Traveling should be exciting, inspiring and provide lifelong memories. Every single holiday day should offer experiences beyond the ordinary. The sun will shine, you will swim in pristine waterfalls, enjoy magnificent views, experience the beat of history and drink white wine from glasses with condensation on rooftop bars. Memories for life. But what if it doesn't turn out as you imagined? If your long-awaited destination turns into a disgusting soup of over-tourism and all you want to do is leave? I got that feeling last summer. It wasn't the first time I felt this way and unfortunately probably not the last. But it was there. The disappointment of over-tourism. The one that very few people talk about.
The first time I was in Pisa, I was studying at university and traveling on an extremely limited budget. Nevertheless, the small pennies were enough for a hotel right on the Arno River. If we opened the window we looked out over the river and its bridges and all the Italian smells of motorcycle oil and truffle paste wafted in through the window. The hotel was an old palace and the room was crowned by 3 meter ceiling height, ceiling beams, ceiling paintings and stucco. Of course there were tourists in Pisa even 20 years ago, but the amount of tourists was more pleasant than annoying. The whole of Pisa was a pleasant experience, an Italy that I had never experienced before. Genuine and exciting.
Last spring when we went on our big Italy tour, Pisa came up on my radar again. As the rest of the family had not been to Pisa before, it felt like time to go back. The whole family would experience the charm and beauty of Pisa. A memory for us all to share. And of course it became a memory. But not a positive one.
We took the rental car to Pisa. I had read about all the car parks in Pisa and chose the one with the most spaces – Parcheggio Via Pietrasantina. It was not high season and we had a small car. This couldn't be that hard, could it? The moment we pulled into the parking lot and saw all the buses by the hundreds and cars by the thousands, we should have turned around. It was barely possible to drive in. Asian tourists strode across the road with their guides at the front, waving stuffed animals on sticks. School classes with identical shirts walked next to each other just behind. It was chaos.
Thanks to our small car, we finally found a parking space next to a rubbish bin. A gap like that which is a little smaller than all the others, but which works if you are a little creative. We jumped out of the car, It was not difficult to know which way the leaning tower was. It was just to follow the flow of people.
250 meters before the cathedral we passed a narrow street right by the wall of the Piazza del Duomo. Here it stopped. To enter the Piazza del Duomo, the hordes of tourists had to pass through a tunnel of vendors. Plastic leaning towers, branded replicas of famous bags, Pisa-print caps, decorative plates and Pinocchio dolls. Every single seller was selling the exact same things. For real – EXACT same rubbish. But still the tourists stayed. At every other stand. This is where I start to panic. All these people, the pushy vendors, the crowd and the trash. This was not how I remembered my Pisa.
I entered the Piazza del Duomo and was greeted by several policemen in bulletproof vests and automatic weapons ready on their stomachs. They looked grim and I understood them. The number of tourists trying to straighten the tower for a selfie was overwhelming, climbing on rocks and balancing on the safety chains. There were clear signs that you were not allowed to walk on the grass, but it was rather interpreted as that it was OK to run out and take a selfie - as long as you did it quickly. We tourists seemed to have left all common sense at home. The whole situation was disgusting. We tourists behaved disgustingly. This is exactly how we tourists destroy the world. I felt bad, pissed off and just wanted to get out of here. It didn't matter that the story behind the Leaning Tower of Pisa is both interesting and exciting. They felt like our family was the only one in the whole world who was interested in history.
Sustainable tourism is when we experience the world without jeopardizing future generations' opportunities to experience the same thing. My daughter didn't get to experience the amazing Pisa that I got to experience 20 years ago. It both hurt and pissed me off. Barcelona has reached its limit. Dubrovnik has reached its limit. Venice has reached its limit. Pisa has apparently also reached its peak. The limit when the tourists take more than they give. And all the cities are asking themselves the same thing – is there anything we can do to become less popular, so we can survive?
How can I contribute to sustainable tourism?
We all want the next generation to experience the wonders of the world just like we did, but in order not to love our beautiful world to death, we tourists need to toughen up. For real! Here are my reflections, which most of us – fortunately – will find completely self-evident.
- Take your common sense with you when you travel! Just because other tourists misbehave, doesn't mean you should/should/may!
- Show that you care about the place you visit - read up and be interested! A historical place is so much more than the backdrop for a selfie.
- Support local merchants and don't buy copies and junk from illegal street vendors! Buy local crafts that are made with quality and love instead – even if it costs a little more.
- Show respect for the country's culture. Just because other tourists dress in shorts, it may not be culturally accepted.
- Take care of nature and avoid animal tourism. Many animals are tortured so that we tourists can ride them or take selfies with them. Let wild animals stay wild.
- Leave nothing but footprints. Carving your name into trees and historic buildings is never OK.
How do you think about overtourism and travel disappointments? Have you ever experienced it? What can we do about it?
FOOTNOTE: I might write a post about Pisa's amazing history and beautiful buildings soon, because they deserve their own post. Without tourists trying to straighten the tower.
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