Tourists come to Portofino because it is Portofino, a spot that has become synonymous with La Dolce Vita and flashy Mediterranean glamour. Boarding a bus in Santa Margherita Ligure to ascend the hairpin mountain highway foreshadowed the visit that was to come; tourists and grumpy locals packed in like sardines, dripping sweat in a heatwave, all jostling for their place in the sun.
Portofino commands the same hype as Amsterdam or Phi Phi Island, Santorini, Bali or Mont Saint-Michel; so-called must see destinations that the cosmopolitan traveller must tick-off their bucket list. I am always a little weary of hype. A location that has become a highly instagrammable place stirs innate aversion in me. I have learned in the course of my life never to trust five-star ratings nor sensational numero uno’s.
For a place to be hyping implies that the indigenous culture of the destination has already been quantified, redefined to serve the purposes of the travel blogger or lifestyle magazine, who is usually seeking to discover the latest hot spot. What may have been original, authentic, untouched or magnificent about a particular place very quickly loses these attractive qualities. Picturesque destinations become sites ruined by tourists, a direct consequence of mass tourism based on the thrill of the hype economy. But why are we all travelling en masse?
The phenomenon is the way in which we use travelling to earn social status and respect from peers and strangers.
I was in Monte Carlo with my partner last week in front of the casino there, dressed very unglamorously in my trekking shoes and shorts. We couldn’t help but feel disarmed at the throngs of tourists, dressed to impress toting Louis Vuitton bags and Gucci sandals; girls throwing their coiffed hair to the phone cameras of their very agitated-looking boyfriends, who couldn’t get that insta shot just right. In the background, the mega yachts of the global elite bring the posting tourist a little closer to being perceived as moving in the same social strata as the untouchables.
Monte Carlo could be swapped here for the forts of Malta, the canals of Venice or anywhere else that imply people have enough disposable income to just fool around and have a ball. Monaco in particular disturbingly mixes extreme wealth with the servitude of those scuttling around in the shadows, polishing the decks and cleaning the latrines. Despite all the tourists pretending to be rich, the place made me feel very uncomfortable.
I finally felt like I could breath again only after boarding the train out of there.
Most of the time, we tread the same worn-out paths of tourist traps for no other reason than a lack of creativity coupled with the need to seem relevant to other people. Like anything else that money touches, hype tourism breeds envy and a short-lived, addictive sense of accomplishment. We can say to our friends, “Oh Portofino, i’ve been there!”. We can post a photo of ourselves, pretending that we are alone in paradise when just out of frame a bus load of elderly tourists are stripping down to their bikinis, discussing what they will eat for dinner.
Of course, travelling is mind-blowing and essential when we want to open our eyes to the global village of humanity, of which we are all members. But if Lonely Planet announces its ‘Best in Travel’ list, one can be assured the destinations listed are on their way to ruin. Creating tourism sustainability implies using our own imaginations and spreading ourselves around across a broader geographic area. Get out there! Ask locals where to eat and swim, don’t be afraid to end up in the middle of nowhere with one bus connection every four hours. Move that money around.
Decentralised tourism ensures that we not only immerse ourselves in truly local cultures, but that we maintain beautiful places for the people who actually live there.
Portofino was alright. I’m sure it used to be stunning. Being shuffled down the cramped streets past out of proportion Dolce and Gabbana and Louis Vuitton storefronts, licking my €6.00 gelato, I felt only scammed and irritated. I wished that I could time travel to the days before mass tourism and wealth brought pretentious yachts and socialites to this tiny piece of Liguria. My heart goes out to the Italians, to the Thai, the Greeks and any other people who must suffer the excesses and downright disrespect of entitled tourists. Some of us are too used to thinking that our money exalts us to the status of modern aristocrats on tour. A final note to the traveller: When in Rome, just do as the Romans do.