On our free day in Florence, a group of us decided to make the journey to San Gimignano in the hills of Tuscany to experience a little more rustic side of Italy. We looked out over a panoramic vista of the vineyards and valleys. We dined in the center plaza of the quaint medieval village. We ate the winning gelato from the World Championship of Gelato. It was a fantastic day in a relaxing, authentic town.
My sister happened to be arriving in Florence that day as she is preparing to begin her summer-long study abroad program in Cortona, so I left the group a little earlier to meet with her while I had time.
To start that trek back to Firenze, I needed to catch a ride on a charter bus to the train station. My problem: I had no clue where to go to find said bus. One thing I had discovered was the bus schedule, and I knew that a bus was leaving it’s stop in about 3 minutes. To add to the chaos of the moment, the next bus wasn’t coming for another two hours…. I had to find that bus.
Now, San Gimignano is pretty small. In other words, the odds are quite lower to run into a local who speaks fluent English. Fortunately, through broken words and a couple charades, a local managed to grapple out an explanation of where I should go. I made the bus, and I would make my goal 3:46pm train!
I had about 40 minutes of waiting to do on the platform, so I took a seat on one of the few benches lining the wall. It was a pretty quiet scene. Although there were probably near 30 people spread across the platform, not too much was going on. Not much movement as people stood or sat, waiting for the train. Not much conversation as most were either alone like myself or quiet. That all changed around 3:30 though….
At that time, four American female students sauntered onto the train platform. Each held a beer, and frankly, they were quite intoxicated. They strolled around, obnoxiously yelling, “Is this the train to Florence? Does anybody in the place speak English?” I was immediately secondhand embarrassed. I was being quiet like the others on the platform before, and I would say I did a pretty decent job at keeping the tourist vibe as low as possible. However, I was wearing a TCU dry-fit shirt and running shorts. There was no hiding. I was still evidently American.
These Americans walked into the station and probably verified any stereotypes that the natives on the platform may have held concerning us Americans. That whole scene irked me in itself, but my grievances didn’t end there. Even more so, I was saddened by the fact that the tranquil, casual environment of the platform had been invaded by the overwhelming spirit of tourism.
My own views of Americans and tourists in general changed in that moment. Maybe it was my capitalist American bias kicking in, but I had always believed that tourism was a fuel that fired the economies of these countries. In reality, this hypothesis might actually be true. However, tourism is not quite the stimulant that I had previously believed it to be.
We Americans and other tourists from around the world are parasites–parasites to the cultures of these countries, parasites to the histories of these countries, parasites to the people of these countries.
Bold claim. I know. Let me explain. Take St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, for instance. Without tourism, they are holy sites, some of the most holy sites in the world for Catholicism. They are places for worship, for prayer, for glorification. With the introduction of tourism, these colossal phenomena of religion have become “pretty buildings” to so many individuals. Their halls have become filled with those attending to see the marble work, the paintings, the history. I’m not claiming that everyone visits these sites for these reasons, for there are still many who visit in the spirit of a pilgrimage or even just in the spirit of worship through admiration. However, it just isn’t the same as how it was intended to be when it was built.
Take the street life of Rome. With it being a large city, I’m sure that Rome would have had its problems with crime just as any other in the world would even despite tourism. But having so many visitors has attracted pickpockets galore. The hordes of tour groups swarming the Coliseum and other major landmarks make for too easy of targets. Even further, I might add that although tourism has stimulated Rome economically without a doubt, it might have impacted the city detrimentally in that light as well. Rome has developed a reputation for terrible amounts of pickpockets and also throngs of individuals approaching tourists to scam them with roses and other minor commodities. I’m not sure how profitable those endeavors are, so I cannot attest to how beneficial they are to the Roman market. However, I think these tactics have caused Rome and its visitors some irritation. I can never deny Rome of its beauty and luster, but I would argue that its shine might be a little brighter had I not experienced cheap selfie sticks being thrust into my path fourteen times within ten minutes of my attempt to appreciate a fountain in Piazza Navona. To reiterate, I wouldn’t blame Rome at all for these events; I find that the root of these issues lies in ourselves. The outsiders. The outsiders pressing in, maybe too much.
To wrap this up, remember this: I absolutely love traveling. I can’t travel without being an outsider. It is, by definition, impossible in most cases. I do think, however, that we can prevent some of our parasitism. Maybe we can be a little more vigilant with how much we infringe on other cultures. Maybe be can contain our rambunctious American personalities to a degree. Maybe we can be intentional visitors rather than gawking tourists. And then, maybe, just maybe, we can prevent the leeching parasite of modern tourism.