What makes a place touristy -- and when does it pass into the realm of too touristy? These questions preoccupy us here at IndependentTraveler.com, where we strive to help our readers not only have the smoothest, most hassle-free trip possible, but also have the best possible experience of a place.
Somehow, the more we ask the question, the harder it gets to pin down. Is a building such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, packed with some of the world's most significant and awe-inspiring art, automatically not touristy -- or does the sheer number of visitors it gets (6.3 million in fiscal year 2015) bump it into the "touristy" category? What about a hugely popular spot like the Colosseum, which may be packed with tourists but is still something few of us would want to miss on a first trip to Rome? Or a kitschy roadside attraction like the Center of the World near Yuma, Arizona, which is fun to visit precisely because it is a tourist trap?
Each traveler's concept of the phrase may be a little different, but for our purposes, we will define a place as "too touristy" when it is dramatically overcrowded or starkly inauthentic. Below is a look at the factors that can make a place seem too touristy, along with some tips on how to have a good experience if you find yourself there.
Sometimes it seems like just a numbers game -- that is, if there are too many people at a particular site, the place almost always feels too touristy.
But the total volume of tourists doesn't always tell the whole story. Many places that have avoided the "too touristy" label have done so by deliberately managing crowds; visitor numbers to the Galapagos Islands are tightly controlled, for example, and numerous major museums have adopted timed entries for big exhibitions.
Sometimes a place may seem too touristy to you because you visited it before it became popular. For example, one person's enjoyment of a (paid) selfie with Elmo in Times Square is another's shock at the astounding gentrification and commodification of a formerly untamed urban space. Despite Times Square always having been a tourist attraction in one way or another, for many, its current incarnation as Downtown Disney North feels not at all authentic.
This phenomenon is common in lots of places -- gritty bars or neighborhoods turned hip, isolated beaches turned popular. In his bestseller "Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life" (part travelogue, part memoir), New Yorker writer William Finnegan describes having been among the first nine people to have found and surfed Tavarua, a small island in Fiji; he and his traveling companion were so protective of the spot that they vowed never to mention it by name.
He writes also about his anger and distress at seeing the spot later show up on the cover of Surfer magazine after the island was bought and turned into a private surf camp by a couple of Americans.
A few decades later, Finnegan finds himself only somewhat reluctantly describing going back as a paying customer -- that is, as a tourist.
Finnegan's experience also speaks to the cache of feeling that you've discovered a place, which inevitably turns to disappointment when everyone else learns about your discovery and transforms it into something you may not recognize. When you are following a rutted tourist path, you may feel that all the well-loved sights along the way are too touristy in comparison to spots that feel less traveled.
Ease of Access and Comfort
An island that you can only get to by a scramble over mushy sand at low tide feels a lot different than the same place once a bridge is built, no question. Even if the crowds are the same, the group of people who risked the low-tide scramble seems somehow more adventurous and less touristy than the same group of people who walked over a nice promenade.
Another example: The masses clustered at the rim of the Grand Canyon seem like tourists, while the folks you encounter at the bottom of the canyon after you have hiked down do not.
The Tipping Point
After doing an informal survey of a bunch of well-traveled friends, I found that for most of us, the tipping point between "touristy" and "too touristy" is when a visit to a place becomes more about the press of humanity and commerce than about the place itself, the local people, the scene and the experience. I found four distinct types of must-avoid tourist situations:
1. Peak destinations at peak times. Unless the whole point is to gather, as at a giant festival or a presidential inauguration, trying to experience even a magnificent place when it is overwhelmed with people is too much -- too unsatisfying, too taxing, too touristy.
2. A place that is being beaten down by tourists. Many beautiful and popular places suffer this fate; see this report on how a huge spike in visits to the temples at Angor Wat is wreaking havoc on the site.
3. Places that exist solely to accommodate tourists. This might include an island like Aruba or a city like Cancun, which have an over-abundance of hotel chains, franchise restaurants and phony "exotic" festooning. Another stark example might be the tourist bazaars set up just outside popular cruise line ports -- transient commercial villages that exist solely to exchange souvenirs for tourist dollars.
4. Sites that feel more like an obligation than an experience. Sometimes a site is so well known that people drag themselves to go see it just because they are supposed to (an example might be the Louvre for those who aren't interested in art). If you don't truly want to be there, the tourist element becomes almost unavoidable.
Working through these factors, it seems that we veer toward the inauthentic when we mistake a manufactured or staged experience for a genuine one.
So where do we draw the line between authentic and touristy? Given some combination of all of the above, most of us will know it when we see it, as the saying goes -- or maybe it's just when we are too touristy.
How to Avoid Becoming Your Own Tourist Trap
There are practical ways to keep from experiencing sites at their most touristy, such as traveling in the off season, arriving particularly early or late in the day, or booking a skip-the-line ticket.
But beyond nuts and bolts, it's perhaps even important to know our own limits, choose activities accordingly and then bring ourselves as fully to everything as possible. You can make something special out of just about any location. For example, when we visit the Space Needle with our son, we do things like check out the giant bolts at the foot of the structure, figure out how the curve of the beams works and check where the shadows of the structure fall on the neighborhoods below. We maximize our experience on our own terms, even as hundreds of people swarm around us.
There is an amazing breadth of human endeavor and activity out there, and some it will attract a ton of people, and some will not -- so it's up to each of us to shape our experience no matter where we go. Take a half-day and blitz the Eiffel Tower, Rockefeller Center or its other touristy cousins; then bolt off into the world outside the tourist brochure, which awaits just steps away from the madding crowds.
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