Standing Room Only: On Overtravel and the Joy of the Unsung

Where Do We Go Now?

A plague of tourists is afflicting the world. It has dropped hordes of the problematic into the lap of the precarious. It has reduced air travel to a demoralizing form of mass transit and caused cruise ships to balloon into seagoing amusement parks. It has turned ancient cities into mobbed enclaves and tranquil islands into party zones. It has clogged boulevards and thronged squares and overrun beaches. It has produced long lines at heritage sites, art museums, car rental counters, taxi stands. It has loaded historic centers with Airbnbs, creating soulless neighborhoods of transients while displacing families ensconced for generations. It has filled grocery stores with foreigners in shorts searching for their favorite breakfast foods. It has, in some places, replaced the grocery stores with souvenir shops. It has made the Irish pub a global institution.

It has spawned the neologism “overtourism” and the oxymoron (according to Richard Leakey) “ecotourism.” It has tried the patience of flight attendants, market vendors, bus drivers, tour guides, park rangers, police officers, and waitstaff worldwide—not to mention daily commuters and people wanting a quick cup of coffee. It has drenched cobblestone streets and dusty lanes in the aromas of pizzas, burgers, and fries. It has put the fries, even in Italy, atop the pizzas.

In altering the character of beloved destinations it has also changed the nature of travel, turning it, volte-face, into a form of inescapism.

*

I saw warning signs of overtourism before the term was invented—I am a travel writer, one of the people implicated in its creation—but I didn’t take them very seriously. They were in places like Venice, which for centuries has been beset by visitors. “Theis baits drawe many hither,” Peter Mundy wrote of the city in 1620, in Sundry Relations of Certaine Voyages, “some for Curiositie, others for Luxurie, there being wayes to gett, but many more to spend.” Also, because I wasn’t writing about the sights (my predecessors had thankfully done that for me), I was able in most places to avoid the crowds.

Then two years ago I traveled to Lisbon, to show my wife one of my favorite cities. I had first visited Portugal in 1989 as part of my inaugural trip as a newspaper travel editor. My editor had asked me to go to Spain, which was already preparing for 1992, and I had decided to tack on the part of Iberia I had not yet seen. Madrid, Barcelona, and Seville were all familiar and, like big fish everywhere, not particularly welcoming. Lisbon, somewhat forgotten there at the lower edge of the continent, was different; its residents proved approachable, gracious, untroubled by the fact that I didn’t speak their language. They seemed to appreciate my having stopped by. The trip deepened my lifelong affection for the unsung.

I grew up in New Jersey. The two months I worked on a farm in Alsace were more memorable than the eight I spent at a school in Provence. My first book was about Poland.

Despite my long associations with the overlooked, Lisbon had come as a surprise to me in 1989, as it did again in 2017, though of a very different sort. A combination of extensive media coverage (travel publications, as if by accord, had anointed Lisbon “the next new place”) and an appearance of safety (neighboring Spain was as close as the terrorists had ventured) was sending streams of tourists to a city that for decades had seen only trickles. Cruise ships now docked at the foot of Alfama, debouching their passengers out into the capital, and Bairro Alto, where I had listened to fado in a longshoremen’s dive, was now riddled with Airbnbs. (We met an American couple who were staying in one, and heard of the garbage-strewn streets that greeted them each morning.) I still loved the city—the little yellow streetcars, the green-and-black taxis, the wavily patterned sidewalks, the augustly statued squares—but it was changed from the one I had visited in ’89.

The masses, for the most part, continue flocking to the usual and increasingly sold-out suspects.

That year, which saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, and 1991, which brought the collapse of the Soviet Union, are viewed by some people as the two floodgates that unleashed the current onslaught of tourists. “For the first time in modern history,” Elizabeth Becker wrote in her 2013 book Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism, “the world opened to tourism.”

While technically accurate, her claim seems a little odd when you consider that only one city in that vast territory—Prague—has become a legitimate must-see destination. And travelers to today’s Russia still have to apply for visas, and to get them they still must list the hotels where they will be staying every night. Such mandated planning, not to mention state control, tends to discourage the masses.

Travel’s real boom came a few years later with the growth of low-cost airlines and the emergence of the Internet, which suddenly made it possible to book a cheap flight—plus a hotel room, a cruise, a package vacation—with the push of a button from home. Travel agents, long a staple of American Main Streets, either disappeared or quickly became specialists. With the rise of the Internet, new services and practices—from TripAdvisor to couch surfing—came into existence, increasing the ease and reducing the expense of travel. Social media eventually joined the party and soon the selfie was replacing the postcard. Some exultant frequent flyers took on the novel job title of “influencer.”

New populations of travelers appeared on the scene, led by the Chinese. By 2012, one billion international trips were being taken annually, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, and tourism was creating three billion dollars in business every day. “In gross economic power,” Becker wrote in Overbooked (the source of these figures), “it is in the same company as oil, energy, finance and agriculture.” The number of Americans with passports rose from 15 percent in the 1990s to over 40 percent today.

*

I was a travel editor through much of this change, until bloggers made travel editors less valued than postcards. In those early days I called the newspaper’s travel agent every few months, picked up my paper ticket at her office, obtained my traveler’s checks at the downtown credit union (signing each individual check there at the teller’s window), and then lugged my leather carry-on bag through airport corridors. Those at the receiving end were sometimes small and quiet, servicing cities—Des Moines, Columbus, Port-of-Spain, Ho Chi Minh City—whose names had caused my travel agent to shake her head in bemusement.

But I had not forgotten the lesson of Lisbon. Also, one of my favorite travel books—travel writing had enjoyed a popularity in the 1980s that the act of travel is now experiencing—was Jonathan Raban’s Old Glory, in which he sailed the length of the Mississippi River, stopping in its small towns and mostly workaday cities. Raban had fashioned a personal, and literary, response to the problem of a world increasingly cluttered with tourists, and that was to go where the tourists lived. While a generation before he might have explored Kathmandu (actually, his first travel book was Arabia Through the Looking Glass), now he lingered in suburban St. Louis.

In the land of the unheralded one meets more people, who often have the coping humor of the historically oppressed.

In my much less ambitious travels, I was discovering the benefits of his approach. A year after my trip to Iberia I flew to Wyoming. For the first three days I rafted with an outfit down the Snake River, enjoying the company of a family from Texas. This was my first experience with the West—the American West, not the California coast—and it felt artificial, with guides and schedules and fellow tourists, the wilderness version of a package tour. When our lazy drift was over, and I picked up my rental car in Jackson Hole, I drove it with an exhilarating sense of release. Stopping for the night in Dubois (so many freelancers had written about Yellowstone I didn’t feel I needed to), I entered the Rustic Pine Tavern and met amiable young men in jeans and cowboy hats who told me about the town (which they pronounced “Dew-boys”) and made me feel that now I was in Wyoming. Drinking with the locals was more pleasurable—and useful for my purposes—than catered campfire dinners had been.

As I made my way across the state, I attended an Arapaho powwow, met a man in Lander who as a gradeschooler had interviewed a woman who had known Butch Cassidy, drank a beer in the Dip (short for diplocaulus) Bar in Medicine Bow, strolled the campus of the University of Wyoming in Laramie, and chatted with bull riders at Frontier Days in Cheyenne. From there I flew to Chicago to experience the last summer of Comiskey Park.

Among baseball temples, Comiskey took a back seat, in both beauty and aura, not only to a few around the country—Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park—but to its North Side coeval, Wrigley Field. Not a White Sox fan, or even an American League fan, I nevertheless felt I belonged on those middling grounds that Saturday.

The man seated to my right, I learned almost immediately, had been coming to Comiskey since he was an infant, which meant that for at least four decades he had been rooting for a team that was perennially overshadowed by the other one in town—the Cubs—even when, as often happened, his possessed the better record. And he was not only supporting a team that was an afterthought for many Chicagoans, playing in a notably inferior stadium, he was doing it in a metropolis dubbed The Second City. Dedicated to the unsung, I had found a man who gave the word a deeper meaning.

The result was an immensely entertaining afternoon. It is not just that in the land of the unheralded one meets more people, but that the people one meets often have the coping humor of the historically oppressed. “We hate Cubs fans,” my neighbor explained to me during a lull in the action. “And Cubs fans can’t be bothered. Cubs fans don’t get it. They don’t have the capacity to know that they should hate us back. And that makes us hate ’em even more.”

I asked him if he had ever been to Wrigley Field. “I took friends there twice,” he said reluctantly. “It was out of charity. Wrigley’s a quaint little park with the worst organist, the worst food, and the worst announcers. And they have vines and things on the walls. So it’s not baseball. They have stuff growing out there. I guess they can’t get rid of it.”

A dozen years later, collecting pieces for a book, I included my story about Comiskey Park, along with those on Iowa, James Thurber’s Columbus, Carnival in Trinidad, and Vietnam in the early 90s, before we had reestablished diplomatic ties with the country. Wyoming missed the cut only because I didn’t think the account of my road trip had enough of a unifying thread, other than my continuous wonderment and delight.

Tourists spend their days passively looking at things—landscapes, monuments, buildings, paintings.

My love for the unsung grew even stronger because—the evidence clearly showed—it was giving me my finest stories.

Tourists, it might be argued, are not looking for stories. But most people are in search of connection—the memorable exchange, the meaningful encounter—which is hard to find in everyday life and even more difficult to experience on the road. Travel, Janet Malcolm wrote in Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey, is “a low-key emotional experience.” She quietly if subversively pointed out that tourists are generally not consumed with excitement or touched by significance; they spend their days passively looking at things—landscapes, monuments, buildings, paintings—and are not actively engaged in life, interacting with people, the way they are on a typical Tuesday at home. The exception, she wrote, after losing her luggage, is when something goes wrong: a traveler in need of help is forced to breach the divide.

The beauty of unsung places is that they present a much narrower divide. You are not part of a faceless pack in comfortable shoes; you stand out as a unique individual, a rare outsider, a person of interest, which cuts both ways: Being one of the few visitors, you are a curiosity to the locals, who often find you engaging because of your whaddayaknow curiosity about them.

Wandering around Spain’s showcase cities, as a rookie travel editor in 1989, I had been one of thousands of tourists, an international type the residents were tediously familiar with. When I arrived in marginal Portugal, my status changed from hackneyed interloper to heartened guest. In Vietnam, students approached me and, after ascertaining that I was American, politely asked if they could practice their English. For a travel writer this was a godsend, but any sights-addled tourist would have been tickled by the attention.

*

It is difficult to tell if tourists follow travel writers or the reverse. At my Florida newspaper I received endless articles on Orlando (Disney World), St. Augustine, Key West, and Miami. I’d occasionally get the outlier who wrote about the Everglades, or the Panhandle, or Cape Canaveral, and sometimes a maverick would send me a story about Tarpon Springs, Amelia Island, or Cabbage Key. No one ever wrote about Matlacha, the bright village of art galleries on the way to Cabbage Key, or Lake Worth, with its large and unlikely Finnish community. In Miami it seemed almost a requirement to visit Little Havana and ignore Little Haiti.

The supremacy of the celebrated has been abetted by the Internet, where search engine optimization not only encourages a concentration on the popular and the recognizable, it feeds their growth, discriminating against the small, the little-known, the atypical, the unexpected. Every travel blogger is aware that “Paris” will get more clicks than “Colmar,” especially if it’s connected to a list of best-something-or-other. While technology has beautifully shrunk our planet by making its parts more easily accessible, it has also, with the help of travel writers, sadly shriveled it by reducing in the minds of travelers the number of desirable destinations.

If looking for connection in travel, tourists need to ask themselves the old Kate Simon question: “What else is there?”

What’s rarely mentioned in the anguished reports about overtourism is that, while the legions of tourists are expanding, the swath of earth they prowl isn’t, at least not to any significant degree. There have been a few additions to the approved excursion route, like Armenia, but there have also been some defections, like Afghanistan (a country once best known to Americans as a woozy stop on the Hippie Trail). The masses, for the most part, continue flocking to the usual and increasingly sold-out suspects.

This leaves an immense, intriguing, not always “exotic” but frequently welcoming world untouched by sightseers and tour bus caravansaries. You needn’t take an odious staycation in order to avoid other tourists; you simply need to go—to borrow from Willie Keeler’s philosophy for hitting baseballs—“where they ain’t.”

Here at home, Iowa is an excellent place to start. The rolling fields of corn elicit Grant Wood as powerfully as Giverny evokes Monet. Among the stalks in Dyersville sits the Field of Dreams, looking just as it did in the movie and still serving as an occasional setting for ball games. Iowa City has one of the finest bookstores in the country—Prairie Lights—as befits a college town with a famous writers’ program. Antonin Dvořák spent the summer of 1893 in Spillville (the great Czech composer had only three years in the US and he made it to Iowa), writing his String Quartet in F major and playing the organ in St. Wenceslaus Church. The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake has been kept pretty much as it was that February night in 1959 when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper sang their last songs there. Britt, just down the road, hosts the National Hobo Convention, as it has been doing every summer since 1900. It is a lovely period piece, now that most of the hobos are retired. Some of those who “caught the westbound” lie in a special section of the town cemetery.

Our planet is rich in unexplored alternatives. Palma de Mallorca has banned Airbnbs, but you can easily book a pension in Extremadura. Venice is considering charging daytrippers a 10-euro entrance fee, while Genoa rims the Ligurian Sea with a wealth of lonely treasures (including one of the world’s most exquisite cemeteries). Amsterdam is also thinking of limiting the number of visitors; Rem Koolhaas’s Rotterdam doesn’t have a problem with them. El Camino de Santiago has become wildly popular, not so the August pilgrimage to Częstochowa.

It’s easy, and a bit disingenuous, for someone who has seen many of the world’s beauty spots to suggest to people that they really don’t need to. I would feel poorer if I hadn’t seen Venice, so visit Venice, ideally in the winter (Joseph Brodsky’s favorite season there), but spend most of your time in Asolo, a beautiful hill town at the foot of the Dolomites.

I made the detour to pay respects at the grave of the travel writer Freya Stark, who lived there when she wasn’t traipsing around the Arab world. One morning standing in the piazza, I got talking to an American couple who were part of a bicycle tour of the Veneto. They had been to Venice, but Asolo, they said, was the highlight of their trip. The small, serene town, with its cafés and trattorias and elegant shops, its sloping streets undisturbed by tourists, had felt more like real, everyday Italy to them.

Almost every famous destination has a hospitable, neglected neighbor. San Miguel de Allende gets all the attention and accolades (and, subsequently, the North American expats), while, closer to the airport, Guanajuato rises on its colorfully cubed hills in peace. Visitors to Munich make the day-trip out to selfie-storm Neuschwanstein and thus miss spending a night in Füssen, an infinitely Instagramable town of violin makers on the banks of the Lech River. Some 60 miles east of Santa Fe, Las Vegas sits like an antidote to the Turquoise Trail, its Plaza Hotel seemingly haunted by the ghosts of Rough Riders. (My one evening in the saloon I met two soldiers of fortune who occasionally lapsed into snatches of Ibo.) The Spanish missions of San Antonio are more impressive but less surprising than the Polish churches of nearby Kosciusko and Panna Maria. In the Ozarks, there are the big box theaters and ersatz legends of Branson while, across the Arkansas border in Mountain View, every spring and summer weekend, no-name pickers and fiddlers play in the town square. It is the antithesis of Branson: organic, low-key, heartfelt, affecting.

For a sense of separation, which in travel can lead to connection, tourists need to ask themselves the old Kate Simon question: “What else is there?” Beyond the clubs of Mykonos and the SRO sunsets of Santorini lies the Dodecanesean island of Kalymnos, a stranger to calendars (and hence most travelers) but home to a rich sponge-diving history. (Many of its sons and daughters ended up in Tarpon Springs, Florida.) Far from the neon lights of Tokyo are the hanging lanterns of Tsumago, a dark wood village hugging the ancient Kiso Road. Busloads of Japanese tourists invade during the day, but at night it’s so quiet you can hear the trickle of water from springs. Here the connection is to eternal rather than to contemporary Japan.

A number of years ago I traveled to Normandy to write a story for the anniversary of D-Day. I walked the beaches and visited the cemeteries; I poked around Sainte-Mère-Église, where a dummy of a paratrooper hung from the church steeple, and the nearby town of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont. “We’re very jealous of Sainte-Mère-Église,” one of the residents told me only half-jokingly. “And all because nobody got stuck on our church steeple.” My ultimate destination was the village of Vouilly, because a moated farmhouse there—I knew from my guidebook, A.J. Liebling’s Normandy Revisited—had for five weeks served as the American press headquarters.

Sometimes the people I talked to asked if I were going to visit Mont Saint-Michel. “It is the marvel of Normandy,” one woman told me. “Of France,” her husband corrected her. “Of the world,” said their granddaughter. I told them I needed to get to Vouilly.

The farmhouse looked just as Liebling had described it, though inside it had been turned into a bed and breakfast. I of course got a room for the night. The owner was the grandson of the proprietress Liebling had devoted an entire chapter to; he had never seen the book. I translated the description of his grandmother, and he and his wife listened with amused recognition. Then they showed me Liebling’s comments in their guestbook, along with those of other returned correspondents.

The next morning, after finishing my breakfast, I took out my wallet to pay for my room. “Ah non,” the wife said. “You are a friend of the family.”

Thomas Swick
Thomas Swick
Thomas Swick is the author of three books, the most recent being The Joys of Travel: And Stories That Illuminate Them. His work has appeared in six editions of The Best American Travel Writing.





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