On Overtourism

Yesterday I took a train to a small town outside of Rome to spend the day with my son who recently moved there. Descending, I notice a number of passengers greeted in English by a smiling hostess. “Are you here for the wine tour?” Soon a dozen mostly Americans (a fact gleaned from the “where are you from?” chatter I heard in passing) were following her up into the town. They probably had a great experience and tasted some lovely wines, but it left me reflecting on the problem of “turistificazione”, a term I had just read in an article about airbnb and its effects on our cities.

I am torn between an admiration for the platforms which make local experiences available to more people with lesser budgets and a disdain for the resulting situation: city centers transformed into disneyland. Can we separate nostalgia from real civic responsibility? We are nostalgic for cities with few tourists staying in traditional hotels, eating alongside locals in “authentic” restaurants, shopping for products unavailable elsewhere. But then we fight for inclusiveness, making these experiences available to more people instead of a small elite. Digital platforms now allow the masses access to things previously available to wealthy minorities: second homes in exotic cities (airbnb), limo drivers (uber), jet setting (easy jet, etc.), massive entertainment libraries (spotify, etc.), prestigious offices (coworking), invitations to VIP events (?). 

Algorithms facilitate our daily lives at home and work, but much of the digital economy is aimed at travellers. Tourists have become the commodity instead of the market. I can probably make more money selling travellers to products (or services) than vice-versa. In fact, as a travel designer and consultant, I am constantly pulled towards this model by establishments eager for me to send them business. I surprise them when I refuse to make false “recommendations” and instead charge my clients well for my unbiased knowledge.  

As media theorist Douglas Rushkoff says, “we have to stop using technology to optimize human beings for the market and start optimizing technology for the human future.” We assume that progress in a capitalist world means optimizing commodities for the market, but in the digital economy, in which data mining is the biggest business, the consumer has become the commodity. Our eyeballs, our clicks, our choices, and our downloads are of more value to companies than our money. I might assume that instead of optimizing services for the traveller, the digital economy is optimizing travellers for their destinations. But this isn’t exactly true. In the case of travel, the destination is the product, and sadly it is changing to adapt to the supposed desires of the customer. 

This degradation of place is fueled by technology which allows these changes to happen even faster. Isn’t that what platforms like AirBnB are supposed to be doing, using technology to give humans better access to places and experiences? What went wrong? Reviews, shared photos and mapping lead to instant comparisons which reward those businesses which best correspond to the desires of the market. 

This probably works fine for the purchase of an object like a phone. You don’t have to trust the salesperson, but instead can read countless reviews and usually filter out the real from the fake. You can even research the externalities that come with your purchase and choose a phone responsible for positive social or environmental impact (or at least less devastation).  In general, you get what you pay for. 

But with travel services, as demonstrated by the “observer effect” in physics, the mere observation of a phenomenon inevitably changes that phenomenon. If I publish a blog post about a “local secret” my reader may well find a place overrun by tourists. 

Travel has become too easy, thanks in part to our digital tools which have been successful at their optimization. We don’t get lost, we don’t go in blind. Instead, we click on “authentic experience” and get a simulacrum of such.

The plethora of startups— including AirBnB itself — offering behind-the-scenes local experiences have the unintended but nevertheless devastating effect of transforming destinations into something very different from what is advertised. The magic of discovering that mysterious crypt quickly disappears when you hear the chatter of others drawn by the the same instagram post. Unless what you seek is a swarm of people like yourself, albeit in a far-away place, the more buzz a place generates, the worse the experience. 

But with travel services, as demonstrated by the “observer effect” in physics, the mere observation of a phenomenon inevitably changes that phenomenon. If I publish a blog post about a “local secret” my reader may well find a place overrun by tourists. 

And the problem isn’t just unwanted fellow travellers. Now even when a place is empty it may have been dumbed down by its quest to rate on TripAdvisor. I often see “local” establishments intentionally set aside their true traditions and aesthetics to conform to the expectations of uninformed tourists. Sure, we will serve dinner at six and cappucino with your pizza if that is what you think Italians do. Pecunia non olet, right? (google it!)

This global muddle does not always produce bad results. My favorite new breakfast spot is a fake, designed as a facsimile of a “typical” Italian bistro as a New Yorker imagines it. But it’s a comfortable, well-run place, better in many ways than the more “authentic” bakery down the street where you have to wade through food tours to get served. 

As places appear, get discovered and become overrun by tourists, how do you keep up? Before you know it, you’ll have to rush to the grittiest suburbs to find an authentic trattoria before the foodies add it to their kill list. (Oops, too late.)

What went wrong is the same thing that has gone wrong in general with the digital renaissance which was about the “unbridled potential of the collective human imagination” (Rushkoff) but turned out to be coopted by the financial markets to make money not off of human creativity but off of our collective data streams. 

Having seen the problem, the real question, then, is how — without resorting to nostalgia — to disrupt the process of disintegration of place. As a travel professional, working in Rome since the advent of the digital era, I have made a decision to keep my resources offline. Sure I may publish the occasional blog post about a place that I think warrants (and can handle) attention, but I’ve set aside my plan for a listings app. My “insider’s tips” won’t be worth much if I give them away to everyone. The way I see it, planning travel is a bit like designing a home, and a bit like nothing else. You do research, you consult experts, you shop around, you carry on conversations, and finally something unexpected and wonderfully unpredictable emerges. But while your home is yours, something you will probably only share with family and friends, your travel experience is by definition shared. It is about making connections across cultures. 

Technology, when used appropriately, can help us open doors and establish bonds. Let the technology follow its own logical algorithms, however, and it may well put us right back where we started, in our artificial bubble no matter how much we spend  or how far we travel.