It's easy to overthink travel, especially if you're a philosopher on summer break. But ultimately tourism is like traffic: if you do it, you're just part of the problem.
I confess to being an unapologetic left brain thinker who generally eschews philosophical meanderings from superior minds. Having said that, the criticism levelled at modern travel and modern travellers smacks of elitism in the extreme. So the crowd of the great unwashed spoiled your trip to Banff . Too bloody bad! That says more about you than it does about them. Leaving aside the obnoxious habit of taking selfies to post later on Facebook so your friends know how sophisticated you are (not), what is wrong with folks taking themselves out of their comfort zone for a week or two in order to see something of the real world that exists outside. That they choose to do it with hordes of others seeking the same thing may have more to do with affordability than banal motives.
For myself, one of the joys of travel has been meeting others with like minded interests. Such meetings have resulted in long term friendships and even plans to travel together in the future. You don’t get that sitting at home watching TV or surfing the net.
In addition, being in a crowd does not mean that you can not also be alone with your own thoughts and reactions to places you have never been before. Or sights you have never seen. The Louvre or the Giza plateau swarm with tourists, but did not diminish my enjoyment of the Mona Lisa or the Great Pyramids. And I didn’t take a single selfie!
Have you ever travelled in September, after Labour Day? Warm days, cool evenings and the crowds are basically gone.
The fundamental flaw in this article is the assumption that the nature of travel experiences is binary - either you have a great fulfilling time, or you have a miserable time. (Mr. Potter defines these two states more elegantly, but you get the idea).
On the contrary, travel experiences fall on a spectrum - always and irrespective of cost or expectations. I am an immigrant and took my visiting parents to visit Banff last summer. It was peak season and crowded to the brim and cost me a small fortune overall just to visit all the main sites. But it now stands as a major highlight and reference point in my entire relationship with my parents through almost 4 decades.
Any attempt by any philosopher, however "EMINENT" (© David Johnston), to somehow convince me that I was being miserable through these experiences is going to be mocked and ridiculed endlessly by me.
Your experience in Banff NP illustrates the correct approach - don't do the mainstream tourist thing and follow the herd to the overrun places. Rather, talk to locals (and don't be a dick) AFTER spending some $ in their independent motel/B&B, restaurant, and/or store, and they will often tell you overlooked and underappreciated places to go see. Get off the main highways and (respectfully) drive some back roads. Go in the shoulder seasons. I've been to Yellowstone three times - all in September - after the kids have gone back to school. The park was nearly devoid of people. Sure, the visitor centers were on shoulder season hours, but does one really go there for the visitor centres? Travel does expand one's perspective, and can bring one some peace and shared memories with family, friends, and partners. I know people who never travel, and every single one tends to be much more ignorant and hyper-local in their perspectives on the world. This is a particular problem in Canada, where air travel to the different provinces is cost-prohibitive, so unless folks are up for hours and hours and hours of driving, they remain ignorant about the day to day lives of their fellow Canadians in the different regions. The Americans have less of a problem with this isolation-induced ignorance because of their excellent interstate highway system and more affordable airfare, but the problem exists there as well (which is where we get the ignorant 'fly-over country' slur from). Put me down for exploratory travel at every available opportunity - just remember to pack your humility and respect for the locals who have to look after their home (the region they live and work in) on a day-to-day basis. You'll have much better travel experiences if you do.
Bring on the 15 minute cities and, hey, problem solved.
On another note, if you liked this article I would recommend: A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace. You will never look at a cruise the same way again.
It's a bit of an aesthetic judgement, but the criteria I use to judge tourists are where are they going, why are they going there, and how they do it.
A lot of places are crowded because they're worth seeing: Florence is amazing, seeing Michelangelo's David in person at the Accademia is worth it. I'm a little less charitably inclined to people who're flocking to Orlando theme parks every vacation, and even less so to the mouth-breathing weirdos who'd make West Edmonton Mall a vacation destination. (One of my student jobs was as a submarine captain at that mall's submarine ride. I question people who travel long distances and then pay $12 in early 1990s currency to look at aquarium fish in a glorified swimming pool in a shopping mall.)
Why are people heading to these crowded places? If they heard it's a must-see but otherwise don't know much about it, well - that's how you learn. What I don't like much are the people who're basically collecting a trophy to show on their social media feed or check off some prestige checklist. They're usually the ones with the selfie sticks. At a museum like The Louvre, you'll see them swarm around the Mona Lisa, get their picture, then scuffle off to the Venus de Milo and a handful of other notable exhibits and leave. It's pretty crazy - even the ceilings of that museum are decorated with artwork beyond most of what you'd see in a typical Canadian city.
Finally, how are people conducting themselves as tourists? The biggest problem with tourists is they tend to turn their brains off when they're on vacation and do amazingly stupid things. They can also behave embarrassingly, particularly if they're loudly identifying as your nationality. Let's face it: it's not easy to *not* look like a tourist, but maybe it's not necessary to go the whole Tilley hat/cargo shorts/fanny pack/big backpack route. Also, maybe try to seek out some restaurants that aren't tourist traps, and be a bit adventurous about non-North American foods. And finally, *try* making some use of the local language as a show of respect.
Mr. Potter writes a rather sardonic essay, which is in part, or mostly, true. My experience with travel is that, working for over 50 years before getting the time to travel, I loved every moment of it. I didn't do exotic things, I just went to places, saw things I read about and enjoyed the cultures of other countries and their people. I highly recommend it to newly retirees.
I absolutely hate the tourist traps. But there are a million places off the usual spots that are free of the thundering herds. A lot of them are just a little ways from the popular spots.
Looking forward to a return visit to London, UK. The greatest city in the world.
It’s a catch 22. There are some economies that totally depend on travel now.
You're reminding me of my travels in China and how every single cool place I went to was overloaded with tourists from within China. It often killed the vibe; it's hard to relax and take in the beautiful scenic surroundings when there are thousands of people around you. I was lucky in a way though because I'm Caucasian and a rare sight, so people always gave me space to take pictures unobstructed, which is a luxury not extended to fellow Chinese citizens.
I haven’t been on any exotic vacations, but can say that we do take some trips to the Rockies but we go to the back country and really do it just to push ourselves physically and get into nature and reconnect with nature and a more natural way of living. Sounds to me like the author of that essay hasn’t take a trip that creates awe or wonder or makes one think about personal growth and potential. There’s nothing quite like setting out with a pack and heading into a space where you know nobody is coming to save you, and just living in the moment. I share this with my kids and I hope yo have many more years of being able to do this.
As someone who has the great fortune of being in the particular national park that the author has described almost weekly in some manner, it is both crawling with individuals seeking the image to remember their moment and absolutely no one but the questionable ex-hippie boomer. This is true of most amazing places. The ‘locals’ make a dollar by providing services most people will actually pay for, not what they think they want and hence why reality TV is so popular. If you go to Johnsons Canyon, yeah, it’s filled with people who like reality shows, so stop complaining about it and go with the flow. Otherwise, like others have said, take a moment and do some research. Elitist snobbery is exactly that, and I regret that I spend both the time ti read this particular article but also the fact that it irritated me sufficiently to write a response.
If Andrew Potter spent 5 minutes investigating things to do that weren’t featured in glossy brochures, he would have had a swell time. As a semi local I can think of many non-crowded things to do and see. As for the town of Banff, well, it’s as busy as a mall Christmas eve, but the setting is astounding. There’s a ginormous parking lot just outside the townsite, a 7 minute walk. Hopefully that wasn’t a deterrent.
Good article, Andrew. I share many of your observations.
There are too many people on the planet. It is a problem in so many ways I could take pages to detail it. Not sure when this will change but it will one way or another. We were 2 B souls on the planet in 1920. Now we are 8 B and the problems just keep getting worse. We are destroying the only home we have with over population.