The Paradox of Tourism


“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.

24 thoughts on “The Paradox of Tourism

  1. This is such an excellent post! Over the years as a member of Impact Travel Alliance I’ve followed the long growing conversation on how we can and should promote more sustainable tourism and not destroy the very places we are trying to see. Venice is almost ruined and I had the same experience in Petra. Hordes and Hordes of tourists. It is so hard to find places untouched now. But good news is we do have the opportunity to reinvent “good” travel and do it right. We will see what happens. BTW, gorgeous photos and I would love to see this part of Greece but not with hordes of people. Sad how the monks have to leave their home.

    • Thanks, Nicole. We do have an opportunity to reinvent good travel and do it right. I think I should join Impact Travel Alliance because I would like to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. Thank you for your insightful comments. Hugs.

  2. Your photos are stunning, and to see that in real life – surely breathtaking. Those poor monks – it must be difficult – or perhaps not – for them to embrace the curiosity of so many.

    If I’m in a room of 20 or more people, I get a ‘flight or flight’ feeling.. no fighting – just ‘get me out of here’ feeling.. for that reason i tend to avoid trendy places, but often wish to be able to visit when they are closed for the day – or season.
    It’s nice to peer over your shoulder – the intrepid friend who keeps the camera ready for amazing images, then pairs them with your unique voice.

    love, lisa

  3. Here are a few more controversial thoughts:

    Is culture worth saving just because it is culture? Keeping slaves used to be culture int he US – just as a strong hint…

    Is the dress really important? A “respectfully” dressed tourist chatting loudly in a place where people come to meditate seems to more disruptive than a woman in a thong-bikini being quiet and gentle to the surrounding. No?
    (My concern: by focusing on rather unimportant symptoms, we miss the chance to ponder the real problem.)

    Do we escape accountability only as tourists, or do we do that at home as well?

    Do we not just have the right, but really the duty to share of our culture with other cultures? Isn’t the real problem our inability to learn from other cultures, and impose our ways? Doesn’t that also apply to our home country, even our own home and relationship?

    You always touch upon topics that make me ponder them for days, if not weeks!!! Thank you so much!!! 🙂

    • Wow! Thomas, I don’t know where to begin. So many questions…so few answers. But, that is exactly what I like about having a blog. People surprise me with insightful comments, questions, and answers all the time and they always make me think and delve deeper into a subject. You have given me much fodder for more posts on the theme of culture. 😜Thanks for that!

  4. As always: wonderful pictures, and thought provoking thoughts!

    It appears to me, we travel as we live our lives: we see ourselves as the center of the universe (individually and as species) with everything (and everyone) else being just unimportant and disposable stage props for the movie where we are the only star!

    Our animal selves seems to be shining through as well. Instinct tells us: take what you can get, in order to survive in a system of scarcity. Although, we (who travel and read this) do not live in scarcity anymore, many people still act like that: more, more, more! Take, take, take!

    I try – in travel as in live (of which travel is just a part of) – to be more concerned about what I could contribute rather than what I could get out of.

    To me, it’s not so important what happens TO me. What matters is what happens THROUGH me.

    I don’t care much anymore about top sightseeing places. Instead, I savor the beauty and magic of nature (of which regular people are part of as well) wherever I can find it, “regular life” instead of tourist (or expat) bubble.

    It seems to me, that no matter where I go, there are always people who need exactly what I am able (designed and shaped) to contribute – sometimes (many times, actually) it appears, as if many coincidences brought me to where I am for a reason. Life is magical, since I look at it like this! I am (we all are) animals with the potential to be the angel of god (to use christian lingo)…

    Although I have a negative impact as traveler, I also can have a positive, a needed one. Just like: although I have a negative impact on this planet just by being alive, I can have a positive one. So I try to minimize my negative one, and try to maximize my positive one. That, to me, should be sufficient! Because, if my positive impact couldn’t outweigh my negative one, I am sure I wouldn’t be around (same goes for the species “human” as a whole as well). And I am sure, if we were not supposed to be travelling – with all the potential for negative impact – we wouldn’t be able to do it…

    • When you said you savor the beauty and magic of nature, that resonated with me. We are happiest in nature when we travel for the same reasons as you. We love talking with the local people and we have had some interesting conversations with people right in the middle of lonely trails. In Yosemite National Park on a seldom used trail, I met a woman who liked the sweatshirt I had on (my Women’s March sweatshirt from our 2016 horrid election). Her son had just run for a CA Congress seat, and won! We talked about how we needed to become involved in local politics that affected us directly. In Bosnia, we met some interesting people in an alley when I asked my husband if those holes in a metal fence were bullet holes, and a local historian who overheard my question, answered me with the local history and the division that existed because of religion.
      We DO meet people serendipitously, and not by chance. People always appear in my life when I don’t even know I need them. It is such a delight.
      I don’t think I travel just to travel. My curiosity always leads me in cultural directions and I want to learn more, to blend in, to be a part of their world…even if it is only for minutes. And I think it is getting harder and harder to do so…to travel with my unique perceptions and not a collective mentality, like one of a tourist. That is one of the reasons I dislike tours…of course they are much easier because the older we get the more difficult planning and traveling becomes. But, I don’t like the thought of becoming “one of those groups”.
      There is so much you have written and I could spend days responding and thinking deeply about your thoughts. I really enjoy your comments, and as always I thank you for your perception and delving way below the surface to answer questions we all have in common.

  5. I’m going to assumed they built stairs to get up the rock ? I am curious how you got up .
    I saw that pully contraption in a photo and you said no .
    I enjoyed my trip through Greece ! Thanks

    • Sharman, some of the monasteries have bridges and some have stairs. We wondered how they were built so long ago with no roads to carry supplies to the top of the cliffs. It must have been incredible to watch the monasteries being built.

  6. Beautiful shots and thoughts I’ve had before as well. Tourist spots are tourist spots because they’re special and I understand that people want to see them. How do we balance the desire to see places with the overabundance of people that detracts from that experience? Why won’t people respect both the traditions of a place and the land itself? But as for that, why do people attack flight attendants over wearing masks on planes when they know that’s a requirement? Sometimes I almost despair. Although there are many iconic places I’d like to see, I often prefer small, lesser known but often just as wonderful places without people.

    janet

    • Janet, I understand completely. I don’t know if a good balance is possible. We need to reduce the influx of people on fragile areas, but how? Yosemite National Park required a reservation system during Covid, and it greatly reduced the number of people, but it was just a temporary solution for the pandemic. I, too prefer small, lesser known places, but there are still so many popular places in the world that I have not seen. Such a dilemma. Thanks for your thoughts.

  7. We can delude ourselves to be ‘travellers’ not just fly by night tourists and I, like you and Ron, abhor hordes and lineups, mass tourism and herd behaviour. It seems that in a world of 7 billion people we cannot escape other’s with the same ideas, the same curiosity and ability to move around. As long as we respect our host’s rules and culture and only take away what we can see, hear and pay for, then we can be grateful visitors and responsible tourists. As you point out, many of these places depend on people like us, for better or worse.

    • You are right, Brunhub. Respect plays a huge part along the tourism trail. But, it appears to me that no matter how many rules are made for tourists, they are also broken without any consequences. Greece issued a fine of over 300 euros for people who would not comply with wearing their masks, but it was never enforced and we saw many noses hanging out of masks to our dismay. The week that we were at the Acropolis, I read that a couple from the USA took 65 pottery shards from the Acropolis. They were discovered in their luggage at the airport in Athens, bagged and labeled. The man was a professor and wanted to use the pieces for inspection in his classrooms. Sigh! We really have lost our minds as tourists and should be ashamed. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

  8. Loved your thoughtful post. I, too, struggle to balance my longing to “see things” with what local inhabitants must feel being invaded by sightseers. We’re getting ready for an extended trip, for which I’ve packed long sleeves,long skirts, and head scarves – much to the shock of some acquaintances who believe tourists have the “right” to access sites dressed however they wish. It makes me shake my head at Western arrogance and privilege – which (I hope!) travel is leaching out of us.

    • Rose, I agree. Balance is hard to find. I hoped that travel leached out arrogance and privilege, but to my dismay it surrounded me. I want to be culturally immersed, to experience life as a local, but in today’s world it is getting harder to do. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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