Touring the Tourism of Tourists

A woman in high wedges, short skirt and crop top carefully traipses over rocky terrain outside the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens, Greece. The mild 8 a.m. temperatures keep her hair and makeup impeccably in tact despite the vigorous climb. When she reaches the railing overlooking the theatre and raises her selfie-stick high above her head, it’s clear she’s executed a perfect selfie.

After the camera counts down from five and the moment is captured, she delicately climbs over more rocks to make room for the next tourist. A man wearing a GoPro fills her place. He removes the camera from his head and twirls to show off the 360-degree landscape and his squinting grin.

In the course of the next few minutes this new technological photo and twirl routine will be completed dozens of times by tourists from all over the world. Some smile. Others gape their mouths open. And yet others stare purposefully into the lens to accentuate their flawless cool.

Tourists traps like are something I usually avoid when traveling. The inauthenticity, the people, the price-gouging, the hustling and the lame views keep me looking for different ways to explore a country’s culture and history.

Although in traveling around Europe these past two weeks, I’ve come to like, even love, the atmosphere of tourist traps. It wasn’t until I witnessed the scene above that I realized I might like tourist traps, if only because they are a culture of their own. At each new tourist sight I went to, the people became more interesting than the sights.

We’re at this strange new point in travel where the photo of you at the attraction has become more important than the attraction itself. At many of these world famous places I visited, I was struck by how little time people actually spent looking at what stood before them. For the vast majority of people, the process of seeing the attraction, posing, taking a picture and moving on was completed in under ten seconds.

And this puzzled me.

Why are so many people spending the hours and cost of travel only to walk away with a selfie and not an experience?

The influence of social media is completely changing the way we travel. So when I was thinking about how I would tie my photos from all these countries together, I thought about the theme of social media tourism.

Besides just taking photo after photo of people with selfie-sticks, I wanted to show the weird amount of boredom people exhibited on their faces. Or that they just sat on their phones instead of taking in the (literally) breathtaking views of a castle in the Alps or the artwork in a historic building.

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Once I noticed the phenomenon, I made sure to avoid any urge to look at my phone or disconnect from what stood in front of me. I may have come away with fewer photos, but the experience is now what matters to me.

Check out my Instagram feed starting in August for a 30-day tour of my best photos from Europe.

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