imagine all those people stumbling over each other to take selfies at every viewpoint and you begin to get a sense of loving something to death.
Even our guide, Maura, got into it with someone who was having his picture snapped by his gal pal. Maura excused herself as she tried to navigate the group through the space between them, and this guy, apparently irritated by people walking in front of his snaps, said something in Italian to her. She walked up to him and they engaged in a brief exchange, but the truth is, it could have been any of us. There’s just no room for that many people without someone stumbling into someone else’s happy snap.
This sort of thing is not unique to Rome. Name any popular tourist site in Europe and you’re likely to see the strain. Amsterdam has a problem with people pissing in the street; Prague has pub crawlers puking on the sidewalk; Venice, Barcelona, Bruges, all are struggling with problems created by mass tourism—by being loved to death.
It’s a complicated business to unpack and several dynamics are at play here. The cruise ship industry takes a lot of heat and, to some extent, rightly so. These ships are like floating cities that unload thousands of passengers at a pop in places like Athens, Venice and Barcelona. Cities like Venice just don’t have the infrastructure to handle such throngs. Not only that, most of these passengers aren’t dropping cash in the local economy for lodging and food as that’s all back on the ship. They may buy a souvenir and a gelato, but they’re certainly not staying for dinner or evening cultural activities.
The rise of bucket-shop carriers like Ryanair with their rock-bottom fares have driven a kind of ‘frat house’ tourism that’s brought the pub crawl culture to places like Amsterdam and Prague. Why not spend a weekend drinking in another European city rather than the one you live in?
Then there’s the likely un-anticipated side effect of two decades plus of globalism—a huge expansion of the middle class in populous nations like China, South Korea and India. These newly minted middle class citizens are flush with disposable income and can now indulge an itch to see the world.
Now, you’ll never find me criticizing that aspiration; I think everybody can benefit from travel and its exposure to other cultures. On the other hand, I’m not sure the kind of tourist scrums I’ve encountered in places like the Colosseum in Rome or the Acropolis in Athens, actually count any longer as cultural immersion. It ends up seeming to me more like belt-notching for the Instagram age. ‘Here’s me at St. Peter’s!’ and ‘Here I am at the Acropolis!’ and so on.
Like it or not, this is where we’re at. Traveling in the ‘shoulder’ season or even in the off-season offers some relief and is easier on the budget, but, if you’ve been to Amsterdam in January, you have some idea why it’s better visited in June.