Monumental mishaps: how tourists unwittingly threaten treasures

Crowds in Piazza San Marco, Venice (Image credit: Levi van Leeuwen | Unsplash.com)

The evolution of travel has witnessed a notable shift in priorities in recent decades. 

As tourists multiply, not all embark on their journeys with the intention of indulging in local customs and traditions. Italy’s rich cultural heritage is finding itself at risk of unintentional, and at times deliberate, destruction.

Monuments, once revered for their historical significance, have become mere props for hastily snapped selfies. Noteworthy cases include an Austrian tourist using Paolina Bonaparte’s sculpture as a casual perch at the Galleria Borghese and another defacing the Colosseum walls with his and his partner’s initials. As the travel narrative transforms in the age of Instagram, ethical considerations and a focus on responsible tourism warrant reflection.

Boarding a flight, or the jet-fueled shortcut turning travel epics into mere chapters. English signs and Google Maps become your trusty companions, liberating you from the shackles of awkwardly asking for directions in a foreign language. 

Every city’s main street seems to have copy-pasted its boutiques, from major fashion houses to tourist traps — and of course McDonalds. Accommodations cater to every taste, from luxury palaces to budget-friendly havens. It’s a world where even your 3rd-grade cousin can navigate, although she insists that GPS stands for ‘Giant Pizza Slices’. You’re spoiled for choice in the global smörgåsbord of comfort. Google Maps is your compass and the world is your oyster.

 McDonalds in Rome (Image credit: Lawrence Chismorie | Unsplash.com)

Now compare this to popular journeys of the past. Take for example the Grand Tour,  popular in the 18th and 19th century. Spanning 2 to 8 years, it consisted of a privileged odyssey undertaken by young European aristocrats. During this Tour, trips to cities like Florence, Venice, Rome, and Pompeii were meticulously organised, with the purpose of getting an immersive experience.

This was not a trip motivated by leisure, but rather a deliberate rite of passage, predominantly undertaken by young men from the wealthiest backgrounds. It was a scholarly pursuit which would be guided by a cicerone specialised in various arts. The Grand Tour was also a quest for expanding one’s educational literacy and knowledge of politics, economics, and literature of the places seen.

In this era, it was rare to travel solely for pleasure even if one had the means to. It embodied an intellectual pilgrimage that could have links to careers and status, the pursuit of knowledge and cultural enlightenment.

Now, this is not to suggest that we should return to the 18th century when travelling was a privilege reserved for the upper classes. Yet it’s worth noticing the loss of cultural integrity correlating with our current culture of mass travelling. 

The surge of our modern approach to travel has unleashed a tidal wave of tourists. Consider the picturesque Cinque Terre, nestled in Liguria, where the collective population of its five towns amounts to a mere 4,000 residents. A staggering juxtaposition emerges when this figure is weighed against the colossal influx of more than 3 million annual visitors. Similarly, in Venice, the total number of beds available for tourists is about a thousand away from levelling with the number of inhabitants. The total number of tourists in Italy is predicted to amount to 68 million in 2023, an increase of nearly 3 million since pre-pandemic times, in 2019. 

Hordes of tourists visit Venice by cruise ships, obstructing the scenery of the Venice lagoon. Italy was urged to take action against this issue and decided to ban ships that weigh more than 25,000 tonnes in the city centre, effective August 1, 2021. The city has also introduced measures to prevent overcrowding, by targeting day tourists with a fee of €5 per person. In 2021 UNESCO even discussed adding Venice to World Heritage in danger.  It is rather ironic that the historical sites meant to be enjoyed by everyone may end up being inaccessible to anyone.  

Some municipalities in Italy have resorted to fines for selfie-takers who stagnate the pedestrian traffic. You are fined €250 euros if you sit on Rome’s Spanish steps; In Portofino, there are now dedicated selfie-free “red-zones” with fines up to €275 for halting traffic. A beach in Eraclea went as far as banning sandcastles

View of Portofino (Image credit: Fabrizio Conti | Unsplash.com)

Next time you find yourself in the wonderful position of being a tourist, consider turning off your phone for a little while. Allow yourself a moment to soak in the rolling hills, or the shimmering sea, before snapping a picture. The hidden gems often lurk away from the crowds. Even if you accidentally order plain milk instead of the latte you envisioned, you might serendipitously use it as an opportunity to befriend a local cat. As a tourist, your role in safeguarding Italy’s historical sites is pivotal, as your actions contribute to shaping the future of these invaluable landmarks. So, the next time the urge to perch on Paolina Bonaparte hits you, simply resist the temptation. It’s not that complicated, really. 

By Thalia Wright and Thomas Avarino

24 November, 2023

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