On a recent June day, about 24,999 other tourists and I squeezed into the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. Seeing the Vatican and its museums is one of the most visually magnificent experiences on Earth.And it's available to more Earthers now than it was in the days of Louis XIV, or even of King George VI.
Hypertourism has degraded sightseeing’s five-star experiences. As the word suggests, hypertourism refers to the crush of transients into places built for more intimate encounters. Although the long lines and chaos surrounding such venues as the Louvre Museum in Paris and the Duomo in Florence are legendary, hypertourism is growing everywhere there’s a bucket-list site, including in America’s national parks.Sometimes, though, there are excellent alternatives to the traditional must-see places. And somewhere, Thomas Malthus is watching.
The factors fueling the phenomenon are obvious. Not only are more people inhabiting the planet, but many more of them have the wherewithal to travel. Add to that cheaper airfares and easy online booking.And even that doesn't guarantee solitude, now that armchair tourists can fly photo-drones over areas that are hard to walk to, or sneak an all-terrain scooter into the forest.
Hypertourism can endanger the sights themselves. The famous ruins at Peru’s Machu Picchu are under assault by the more than 2,500 visitors a day. The sacred Inca city doesn’t have the facilities to handle all that human waste.
At the Vatican, the crowdsbreathing out carbon dioxide and emitting body heat are so tough that they are threatening the glorious Renaissance frescoes that drew them in the first place. Vatican officials are trying to limit the damage through climate-control systems, but also by reducing the number of people coming through. The latter is a painful step for a holy place reaching out to all humanity.
In this country, anyone who visits Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park on a warm day knows that our national parks are not immune to the discomforts of hypertourism. The national parks have a lot of space, but they also are supposed to provide wilderness experiences. It can be hard to find solitude in a park that last year saw 3.4 million visitors – unless you’re prepared to hike far from the beaten track.
It started years ago, when the state parks began fitting campgrounds with electrical outlets. People would bring their self-propelled campers into the parks, plug in, and -- watch television.
But when the national parks could only be reached by wagon and team from trackside, that was too elitist.
No one visits New York City for a wilderness experience – “wild” is another matter – but even in the land of hustle-bustle, the crowds are getting oppressive. Huge jets from every continent are now disgorging millions of summer tourists. Pedestrians have to walk into Fifth Avenue traffic to get around the throngs taking selfies and preparing Facebook posts in front of Tiffany’s flagship store.It's a different kind of broadly shared prosperity these days.
The gorgeous Grand Central Terminal has rightly become a must-see on the New York tour, but it’s still a train station. Commuters now struggle to get around tourists commandeering staircases for group photos.