The Trouble With Touristy-ness

San Marco and 5,000 of his closest friends

San Marco and 5,000 of his closest friends

I wrote this back in 2007 after returning to Istanbul from beautiful Ljubljana and Venice, then let it sit on my computer unopened for 5 years.

Welcome to Heaven, or Tourist Hell?

Location: Venice, Italy, April 2007

Like a swarm of locusts feeding on a fresh crop, so are the tourists of Venice. The streets are choked with them. It’s nearly impossible to walk more than a few feet without seeing this familiar sight: the backpack-wearing, sunglassed, fisherman-hatted tourist, map spread out in front of him searching for some familiar sign to show him the way. His companion stands nearby, eyes gazing around at the narrow streets with that deer-in-headlights type of wonderment. If you do come to a quiet, pedestrian-less street, you have surely deviated from the path to (or from) the Piazza.

There are street signs that practically hold you by the hand as you walk from the Santa Lucia train station to St. Mark’s Piazza and Basilica. The signs are huge and painted on the sides of the buildings at every corner, like a dummy’s guide of an extra large-print map. Most restaurants have special tourist menus posted in five different languages, (although I did notice one with a “No Tourist Menu, No Spaghetti!” sign off the main route for native Venetians possibly, or adventurous tourists).

But is this blatant “touristy-ness” always a bad thing? Most of us have experienced being lost in a strange place and tourism forms the basis of many foreign economies. While Venice is an example of what happens when a city goes beyond its maximum occupancy, there are many other benefits to these “tourist-y” places.

[This is where you would see a photo of Predjama Castle, if any tourist infrastructure had allowed us to get there]

Please don’t come to our amazing castle

Location: Postojna, Slovenia

To truly appreciate the good parts of tourism, take a trip to an off-the-beaten path town in the former Yugoslavia. Only an hour’s bus ride from the capital Ljubljana (a picturesque city reminiscent of Prague, but with half the tourists), this town boasts the amazing Predjama Castle, which is an architectural wonder built 123 meters into a cliff wall, as well as beautiful, “world-famous” caves that were 1 km from the city center. Upon arriving, we fully expected to find the shuttle bus that would take us to the Castle, which was another 10 km away. We got off the bus and saw the huge billboard advertising this pair of unique attractions. The billboard included a full timetable and the distance to each. What was completely lacking, however, was any kind of information about how to get there. We found a tourist office, but it was closed (it was Sunday). So we found our way to the caves with directions from a fellow traveler waiting for the bus. He hadn’t made it to the Castle, but said we’d be able to get more information at the caves.

It was a pleasant, short walk to the caves. Unfortunately for us, the caves were charging an exorbitant €18 – almost as much as the Tower of London – and virtually cost-prohibitive for your average budget traveler. To compare, the Predjama Castle was only €8. On the bright side, we did manage to find an open tourist office here. Her advice to us for the best and easiest way to get to the castle? Hitchhiking! There was no bus, no shuttle van, and the taxi fee was €34 round-trip. And at a 10 km distance from the town, walking would have taken about 2 hours – getting us to the castle just about the time the last tour of the day ended.

I found myself longing for the throngs of tourists of Venice. Imagine arriving at the train station Santa Lucia, on the other side of the Grand Canal, only to be told there were no bridges that could take you to St Mark’s Basilica!

Bled castle

The Perfect Tourist/Traveler Destination?

Location: Lake Bled, Slovenia

So what’s a tourist to do? It is difficult to find a place that combines the conveniences of tourism but manages to avoid its evils, but not impossible. One place that I found was Lake Bled in Slovenia. While this locale may become more crowded in the peak summer months, in mid-April at least, it was a wonderful destination. Tourists were plentiful, but not anywhere close to the numbers in Venice. And the castle perched high in the cliffs? A 15-minute climb up a steep, winding path. It may be a bit daunting for the not-so-physically-fit (or those with height phobias like myself), but still quite accessible. There’s also an island in the middle of the lake with an old church on it that looks impossible to reach. However, at every point on the lake there are several small boats waiting to take you there, whose rowers speak a myriad of languages to entice you for a ride.

I managed to experience all the good, bad and the ugly of tourism in one short trip to Ljubljana and its surroundings. It is simply not possible and not really advisable to avoid any kind of “tourist-trap” city, some of which are the most amazing places you’ll ever see. It’s only by traveling to places both on and off the beaten path that we can discover all the world has to offer, whether it’s with 5,000 tourists by your side or in complete isolation.

Share your travel experiences in the comments below! Do you avoid tourist traps like the plague? How do you reconcile the tourist-traveler dilemma?


3 responses to “The Trouble With Touristy-ness

  1. It’s true, tourism has some advantages. I think it depends what you’re after – and to get the best experience, you have to know. Some people would shudder at the inconvenience you’ve described, others would revel in it if only to avoid the crowds you’ve also described.

    Most of us are prepared to go somewhat out of our comfort/convenience zones and actually desire it on holiday – although we may have our little quibbles and lines we can’t cross. I’ve found I tend to enjoy the less-slick experiences more than the average person, and get bored with the well-organised stuff more easily, although if my travel companions are upset, so am I – so it’s finding a balance for the group, too.

    • I agree with you. The less-slick experiences are always more memorable, especially if they caused some discomfort or inconvenience along the way. But sometimes it is nice to go back to these places with amazing tourist infrastructures. In my aging years, (and after 3 weeks in the sweltering heat and lack of consistent air conditioning of northern India last summer,) I am definitely regaining an appreciation for tourist infrastructure 🙂

  2. Pingback: Weekend Postcard: Canals of Venice, Italy | Bohemian on a Budget·

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