I think a lot about tourism. Not only am I a frequent tourist in Italy, but I take groups of clients to Italy as well. I’m also currently in Venice as I write, at the tail end of high-tourist season in late September. With international flights having become so relatively cheap during the past 30 or 40 years, it’s hard to believe that before that, mass tourism didn’t exist as it does today. When Marcella Hazan started offering cooking classes in Bologna in the 1970s, some thought the idea of Americans flying to Italy to study cooking was crazy. At the time, hers was the only such program available to foreigners. Today, there are hundreds.
Oh, how times have changed! It’s a wonderful thing that international travel is now accessible to those without great financial resources. But mass tourism has created a lot of problems, and has recently enjoyed some pretty bad press. Initiatives in both Florence and Venice have been in the news recently, with the local population of those noble cities upset and disgusted by the effects of tourism on their cities.
In many cities, the demands of tourism have priced out locals from the housing and rental markets. It’s a lot more profitable to buy an apartment and rent it to tourists on Airbnb than to rent it to a local.
Most serious of all, perhaps, mass tourism has the potential to change the nature of a place. Venice, for example, has begun to resemble a sort of theme park rather than a real place where people live and work. A theme park is a place which exists only for the pleasure of its visitors. Disney World doesn’t have an identity separate from its tourist identity because no one actually lives there. It is merely a tourist destination designed for entertainment and enjoyment, as opposed to real living and working. Venice isn’t there yet, but with more than 20 million visitors a year and fewer than 60,000 residents, it can certainly feel like it, particularly in the summer months. For example, when you go to the fish market in Venice and see more tourists taking photographs than actual shoppers, it creates the danger of the market becoming a mere “attraction” rather than a source of sustenance.
This raises the significant issue of what the purpose of tourism is in the first place. In the past, the “grand tour” of Europe which was so common and almost required for the affluent, was meant to round out their education by offering a first-hand experience of differences in tastes, mores, and culture. Such travel was concerned with expanding one’s horizons and deepening one’s experience of the world. For those who had an influence in shaping national and global policy, experiencing Europe first-hand was nearly essential. The experience was not as much personal self-enrichment as much as personal expansion and growth.
Today, of course, there is no such motivation for most tourism. Instead, ordinary people wish to enrich their lives by experiencing something grander and richer than their ordinary lives. So far, so good. But unfortunately, too often this takes the shape of a sort of checklist tourism. People arrive in Rome and have a list of things they’d like to see and do: tour the Colliseum, see the Sistine Chapel, eat a pizza, etc. But because of the brevity of their stay and a dearth of preparation, they often lack the experience or context to give those experiences depth. The experiences become shallow and skin-deep. It is merely “sight-seeing”, not engagement. They see the Sistine Chapel, they take a selfie at the Colliseum, maybe they learn a thing or two about both, but they don’t leave with a significantly deeper understanding of ancient Rome or the fragility of civilization. Some might come to Venice for a week and leave not realizing that fish is the heart of Venetian cuisine or that Venice alone kept ancient Republican ideals alive during centuries of darkness and ignorance. They don’t understand that Italians eat in courses and that simply ordering pasta at a good restaurant is a bit offensive. They try to enter churches dressed immodestly, or they eat food outside sitting on public momuments.
The very worst kind of tourist doesn’t really want to experience anything unfamiliar at all. Instead of adapting to local customs and traditions, they demand the experiences they are accustomed to. Perhaps they demand coffee to-go from a bar, something which doesn’t exist in Italy. Or maybe they seek out pizza which resembles what they are used to at home rather than pushing themselves to expand their concept of what pizza is. Perhaps they have no desire to adopt the Italian habit of drinking wine with meals and would prefer to drink Coke. Saddest of all, some might prefer the comforts of McDonalds to the treasures of genuine Italian cooking. Some come to Italy and see all the sights, but they haven’t really been affected by their travel at all. Such a trip represents not enrichment but mere diversion.
This kind of tourism tends to change a place to accommodate such tourism. Why buy the most expensive and high-quality ingredients if tourists are just as happy with lower quality fare? Why serve risotto and risk being misunderstood when a poorly-made pizza with cheap ingredients will be received even better? If tourists are just as happy with a caricatured stereotype of a gondolier, why engage in that profession with seriousness and dignity? Why sell high-quality authentic Murano glass when cheap Chinese knock-offs are more profitable?
So what is one to do? How can one be a responsible tourist, one who respects the nature of a place but wishes to experience and be enriched by it?
I think the most common problem with most tourists is a lack of preparation for their trip, and so perhaps the single greatest thing tourists can do to have a more meaningful experience is to really prepare for the trip. Such preparation might include reading a book on the history of the place they’re going. Watching videos or documentaries to orient themselves to the city, reading guidebooks to understand the local customs and habits. A guidebook is a pretty basic and simple way to prepare, but the fact that one sees at the Vatican a mile-long line to buy tickets wrapping around the walls when every guidebook makes clear you can skip the line by buying tickets online, suggests to me a complete lack of preparation. Small details matter. Knowing that at most coffee bars you order and pay at the register first, or knowing that most Italians drink only cappuccino in the morning, or that (except for gelato) Italians don’t eat on the street… these sorts of things show a basic respect that go a long way. What does it say to an Italian if a tourist can’t even make the basic effort to learn that thank you in Italian is grazie, not the Spanish gracias. I’m not suggesting that tourists need to study Italian seriously or be able to even utter a complete sentence in Italian. But learning basic key words and phrases goes a long way toward expressing respect. Above all, remember that you are a guest in the place you’re visiting. Just as you would defer to the customs, traditions, and rules when a guest in someone’s home, just as you would politely engage your host and defer to them, so to in a place you’re visiting.
To take an even more significant example, the Sistine Chapel is pretty incomprehensible without advance preparation. The entire room is covered in paintings, and the ceiling is far away and hard to look at for long without straining your neck. It’s also completely mobbed. But knowing the circumstances of the ceiling’s painting, knowing that Michelangelo is the artist responsible for the ceiling and altar wall but not the paintings on the side walls. Knowing that Michelangelo painting in fresco, with little prior experience. Knowing what a fresco is. Knowing that the Last Judgment was painted decades after the ceiling and that the figure of Christ more resembles the god Apollo than the more common Byzantine bearded Christ. Knowing these sorts of things allows one to have a deeper and more meaningful experience in the Sistine Chapel. Just walking through without any knowledge of what you’re seeing will allow you to check the Sistine Chapel off your bucket list, but it won’t really enrich your life.
A second way to be a responsible tourist is to spend more time in each place you visit. It’s very common for tourists to choose breadth over depth. A typical itinerary includes something like two days in Rome, 1 day in florence, one day in Siena, a day in the Cinque Terre and 2 days in Venice. It’s a whirlwind tour that doesn’t give opportunities to really get to know a place. According to official data, in Venice the average tourist spends one day in the city and often doesn’t even spend the night! A one night stand with a place is just as unsatisfying as a one night stand of the more well-known type! This kind of itinerary tends to allow you to see much but experience little. By contrast, spending a week in one place gives the opportunity to do more than simply scratch the surface of a place. It allows an opportunity to slow down and settle into a place. No one is going to be an expert after a week, of course, but it’s long enough to have a proper introduction and to feel like you’ve made the acquaintance of a place, hopefully an acquaintance which will someday be deepened by one or more repeat visits.
This might all sound just a bit snobbish and elitist for some. But really it’s not. Snobbery implies the use of knowledge to separate oneself from others, to put others down for one’s own benefit. Snobbery is an awful weapon to wield. My aim isn’t to be a snob, not to exclude or put down others. Rather, my aim is to encourage and inspire, not to exclude but to include others. Not to put others down but to lift them up by helping them lift their vision to a higher standard.
This is why I offer my culinary tours of Italy. My aim is to offer my clients meaningful and rich experiences of places I know well and love. By sharing my passion for a place and sharing what I have come to know about it, I hope to enrich their lives by showing them the best that a place has to offer. We go to Bologna in order to see parmigiano-reggiano cheese made, so that we understand why this cheese is the most famous in the world, worth every cent of its high price, and why there is no acceptable alternative. We go to Venice to experience fish of the very freshest and highest quality and to experience first-hand just how spell-binding carefully cooking of first-rate ingredients can be. We go to Rome to understand that the ancient world continues to inform our own and that we ignore the lessons of ancient Rome at our peril.
In many ways, traveling with a guide is a great option. Although the sort of preparation I’ve recommended is ideal in any case, traveling with a guide you trust takes a lot of pressure off. They can orient you to the city, to its customs and traditions. They can provide meaningful context for the experiences you’ll enjoy, and help you reflect on their significance.
Travel can be so life-enriching, but it can also be destructive of a place. By making the right choices, you too can be part of the solution and not part of the problem.