Our family just got back from a week in Prague. It is a lovely city with a fascinating history and truly beautiful sites at every turn. It had been eight years since we had been there last. The change in the city was enormous. We deliberately chose to go at a time when we thought it would be quiet. If what we experienced was quiet, I would hate to see what it’s like when it is busy.
Huge packs of people were moving around the historic old city area. People unaware of their surroundings just stopped in their tracks without any regard to the people walking behind them. Footpaths overflowing with people who have stopped to listen to what their guide is telling them without thinking that others might be trying to get past. Others thinking it is ok for them to ask you to move so they can have a photoshoot. I am not talking about a quick photo, I mean a full-on 10 minute and 100 pose photoshoot.
The curse of Instagram
It seems too many people are measuring the worth of their trip by how many likes they get on Instagram. Influencers need those likes and followers so they can earn money. Unfortunately, a lot of them are not portraying real life in any of the places they are visiting and they are spoiling others trips at the same time. They spoil them on a couple of levels. Firstly, they are not portraying a real view of the places they visit so when others get there they are disappointed. Secondly, they get in everyone’s way with their mini photo shoots all over the place.
Crossing the Charles Bridge in Prague was a mission. We tried to line up the kids and take a photo at one point after waiting for a lady to finish her photoshoot but got told off by her because she wasn’t finished. Is it really ok to expect people to stay out of your way in public so you can take a 100 photos of yourself? At another spot, people were quicker taking their photos but were still taking a couple of minutes apiece and checking their hair and poses before moving out of the way.
Not only does this kind of behaviour make it hard for others to take any kind of photo without waiting around for ages it actually spoils the sites. We went to the Charles Bridge to enjoy it and look at the different statutes, admire the views from the bridge and generally soak up its history. It was impossible with people everywhere trying to get the perfect photo. I wonder how many people who were there that day really enjoyed the views and took the time to bask in the history and beauty of the bridge.
The other thing we found interesting was that in spite of the packs of people moving around the restaurants and cafes were not that busy. Accommodation was very easy for us to get and we only booked a week out from our stay. It was not expensive either. You wonder how much money the tourists are actually spending and how much the over-tourism of some cities is actually adding to their economy.
The cruise ship problem
Prague does not have the added issue of big cruise ships arriving every day, and flooding the city with even more people, as some coastal cities do. Venice and Dubrovnik have worked to manage cruise ship tourism which helps but doesn’t solve the over-tourism problem. For more on the cruise ship industry and the effect it has on economies, the environment and the ports they visit check out Hasan Minhaj excellent episode ‘The Real Cost of Cruises’ on his Netflix show ‘Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj’.
Then just as you are getting really frustrated with the craziness going on around you, you realize you are also part of the problem. After all, you are a tourist in the same city. You may not be adding to the photoshoot problem but you are adding to the congestion and overcrowding. I am not sure what the solution is and I know it is something that is plaguing city councils in many places around the world.
What can be done
How do you stop over-tourism without just preserving it for the elite? Venice has labelled what is happening there as a tourism crisis and is making grassroots changes that are working. Initiatives like FairBnB and Venezia Autentica are leading the way in long term sustainable change. Dubrovnik has limited cruise ship dockings to two a day (which hasn’t reduced the overall numbers but has meant a more even distribution of tourists over the week), cut souvenir stalls by 80% and cut restaurant seating in public areas by 30%.
Rome has banned tour buses in the historic city centre. Thailand has shut some of its beaches to the public in the hope they can restore them to their former glory. The Netherlands is promoting cities and towns off the beaten track to try and divert tourists from inundating Amsterdam.
Cities like Berlin, London and San Francisco have put in place strict regulations on Airbnb. Other cities like Barcelona and Paris have all but banned it. These restrictions are in part to help alleviate over tourism but chiefly it is to keep the city affordable for locals. They want to prevent whole areas from being gobbled up with short term tourist rental accommodation.
Other cities including Palma de Mallorca, Barcelona, San Sebastián, Prague and Salzburg have seen a sharp increase in locals protesting tourism. It will be interesting to see how they work towards dealing with the problem. When people start moving out of cities to avoid over-tourism you are faced with a whole other set of problems. Without a thriving local community festivals, traditions, culture and art all start to fade. It is a complex set of problems that more and more cities are having to grapple with.
As an individual what can you do?
- Picking out places off the beaten track is probably the single most impactful thing you can do. It still supports a country’s economy but it moves some of the stress out of the main centres.
- Get out of the historic city centre as much as you can. Find the hidden treasures that cities have to offer outside of the usual history areas. Try staying a bit further out so you get a more realistic experience.
- When travelling to popular destination try and travel during the off-season when you can. This often makes your trip more enjoyable and at the same time reduces tourist pressure on over tourist places.
- Support local businesses and initiatives. Check out FairBnB next time you are looking for accommodation.
- Remember a dose of good old fashioned manners goes a long way! Be aware of others when you are out and about.
- Don’t get hung up on getting the perfect photo and enjoy what is in front of you. And when you are looking at your social media remember how easy it is to doctor and manipulate photos.