Tuesday 6 October 2020

Between the Lines: The Pros and Cons of Cultural Tourism

In my teens I used to love to wander around the British Museum. You could while away pleasant hours there, drifting from one exhibit to the next. Then I moved to Australia, and it was several years before I returned to my past haunt. When I did, I received a nasty shock.

Nowadays the place is packed. Between tourists and school groups, you can barely move from room to room, and you can forget about contemplating anything. You’re lucky to so much as glimpse the items on display as you try to manoeuvre through the masses. The museum was always popular, especially being free to enter, but numbers seem to have increased dramatically in recent years.

The same is true wherever you go. Choose any key sight in any major city and you can expect long queues and huge crowds. Some, it’s true, are free, but most charge for entry, so you are paying to be thrust onto a veritable conveyor belt, lucky to see the main attractions as the flow of people rushes you along.

I’ve always been what you might call a ‘cultural tourist’. When I go to a new place, I head straight for the museums, galleries and castles. However, as overseas travel becomes ever more popular, and visitor numbers increase, I start to feel that, in heading to these sights, I am getting caught in a tourist trap. I have a genuine interest in the history and culture of a place, but I get the impression that many visitors are only there to tick an item off their holiday to-do list. For me, visiting a palace or gallery is no longer a pleasant, relaxing experience but an exercise in endurance. Tortured by pushing and shoving, you start to wonder if it’s really worth it.

These days, I guess I take a middle ground. I still want to see the cultural sights, but I try to arrive early, to beat the crowds. Or else I’ll research my destination and visit some of the lesser-known spots—the ones the tour busses haven’t found yet. For example, in Paris, I head to the Musée Carnavalet, rather than the Louvre.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you still enjoy cultural tourism, or have such places become tourist traps and lost their shine and appeal?

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