“As I see the world, there’s one element that’s even more corrosive than missionaries: tourists. It’s not that I feel above them in any way, but that the very places they patronize are destroyed by their affection.”
― Tahir Shah, House of the Tiger King: The Quest for a Lost City
We were in a grocery store in Rhodes, Greece and struck up a conversation about tourism with the local grocer near our Airbnb. He told us that tourism had picked up considerably since Greece opened their borders to vaccinated tourists. In fact, everywhere we went in Greece, the locals were appreciative for the tourists. As the local grocer said, “ Tourism is our factory. Without tourism we barely survived this ongoing pandemic.”
Indeed, Greece was doing everything right to encourage tourism. We had to show our vaccination cards to enter all enclosed spaces like museums, restaurants, and gift shops. All the residents wore masks and encouraged social distancing and the locals were eager to make our stay fun and enjoyable. Safety was foremost and we were comfortable traveling on all forms of transportation.
Yet, tourism overwhelms popular areas, such as the monasteries of Meteora and devours and destroys the traditions and cultures that made the areas popular in the first place. Soon, all popular attractions are geared to tourism, they all begin to look alike, and the culture is lost forever.
Therein lies the paradox of tourism. Are we loving popular attractions to death? Take for example the monasteries of Meteora. Meteora means “suspended in air” and in the 9th century, hermit monks seeking isolation and solitude scaled the steep vertical walls and lived in caves in the rock formations.
By the 14th century, Meteora had become a popular ascetic community and more hermit monks arrived to avoid the violent Turkish invasions. They constructed a small monastery with a rope ladder that they could pull up when they felt threatened. Soon, more than 20 monasteries were built and the hermit monastic communities flourished due to such factors as isolation, serenity, and safety.
We took a small group van tour to visit the monasteries…which became the highlight of our two month travels through Greece. Our guide told us that today, six of the 24 monasteries are still active. Of these, four are inhabited by men, and two by women, while each monastery has less than 10 inhabitants.
In 2019, over two million tourists visited the monasteries. Most of the monks leave during tourist season for an unidentified retreat in Northern Greece. Can you imagine two million visitors tromping through you house?
I hoped to experience a spiritual renewal during our visit to the monasteries. I was surrounded by breathtaking and stunning vistas. Yet, with the presence of countless tripods, selfie sticks, lens attachments, and postcard/souvenir stands, being here became a disappointing spiritual surrender. I felt like I was forced to see what others saw, a kind of collective perception and that is not what I wanted at all. I began taking pictures of all the tourists taking pictures. I guess you could say it was a religious experience done in the tourism kind of way.
Tourism permits tourists to escape accountability. Together with thousands of other tourists, we are in a kind of suspended state of immunity and have access to freedoms we normally wouldn’t have in our home communities. It is almost like we are given a license to be stupid. We touch everything that is not supposed to be touched. We take photos of things we are not supposed to take. We pocket rocks and pottery shards we are not supposed to steal. We dress inappropriately in places that demand more respect.
For example, the monasteries have strict dress codes. Women are supposed to wear dresses or skirts below their knees. Men are to wear long pants and long sleeved shirts. Before our trip to the Meteora monasteries, we went to a flea market in Thessaloniki to buy a long skirt for me and a jacket for Ron since he only packed short sleeved shirts. People recommended a sarong that I could wear over my leggings, and I brought that along on our tour as well.
I looked over the long lines of tourists waiting to buy tickets to enter the nuns’ monastery. Very few of them had appropriate clothing. I was surprised that people entered wearing shorts with a towel wrapped around their waists. No one said anything. It was apparent that we were given a license to dress inappropriately. It boggles my mind to think of our levels of arrogance and stupidity. We are rewarded and suffer no consequences for our lack of respect in places foreign to us.
Tourism is an enigma. Why do we feel that we have the god-given right to intrude everywhere? Why do we feel the right to impose our culture, our language, our thoughts and beliefs on people who have graciously given us an opportunity to take a short peek at their cultures and traditions? And then…why do they accept our misgivings, our errors and misguided ways? Is it economic? Does money talk? Is tourism really a deadly sin?
Tourism has its pros and cons. I hate to sound like a Debbie downer because I, too have been a part of the ‘army of foolish tourons’. I have taken advantage of my ignorance as a tourist and I have been taken advantage of by foreign scammers because of my ignorance.
I have no answers for the tourism paradox. My only advice comes from making stupid mistakes and learning from those mistakes
Should tourism be restricted to a certain number each day? What happens to an area when there is no tourism? Should popular tourist areas invest in other , more sustainable businesses and restrict tourism? What kind of education, if any, should we teach to be better tourists and leave no traces behind? I welcome your thoughts.