Everyone is talking about "overtourism" these days. I was recently part of the problem.
TreeHugger Katherine usually covers the travel beat, writing posts like 6 travel tips so locals will hate you less. That post resonated with me, having just returned from a tour of modern architecture by Le Corbusier and others, organized by Docomomo US, "a non-profit organization dedicated to the documentation and conservation of buildings, sites and neighborhoods of the modern movement," that took me from Paris to Menton on the Cote D'Azur. There were times when I am pretty sure the locals hated me.
While on the bus I read the latest of many articles on the plague of too many tourists, where Annie Lowrey writes in The Atlantic:
This phenomenon is known as overtourism, and like breakfast margaritas on an all-inclusive cruise, it is suddenly everywhere. A confluence of macroeconomic factors and changing business trends have led more tourists crowding to popular destinations. That has led to environmental degradation, dangerous conditions, and the immiseration and pricing-out of locals in many places. And it has cities around the world asking one question: Is there anything to be done about being too popular?
Katherine also writes about overtourism, even using a similar photo of the Mona Lisa: "Residents of Venice, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Dubrovnik, and Florence have spoken out against the hordes of tourists clogging their streets, behaving offensively, and driving up rent and food costs." In various posts she has written, Katherine has all kinds of suggestions for being a better traveller; I wish I had read them more carefully before I travelled, and react to some of them here.
Choose accommodations carefully.
Katherine says "steer clear of resorts and big chain hotels" and we would have done better to steer clear of a Marriott in Paris. Lowrey notes that "the middle class is global now, and tens of millions of people have acquired the means to travel over the past few decades. China is responsible for much of this growth, with the number of overseas trips made by its citizens rising from 10.5 million in 2000 to an estimated 156 million last year." And indeed, it was difficult to walk out of our hotel in Paris because it was where a big group of Chinese tourists would meet their six buses, and they seemed to spend more time waiting for buses than they did touring.
Things changed when we got out of Paris. When we stayed in places like the Le Corbusier Hotel in the Unite d'habitation, it became a very different trip.
Lesson: Keep away from the really touristy areas. There are lots more interesting places to stay.
Eat somewhere dubious.
In her post on sharpening your noticing skills while travelling, Katherine advises that you should eat somewhere dubious, but every meal I had in Paris was dubious. I think this restaurant in Montmartre was the worst. Since we were a group of 27, we were part of the problem, and in those four days in Paris I ate some of the worst meals I have ever had in restaurants, since the kinds of places that would handle such large groups really didn't care.
It wasn't until I crossed the Seine to the Left Bank and looked for the part of town where I stayed on a trip ten years ago that I finally got away from the crowds and the high prices and actually felt that I was in the real Paris. Once we got out of Paris, we never had a bad meal and some of them were absolutely wonderful.
Lesson: Get away from the tourist traps and look for the locals. And get outta town.
Go the hard way.
Katherine suggests walking or public transit; with 27 people that can be hard to manage. However, a big tour bus is totally inappropriate in cities and in a country like France, not very sensible between them. You can take the TGV high speed train from Paris to Lyon in an hour and 52 minutes. It took us an entire day, including a three-hour stop in the middle of nowhere when the bus broke down.
In the south of France, from Marseille to Roquebrune-Cap-Martin near the Italian border, it got totally ridiculous. The narrow roads and hairpin turns were impossible to manage, we totally disrupted local traffic, we missed a meal and Le Corbusier's grave because the bus was too big. It was the single biggest issue on the trip.
At Tim Benton's insistence, we took the train to Eileen Gray's house, because that's the way people got there when it was built and it was truly part of the experience. Using the Billetterie Automatique was a whole experience in itself. We should have done more of this.
Lesson: Be more adventurous in your transportation. Take the subway in town, the train, or if you need a bus, right-size it.
Do the research.
Katherine suggests that you put in the extra effort to plan your trip carefully. I let others do the research for me – Liz Waytkus of Docomomo US and Tim Benton, Professor of Art History at the Open University in the UK and author of many books on Le Corbusier. They did a wonderful job that made it all worthwhile.
Lesson: If you are going to take a tour, check out the guides. Look carefully at the itinerary. In this respect, we were never let down.
This is what I came for, to see buildings that I could not otherwise get into and to learn about them from experts like Tim. I may have complaints about the food or the bus, but never had a second's complaint about what buildings I saw or what I learned from Tim and other guides.
Travel has changed so much since the days of TWA Constellations; so many more people are doing it and you can't please everyone in a group situation. I had never taken a trip quite like this, and almost all of my complaints are about transportation, from the immense cattle car of an Airbus 380 that flew us there to the damn oversized bus. But I learned so much, both from Tim and from the other travellers, spending ten days in close quarters with people I had never met. I write about that part of the experience on MNN.