When did tourism become such a bad word, especially among – you know – tourists? I always find it a little strange to hear tourists complain that a place is too touristy. It sounds a bit like golfers complaining that the fairway is unnatural.
Of course it’s touristy, you’re here to tour the place aren’t you?
It’s also hard to miss the underlying snobbery that implies “things were so much better before all of THESE people arrived.” The delicious irony is that those people are thinking the same thing about us. While we may see ourselves as sophisticated travelers, to everyone else we’re just another lowly tourist taking up space.
That’s not to say there aren’t legitimate complaints. Mass tourism does have the capacity to homogenize a place. And none of us enjoy fighting our way through crowds. Certainly we’d all prefer to have the world’s most amazing destinations to ourselves. But that begs a somewhat philosophical question: if nobody visited these popular places, would they still exist?
Sometimes the answer is no.
Fifty-two towers and a double ring of ramparts protected the hilltop stronghold of Carcassonne in southwestern France for more than four centuries. And yet for all its defenses the castle nearly succumbed to a completely unarmed enemy: simple indifference.
After serving as a frontier stronghold since Roman times, land boundaries eventually shifted and, by the mid-1600s, Carcassonne no longer held any military significance. It fell into a state of disrepair, ravaged by time and by builders pillaging stones for construction in the lower town that grew up around it. In 1849, the French government declared that Carcassonne was set to be demolished. An outcry ensued, and a campaign was launched to save and restore the fortified city.
Several movies, a popular novel, a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation, and even a board game later, Carcassonne is thriving once again. But not everyone is pleased. The imposing fortress is “a little too Disney” for one reviewer on a travel website. Others raised their noses to sniff that “it’s too touristy.” Even guidebooks get in on the disparagement with Lonely Planet saying:
Sadly, the inside of La Cité, as the old walled town is now known, doesn’t quite live up to the fairy-tale façade. With over four million visitors every year, it feels depressingly devoid of any magic and mystery in summer, and the plethora of tacky souvenir shops and cheap cafes does little to contribute to the mystical atmosphere.“
There’s a certain narcissism in this point of view. It’s as if the writer expects that places like Carcassonne should exist solely for him to explore.
The contribution tourists make in keeping these places open and affordable is never really considered. It’s doubtful any of us would have the opportunity to see Carcassonne, let alone on Lonely Planet’s “shoestring” budget, if not for the hordes of tourists who contribute to its upkeep.
And if you want magic and mystery you don’t have to look any further than the sheer existence of a medieval fortress in the 21st century. To see Carcassonne and not be awed by the ingenuity that built it or the centuries of unrelenting hostilities that made it necessary is to miss the entire point; not just of Carcassonne, but of travel itself. If all you can see are tacky tourist shops and cheap cafes then perhaps you’re a little too jaded.
So don’t listen to the naysayers. As you cross the drawbridge and enter Carcassonne, forget about the present-day tourists clogging the streets. Imagine instead the clatter of horses’ hooves on cobblestone and the clang of a blacksmith’s hammer striking steel. Hear trumpets calling men to defend the walls and feel centuries of history wash over you.
But most of all, remember, we’re lucky Carcassonne is still here for us to gripe about.