The Dutch Tourist Dilemma

26 October 2010

Only people without historical knowledge will buy it

I’ve been in Athens now for two days and I have twice been forced to leave my bed at 6.30 – which is pretty hard for someone suffering from DSPS – because I wanted to visit the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum. You need to be there very early, preferably when they’re opening, and with a reservation; it is the only way to actually see something. Even then, you will enjoy it for only an hour, because at nine, large groups of tourists start to arrive from the cruise ships in the port. Like cattle, they are driven along the sights, and to be honest: they don’t seem to understand the things any better than a cow would do.

It’s not just the Acropolis Museum. I’ve not blogged about the Agora Museum because I found it too crowded to enjoy. In Delphi, the well-meaning visitor will face the same problem after eleven o’clock, when the groups from Athens arrive. Fortunately, after four o’clock the shrine of Apollo is quiet, almost serene. I have beautiful memories of sitting near the temple, watching the sun go down, completely alone, except for one guard and dozens of birds.

What to do with tourists who are visiting a place because they’re expected to do something, but have not the faintest idea about what they are seeing, and are spoiling it for people who have prepared themselves? I once read an article in La Repubblica, in which this was called the Dutch Tourist Dilemma. Florence suffers from many Dutch tourists, people who at the end of the year decide to use the last free kilometers of their company’s car to go on a holiday and chose Tuscany because you can reach it in one day. They cannot distinguish a Botticelli from a Boccaccino, and make it difficult for those who do know the difference to understand it.

The author of the article did not know what was the solution. On the one hand, museums are within their rights to send away people when they make it impossible for other visitors to enjoy the works of art; on the other hand, even barbarians might learn a thing or two if they’re allowed to enter the museums. I don’t know the way out either, but I feel increasingly dissatisfied with modern museums. They do anything to attract visitors, and the people who do most to prepare themselves and study them, are forced to accept Vatican-like situations. Doing nothing is no longer an option.

Limits to Tourism

16 May 2010

The Bouleuterion (or Odeon) of Ephesus

Tourism can kill people. I almost saw it happen today in the bouleuterion of Ephesus. There was a large group of tourists in front of us, and when they left, a man and a woman remained sitting on one of the ancient seats. The man sat down, his head hanging down, while his arms, which were also hanging down, were making strange, uncontrolled gestures.

It was not a pretty sight, and I was glad that one of the people traveling with me is a doctor. He went to the man and gave him something, which seemed to help him pretty swiftly, so that he seemed a bit weak only when an ambulance arrived, just two or three minutes after we had made a call. The man tried to walk back to the exit but collapsed, and was carried away to the ambulance.

He did not suffer from a heat stroke or dehydration. It was early in the morning on a cool day. The cause of his collapse may have been Stendhal Syndrome, a fatigue about which many jokes are made, but which can be quite nasty. (I remember leaving Florence with someone who fell seriously ill once we were in Rome.) To this may be added the stress of a visit to a site full of people, thousands and thousands of them, addressed by guides who use amplifiers to make themselves heard. Ephesus is the capital of mass tourism.

On more than one occasion I have said that people ought to pass an exam before they visit an archaeological site. Of course that is a joke, but there is a serious aspect to it. It is ridiculous to hear a guide in, say, Delphi explain that “in those days, Sparta and Athens were the leading powers in Greece” – if you do not know that, it is better not to go to Delphi, because you are unable to appreciate the site and are a frustration to others.

I even think that it is dangerous if too many unprepared people visit a site. If our man had known what to expect and if there had been less people, his brain would have been able to deal with the information; now, Ephesus could easily exhaust him. Although it was good that the ambulance appeared on the scene almost immediately, it is – if you think about it – ridiculous that Ephesus needs to have an ambulance.

Finally, our man was lucky that there was a doctor. But he belonged to a group, and there were so many people that the guide had been unable to see what happened. The other people hadn’t noticed either. Ephesus is simply too spectacular to allow so many people to be there at the same time, even on a day with low temperatures. Tourism can kill people.