It’s sort of a cliché to remark that Americans make bad tourists, but on the other hand, it’s hard to argue with the evidence. In the past week, two videos of American tourists complaining about Europe have gone viral: In one, a traveler says that Paris “smells like piss, cheese, and armpit” and that its food “looks grimy as hell,” and in the other, a woman argues that any influencer who posted pretty photos of the Amalfi Coast “deserves jail time” because they neglected to mention the logistics of actually getting there. “This is literal manual labor not vacation,” she writes in the caption. I’m not going to add to the chorus of Twitter users sending death threats to these two, because in a sense, they’ve both got points: If you go to Europe just because it looks cute on TikTok and Instagram, you’re going to end up disappointed.
Many Americans, in much the same way we’ve grown accustomed to cheap products that arrive within 24 hours or less, have an unsavory tendency to feel as though we are owed a fabulous, friction-free time simply because we’ve spent enough money and energy planning to have a fabulous, friction-free time. Cottage industries and corners of the internet have sprung up to reinforce this illusion: No matter where in the world you go, especially as an American leisure tourist, absolutely every choice can be made for you. On TikTok, you can copy painfully intricate spreadsheets and decks promising you the “BEST SUMMER EUROPE TRIP EVER.” Startup apps like Postcard and Camber allow you to copy other people’s saved location pins and follow their itineraries like treasure maps. Publications and influencers compete to offer you the dreamiest-sounding getaways, guiding you to each trendy restaurant and café and what to order there. Some people are even letting ChatGPT plan their vacations. It’s an almost sports-like pastime to reference every possible available recommendation and “best of” list and cobble together a bulletproof itinerary, an activity I’ve engaged in many times, sometimes with great pleasure. But it all ends the same: with thousands of people doing the same things, in the same places, at the same times.
Is travel cringe? It certainly feels that way, particularly if you’re traveling to one of the destinations that have become symbols of internet-driven over-tourism — Tulum, Lisbon, Reykjavik, Mexico City, Santorini, Dubrovnik, to name a few from the past decade. These are cities boasting both extraordinary natural beauty and, crucially, governments and corporations eager to profit from tourism. In catering to Western tastes, developers and the dollars they seek aren’t only killing the existing culture, they’re also, ironically, killing what makes people want to visit a place. In the latest edition of his Barcelona guide, the legendary travel author Rick Steves writes a eulogy for the Ramblas, a thriving market for locals that’s since become a tourist trap selling souvenirs and Instagram-ready fruit skewers.
“I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and when I started, there was not enough information. Now there’s too much,” he tells me. He describes the kind of travel that has emerged in the last decade or so as “bucket list” tourism, where people use crowdsourced information and top 10 lists to plan their trips and end up annoyed that everyone else is there, too. “I’m part of the problem, because I write books and I send a lot of people to places that are quote ‘undiscovered,’” he says. “But what I like to do is give people a basis for finding their own discoveries: the little mom and pops that carbonate your travels with great memories. My favorite places are what I call personality-driven, not just a money-making venture of some faceless company that’s going to hire the cheapest labor.”
Customers, having felt as though they’ve missed out on the last few years of international travel due to the pandemic, expect prices to be the same as they were in 2019, explains Jacqui Gifford, the editor-in-chief of Travel + Leisure, and therefore aren’t always prepared for the delays and cost increases caused by inflation, labor shortages, and supply chain issues. “I went to Rome in March, which is typically an off-season month, and it was jam-packed,” she says. “There’s really no low season, it’s just busy year-round in some destinations. At any major museum in Europe, you need to book your tickets in advance; it’s very rare you can go up and wing it.” Even airport lounges, those once-exclusive havens for the business elite, are being ruined by tourists. “So many people get in now because of credit cards. I’ve had times when I’ve had to wait in line, and it was like 50 people deep. You’re like, ‘Is this really worth it?’”
Worse, that entitlement leads tourists to believe that the people who live in a place should be grateful you’re there. “It just sounds so ridiculous,” says Bani Amor, a travel writer and lecturer. “I’m from New York, it’s one of the most traveled places in the world. It gives billions to our economy. But is that lowering my rent? Is that adding an elevator to my train two blocks away that I can’t go on because I’m disabled? [Instead] they’re removing benches, it becomes dirtier, and houselessness goes up. The money is not circulating. It’s going to police, to jails. It’s not making my life better. That’s a basic lack of understanding of capitalism.” No better example exists of this phenomenon than Hawaii, where most people work more than one job to barely get by, and where new tourist accommodations and attractions are advertised as job bringers and then fail to pay a living wage. Amor, while acknowledging that social media and the internet speed up the process of certain destinations going viral, says that none of this is new. “At the heart of it is displacement: the constant erosion of place, of culture. Tourism always begets more tourism.”
You could certainly make the argument that traveling at all is across-the-board unethical, and while a certain kind of tourist behavior undoubtedly is (young British men have made Amsterdam residents so miserable that the government released a PSA telling them to please, for the love of god, host their lads’ weekends someplace else), that’s only part of it. To declare that traveling is problematic just because it has become more accessible for middle- and working-class people to experience and therefore more people are doing so feels both classist and misguided.
More people are traveling because they can, a direct result of policy changes on a governmental and corporate level: the rise of online travel agencies like Expedia and Viator that make vacation planning as easy as online shopping, the slackening of visa requirements for foreigners and “digital nomads” who buy local real estate (many of whom promptly renovate them into cookie-cutter Airbnbs), deregulation of the airline industry, the popularity of user-generated, algorithmically ranked “best of” travel recommendations, a capitalist global economy that keeps developing countries’ currencies low and therefore favorable to people from richer nations, and the widespread adoption of remote work, to name a few. That there is not enough space at the restaurants we want to eat at, that the must-see museums sell out weeks in advance, these are not the fault of the individual travelers clamoring to go there, they’re the result of explicit decisions made by governments and corporations.
I am old enough to remember what traveling internationally was like before Uber and Airbnb, but not old enough to remember a time before budget airlines. In other words, I have only ever known travel to be cheap, but it has not always been quite this easy. The seamlessness with which Americans (and other English speakers) can sift through the world without actually feeling like we’ve left home can make traveling feel like, well, not. The messy logistics are catered to us in the form of instant phone translations and English language apps to hail taxis and book apartments, and also by the literal aesthetics of the places we go: In attempts to woo wealthy cool-seekers, developers design restaurants, hotels, and public spaces to look like facsimiles of the restaurants, hotels, and public spaces determined by Silicon Valley investors to be what cool people should want. A coffee shop in Beijing now can look the exact same as one in Buenos Aires and as one in your hometown. Our tourist dollars, after displacing innumerable families from neighborhoods they’ve occupied for generations, then turn those same neighborhoods into playgrounds specifically for us.
It all feels sort of embarrassing once you’re there. In Venice, which earlier this year imposed a reservation system and a daily fee to out-of-towners due to over-tourism, I remember waiting in line to squeeze single-file through a crowded bookstore described as a must-visit in all the travel guides where no one bought any books because there literally wasn’t any time or space to do so. Even when we’re not being particularly awful (there’s been a minor hoopla on Twitter over the past week because of a couple TikToks making jokes about the lack of free water at restaurants in Europe, which, they’re right! You do actually have to ask for and pay for water at most European restaurants!), the discourse always ends up being how shitty Americans are. Which, fair. “An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist, an ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that, and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you,” Jamaica Kincaid wrote in 1988, and that is precisely how it feels in 2023.
That doesn’t mean we can’t be better at it. Despite what a recent semi-viral New Yorker essay argues, walking around Paris aimlessly does, in fact, sound like a great way to spend a day. Travel is fun, and it is a luxury, and that is okay! “Leisure travel is selfish, and we can think of that word neutrally,” says Amor. “No one is doing anyone a favor by traveling.”
What’s embarrassing, then, is the obsession with getting everything right, with the spreadsheets and the research and the taking of the thousandth photo, followed by the pouting because the bar was too crowded or the emotional unleashing on a service worker because your train got canceled due to a railway labor strike. You are not a good or more interesting person because you have visited 35 countries before the age of 35, or because you’ve dined at every restaurant on Bon Appetit’s guide to Tokyo’s best izakayas. The quality of your photos does not equal the amount of fun you had on a trip. Just ask Rick Steves: On a recent trip to Venice, he watched as couples on gondola rides spent almost no time looking at each other or their surroundings. “And they shoot everything vertical for Instagram,” he says, laughing. “I just thought of that right now. It makes no sense. Our eyes are designed to look at things horizontally.”
How do we travel better? Steves recommends visiting “second cities.” “Everybody goes to Paris, what about Lyon? Everyone goes to Dublin, what about Belfast? Everybody goes to Edinburgh, what about Glasgow?” Gifford, meanwhile, suggests spending more time in one place rather than trying to check off every city on your list. “I used to get requests all the time like, ‘I want to do Greece and Italy and France in one trip in 10 days.’ I don’t think from a logistical standpoint people want to do that kind of trip anymore. What’s nice about it is it’s a very relaxed pace.”
From my own experience, it’s the extremely trite observation of “putting down your phone” that helps make travel seem like a real vacation. It’s like going to a party that’s so much fun you’ve forgotten to take any photos: One of the most fun nights I had on a trip to Florence started off with me being annoyed that my boyfriend dragged me to a nondescript pub to watch some sports game instead of checking out a cute little wine bar we’d been recommended, but we ended up meeting a whole tour group and going out to dinner with them. Later I posted an Instagram story of us singing karaoke in a crappy bar to Taylor Swift’s 10-minute version of “All Too Well” and everyone was like, “What the fuck are you doing at a karaoke bar in Florence?” and I was like, “Having a blast!” Literally, who cares!
“Just because something’s number one on some listing, what’s number one for you? It’s not about how many places you’ve been to. I want to know how many friends you’ve met and the mistakes you’ve made and then actually enjoyed as a result of those mistakes,” says Steves. “The magic of travel is still there. But people have to be in the moment. Let serendipity off its leash, and follow it.” Annoyingly, my TikTok algorithm has already figured out I’m going to the Cotswolds in a few weeks, and it’s taken everything in my power to scroll past the nauseatingly magical thatched-roof cottages and quaint little shops and surrender to the mysterious forces of fate. Travel isn’t supposed to be a fairy tale, after all — a great trip is far more interesting than that.
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