Brian Edwards Media

And this is Samantha in front of the Mona Lisa. Isn’t she beautiful? Samantha, I mean.


[Coincidentally this story, headed Row Erupts over Sistine ‘Disaster’, appeared in this morning’s (October 2) Herald.]

I think it was Bob Jones who rather sardonically observed some years ago that one of the worst developments of the second half of the 20th century occurred when international travel ceased to be the preserve of the rich and became available to the middle and working classes.

It’s difficult to rail against the evils of tourism when one is a tourist oneself, but I found Bob’s words ringing in my ears on almost every day of our three-week holiday in Italy. Our journey took us to Rome, Florence, Siena, Venice and Milan. With the exception of its magnificent cathedral, Milan has little to offer the visitor other than expensive shopping. But you could spend weeks in any of the other four cities and not even begin to exhaust their scenic, architectural, aesthetic and historic splendours.

In his poem Leisure, William Henry Davies coined the well-known lines ‘What is this life, if full of care, We have not time to stand and stare.’  We would have liked to stand and stare at many of the splendours I’ve referred to, but you can neither stand nor stare when on every street or piazza, in every church, museum or gallery, before every monument, statue or painting, or in the vicinity of anything that can remotely be described as ‘famous’, you are little more than a teardrop, swept along in a relentless tide of humanity whose sole purpose is to ‘get a picture’ and move on.

The behaviour of these photographic trophy hunters is indistinguishable from that of bargain hunters as the department  store doors are thrown open at the start of some massive, ‘everything must go; 75% off; all you can carry; closing-down’ sale. The law of the jungle. The survival of the fittest.

Prominent among these seething masses are tour groups numbering up to a hundred people, a relentless phalanx of headset-wearing factoid collectors,  remotely controlled by a parasol-toting guide, determined to keep up the pace. ‘The Birth of Venus is next, so we need to keep moving. Can you all see me? Don’t want anyone getting lost. Just keep your eye on the pink umbrella.’ Click, click, click, click, click. Flash, flash, flash, flash, flash.

It is the digital camera, cheap to use, easy to operate and delivering instant gratification,  that has been responsible for this tsunami of picture-taking and in part, I suspect, for the explosion of international tourism itself.

But the tragic irony is that these tourists never actually SEE any of the things they photograph. In their frantic desperation to capture and store everything on their digital cameras (and mobile phones) they have no time to actually LOOK at anything.

This was very well expressed in an essay by Mark Dubovoy entitled  Are Museums Destroying Art? Lamenting the decision of the Louvre to allow photography inside the museum, he described a recent visit to re-view the Mona Lisa:

‘The museum was packed with large groups of people in tour buses with loud and impolite guides. Most of the people were unruly, loud and pushy and worst of all, the only thing they were interested in was shooting a picture of the Mona Lisa.  I can say without hesitation that the vast majority of the people I saw that day never saw the painting  except in a small cell-phone or camera screen.  Seeing the actual work of art seemed completely irrelevant to them. The only objective was to snap a “trophy shot” of the painting.

‘The real problem was that the people were so unruly and impolite, that those of us who wanted to observe the painting could not do it.  

 ‘As if that was not bad enough, the next time I returned to Paris and went to the museum, things had gotten even worse.  While the last time the sole purpose of these people being there was to grab a trophy shot of the piece, now the new fad was to put their face in front of the painting and have someone else photograph them.  So now we had red lights, green lights, tourist faces, flash bursts and people shoving and pushing to get their faces in front of the work of art.’

Duboyoy’s experience of the Louvre was similar to our experience of the Vatican Museum. It was almost impossible to move as tourists photographed every painting, every tapestry, every statue and bust. The clear imperative was not to miss anything, to take everything home.

But this was mild compared to the horror of our visit to the Sistine Chapel.

As you go down the steps to enter the Pope’s private chapel, there are repeated announcements in half a dozen languages that taking photographs is forbidden and asking visitors to keep a respectful silence. But inside there is a bedlam of noise and camera flashes as thousands of people, packed together like sardines, jostle to capture Michelangelo’s famous ceiling on their digital cameras and mobile phones, ignoring the repeated shouts of the attendants: ‘No photo! No photo!’ It is a scene worthy of Hieronymus Bosch.  

Though I did take some photographs of everyday scenes on city streets and canals of Venice, we brought home no pictures of great works of Italian art  or sculpture or architecture. But we would have liked more time to ‘stand and stare’, to store our pictures of these beautiful cities where they really belong – in memory.

So should we follow Bob’s line of thinking and institute a world-wide ban on international tourism for all but the rich, the highly educated and those with breeding and impeccable manners? It’s an attractive thought. But it might be simpler to outlaw photography in the great musems, art galleries, churches and other places of  cultural and hisoric interst in the world and to make it an offence to have in one’s possession in a public place any camera or device not requiring film to capture an image. Draconian perhaps, but for the vast majority of today’s tourists, a week in London, Rome or Paris woudn’t even be worth the price of a discounted fare in zoo class.  Heaven!

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  1. The extension of that Brian is the experience we have at Te Papa where groups of Chinese/oriental visitors descend on us at the end of any day. They quickly go to the key locations have their picture taken and depart, well pleased.
    It’s not the visit per se…it’s absolutely for the display back in Shanghai to say “been there, photographed that”.
    It’s altogether a different take on tourism as we know (knew) it.

  2. After hearing about the Louvre for decades, I was really looking forward to the visit. Those swirling crowds peeved me no end. Sadly I was glad to get out and away.
    My ironic muttering, “Bluddy tourists!” puzzled my wife but it is true that the sheer volume of tourism can destroy the very thing that was attractive in the first place.
    My delight is away from the main streets and eating where the locals eat. To get to talk to locals who are not connected to Tourism provides those memorable cameos. And anyway there are many beautiful books of those beautiful paintings and sculptures and, god help us, churches.

  3. Sadly the increasing pressure of tourism is turning these ancient cities into congested rat races. Coupled with narrow streets, crowded piazzas and often stifling heat the ‘been there done that’ rabble ruin the modern travel experience. Better to take a good coat and go in the off season.

  4. I recall a similar experience visiting Stonehenge. I was astounded to see it right near a major highway. The hordes of tourists all getting their shots so as to elegantly exclude the highway behind. One of my favourite photos of that trip is Stonehenge juxtaposed against the highway. I find it deliciously peverse. I do have to say though, with all the tourists photo taking and going through the motions, I found it hard to experience any “big” Tourist attraction without feeling self-conscious. Wondering whether I’m having a more authentic experience by not snapping every few seconds. I found myself thinking about not wanting to be like them.

  5. I agree Brian that the over-running of northern Italy by people who seem to think that travel consists of gawping at things they don’t know anything about and don’t understand is an abomination. On the several occasions when I have been in Venice, for instance, with people who haven’t been there before I insisted that they read a couple of basic histories of the city before setting foot in the place, otherwise they’d be wasting their time because they wouldn’t have a clue what they were looking at. Invariably they have thanked me afterwards for my insistence. That said, the trouble with Bob Jones’ dictum i.e. only the wealthy and educated (good of him to selflessly exclude himself) is the old tag: Quies custodiet ipsos custodes? Who is going to choose the cultivated and distinguish them from the boorish? (Given the cost of hotel accommodation in Venice it already selects out those who are not wealthy so that isn’t an issue!)

  6. I was in Paris, and the Louvre a couple of months ago and in the popular wings, ie the Denon wing, it is almost impossible to view anything because of the incessant flashing in ones eyes from the camera flashs being used. I suspect most people with a digital camera have never learned how to turn the damn flash off. When I am world dictator for a day I am going to rule that the default setting for a camera flash when the camera is turned on is that the flash shall be turned off.
    There was one particular tourist, Chinese I think, who clearly understood no English. He was taking pictures in the statuary area, not of the statues themselves, but of the labels on the plinths. The reason I don’t think he had any grasp of English was he wasn’t taking photos of the description of the work but of the sign telling you “please do not touch the work”. Photo after photo after photo of the same injunction.

  7. Go in NH winter. Bliss. In the Louvre I loved some of the sculpture better than the paintings and they were free of the queues for the Mona Lisa etc.

    BE: I’m sure you’re right that winter is a much better time to travel in the Northern Hemisphere if one wants to avoid the crowds of tourists. Sadly, one doesn’t always have the luxury of that option.

  8. So very true, Dr. Edwards. Nothing more off-putting than being among the chattering great unwashed, when trying to appreciate the beauty of art and wonderment of artefacts.

    On a similar note, we can all reminisce how pleasant it used to be, to stroll through Cornwall Park on a sunny spring day, hearing the dulcet sounds of bird song and marvel at the profusion of blossom.

    And now? The unintelligible guttural squawking of the plethora of ill-dressed Asians, trying to outshout one another. Just ghastly.

    The whole Cornwall Park experience has been degraded and debased by the unremitting auditory assaults on our senses. And the visual spectacle is no better. Unless steps are taken by the Cornwall Park Trust Board, this beautiful park will go the way of a pristine South Island lake that’s become infested by didymo. John Logan Campbell must be spinning in his grave.

  9. Wow is me……….. The plebs are ruining my experience. I get where the article is coming from and I can understand the frustration but….. yes there is a but.
    Years ago, I traveled through Africa and happened to be passing the Ruwenzori Mountains on the borders of Kenya, Tanzania, Zaire and Rwanda. All of the tourists and backpackers there had come to see the last remaining wild Mountain Gorillas in there natural habitat. We didn’t go to see them. When we met people they asked us how much we enjoyed the experience. They gushed that it was the most amazing thing they had ever seen in their entire lives ( guess which country they came from). When we said that we haddn’t seen them, they were incredulous and asked why? I replied, the existence of this species has been threatened by the encroachment of humans into their habitat, we chose not to be apart of the problem.
    It was if I had just handed out a plate of shit sandwiches. It was amazing how no one wanted to engage at that level.

    BE: Though your comment (and Candy’s) generally support what I’ve said, there’s a (perhaps understandable) suggestion of elitism on my part in both. I think my argument has really very little to do with class, education or social standing but of attitudes and behaviours that transcend these categories and are common to tourists of every stripe.

  10. I am so glad we did our major European Travel in 1968. You were not allowed to use a flash in any of those museums. My husband had purchased an Asai Pentax camera in Panama en route and he was able to get great shots without the use of a flash. I’m afraid to say, we have got a picture of Mona and also one of me, next to a giant David in Florence.
    Plus a few of the Sistine chapel but in those Halcyon days, the whole world wasn’t traveling.
    So we could sit back and enjoy the art as well…Count our lucky stars

  11. “What is this life, if full of care, We have not time to stand and stare”
    – Leisure, William Henry Davies.

    This verse reminded me of John Lennon’s lyrics in ‘Watching the wheels’, perhaps because they describe similar behaviour as these crowds.

    The whole inherent value in various experiences (such as museums and art galleries) available to people is missed because they’re not taking the time to be still and appreciate the finer points. This applies to the great outdoors also.

    Peter Jenkins, the author of ‘A walk across America’ made an important distinction between travellers and tourists. The former sought to take in experiences on the journey, while the latter mainly wanted just to reach the next destination (like the tour groups above).

    A Garrick Tremain cartoon several years ago depicted two mountaineers talking to each other as they watch a group go past. One laments to the other: “You know mate, there’s just not the same sense of achievement in January”.

    The important point is that true leisure is not something to be quantified (and therefore subject to time constraints). It’s best regarded as a state of mind that results from a particular use of time, involving more than material factors.

  12. It is tempting to speak of the hordes (the ‘golden hordes’) sweeping the tourist spots of the word as the new barbarians, but we do have to remember that, if we are in the same place as them, we too are tourists. Whole national/regional economies depend on the tourist dollar too.
    But I agre about the invasive camera–I was enraged when I encountered the crowd around the Mona Lisa, photographing a painting which is rather unwhelming in its actuality.
    There is more to the experience if it takes some effort to get there–we biked across Salisbury Plain, in winter, to visit Stonehenge,

    BE: Yes, as I said, it’s difficult to rail against tourism when one is a tourist oneself. Nonetheless, what we discovered in Venice in particular was extremely depressing. The city is crumbling. Its sole income now comes from tourists who heavily outnumber the local population which has declined to around 50,000. It’s hard not to see these shutterbugs as the barbarians at the gate. Yet the reality is that without them Venice would simply not survive.

  13. Interesting that you seem to think that the rich, simply by virtue of being rich, would be more pleasant tourists. Eg, “…a world-wide ban on international tourism for all but the rich, the highly educated and those with breeding and impeccable manners? It’s an attractive thought.” So education and manners are not necessary if you have enough cash?
    Perhaps consider that some of those non-rich tourists have diligently saved for what will be their one big overseas holiday, and want to take photographs to relive and remember the experience for the rest of their middle and working class lives. They may not value the ‘stand and stare’ that you would, but they will value the photographs enormously.

    BE: ‘Interesting that you seem to think that the rich, simply by virtue of being rich, would be more pleasant tourists. ‘ Well, I don’t think that at all. If you can’t see that such an extravagant suggestion is ironic, not to mention entirely at odds with my politics and almost everything I believe in and express on this site, then I really can’t help you further.

    You make a very good point in your second para, however. The real tragedy may be that having made their investment in the once in a lifetime holiday, your notional middle/working class family may be as frustrated by the overcrowding and near impossibility of really seeing anything, as Judy and I were. Their dream may turn out to be a nightmare.

  14. I got to travel a fair bit through my work. The best thing was always being able to get to know a new place and new people over a period of two weeks or so. I never really bothered with much in the way of museums or art galleries, mainly because they’re too full of tourists. I always preferred to stop and smell the roses. For this reason, I have walked the Heaphy Track but not the Milford. Life’s joys are found in small places, shared with friends both new and old, not as part of a package tour.

  15. For the first time, I think, I agree with ALL Brian has to say, though in recent years we’ve visited the same places and must have fluked the timing – we go in either spring or autumn; and whilst the great unwashed did bug us, the problem wasn’t quite so overpowering as Brian and some others of you have found. I agree also with Candy – the Asian element irritate the most for several reasons, mainly perhaps because their spacial awareness skills seem to work against us in the European hordes.

    Long ago I realised that motor racing made a far better spectator sport if I actually watched the racing with both eyes, instead of spending (too often) thousands of dollars on travel, accommodation and front row seating only to spend the entire afternoon pissing about loading, reloading, zooming, unzooming and endlessly swapping lenses and filters, only to come away having watched nothing happen and having to ask my kids who won. I now leave the camera at home and enjoy the day in full.

  16. I went to the UK over December /January (when Heathrow was snowed in). It was wonderful. London was bearable. Museums, art galleries and cathedrals were sparsely populated. I was able to get tickets for theatres without a problem. With the snow as well it was actually a magical experience especially mass in Worcester Cathedral on Christmas morning.

    I have found though that even in the height of the tourist season it is not that difficult to get away from the hordes. I spent a week in Paris avoiding the tourist traps just wandering the streets and parks outside the centre and had a wonderful time. The same with London; in the City alone there are architectural wonders that have never seen a camera flash. There are large parts of the country that have never seen an umbrella. The solution is to go nowhere near Paris, London, Rome etc in the summer if you value your sanity.

    I will have to die without seeing any of the things you mention because I could not be bothered to compete with the mob.

    Incidentally I am an enthusiastic photographer but I take no pleasure in photographing what one million other souls have photographed.

  17. I have just noted Candy’comment; “And now? The unintelligible guttural squawking of the plethora of ill-dressed Asians, trying to outshout one another. Just ghastly.”

    What an outrageous remark. New Zealanders in general have little to be smug about when it comes to dress sense and ill mannered noise.

  18. Consumerism was born on the back of materialism, my desire to possess that which I desire. At its worst its just my attempt to fill that scary void inside. Worked for a while but hell, not really.
    Now I have the collection of experiences to fill the void. Same thing, more experiences especially of different cultures. My vain attempt to fill the void again and hey in case I forgot I have the pictures. Look there is me in front of the statue of David, maybe that Greek culture stuff is rubbing off on me, I am sure it is.
    Culture pirates and their treasure chests of photos.
    We have a long way to go .

  19. Quite true, this clickification of life. I took my 3 year-old on a trek through the enchanting Otari-Wilton bush on Saturday, and while I’ve got many pics and videos of the wee man’s amazement I totally missed out on the most magical experience of all: being there with my son, growing up.

  20. Kevin Hester -revenue generated through tourism is an important contributor to the protection of these great animals. Your boycott was misguided, I’m afraid to say.

  21. When I went to the Vatican museum the work I was most struck with was the Etruscan collection. Not surprisingly, there was hardly anyone there. With a little bit more money I could buy heaps of wonderful things in antique and collectable stores in the Wairarapa (where I live) going for a song (well, a few hundred dollars). I bought a beautiful late 19th century cream tile for $5. The truth is the majority of people have average to poor aesthetic taste. I’m constantly collecting things around me that are superb in one way or another simply because they go unappreciated by the majority, and that’s while having almost no disposable income. So in a way, people’s lack of taste is a blessing.

  22. “But inside there is a bedlam of noise and camera flashes as thousands of people, packed together like sardines, jostle to capture Michelangelo’s famous ceiling on their digital cameras and mobile phones, ignoring the repeated shouts of the attendants: ‘No photo! No photo!’ It is a scene worthy of Hieronymus Bosch.”

    My father visited the Sistine Chapel back in ’79 and taking photos back then was no problem – in fact, I believe he laid down on the floor to get the best angle! But the present ban on photography in the Chapel is more for commercial reasons rather than to protect the artwork – Fuji paid an enormous sum to restore the frescoes and in return gained exclusive rights over the images for 20 years.

    BE: Have a look at the story in this morning’s (2 October) Herald. Whatever the motive for banning photography in the Sistine Chapel, it is still the right thing to do. One visit should convince you of that. Actually enforcing the ban would of itself probably reduce numbers which should be limited at any rate.

  23. The only real solution for this is to limit the numbers who may visit in any one day too a civilised amount; tickets can be pre-applied for on the internet and they need not even cost anything – simply reserve a spot. If the Sistine Chapel can only have x thousand through per day to retain it’s integrity, then make it so. The casual visitor may be dismayed, but anyone intent on visiting to view the art for its beauty would plan ahead for the occasion. of course, the objections to this are all about $$$. Or you could charge for the limited number of tickets, whilst making sure the first hour or one day of the week could still be free to cater for the impecunious backbacker.

    The big losers would be the tour bus operators, who would be outraged. But they are commercial operations. They should have an percentage allocation of the available tickets that they may bid for. If Club 18-30 decides the price is to rich, well tough.

  24. The article in the NZH just confirms the herd mentality. Like the wildebeest of the Serengeti the tourist hordes tread the same well worn paths year after year and are preyed upon by the pick pockets, touts and local businesses.

    I doubt whether enforcing a ban on photography would make the slightest difference to the hordes. There would still be this urge to see the Sistine Chapel, Mona lisa and any other great work of art. It is like train spotting. They are on a list to be ticked off as seen.

    What is good is that whilst all these herds are crowding into the well known tourist spots, those who are prepared to make the effort can find unspoilt areas that are just as worth visiting and spending time looking at.

    Those who have objections to Asians cluttering up Cornwall Park, or anywhere else for that matter, (I wonder whether that comment would have been allowed had the reference been to ‘old people’ or, God forbid, Maori) should try using their brains and making the effort to find other beautiful parts of the Auckland region that see far fewer people.

  25. Meh. It’s no use complaining about this. Hyper-individualism means that many people no longer feel the rules apply to them, and there are now more of them than those of us who insist on playing fair – and their money talks.

    Bad manners are not the preserve of the lower orders. In my experience the upper middle class are the worst.

    Case in point: the American woman who stood on the restored Thesauros at Delphi despite their being signs in half a dozen languages telling you not to do so, and who complained bitterly about the rudeness of the French when a German guy told her to get off it.

  26. “The unintelligible guttural squawking of the plethora of ill-dressed Asians, trying to outshout one another. Just ghastly.”
    I wondered how long it would be before someone objected to the comment. But to me this simply epitomises a sense that your space is being invaded – physically, environmentally and culturally. Maybe alluding to ‘loud American’ tourists in their plaid trousers’ would strike more of a chord? Same thing.

  27. @jaundiced

    “I wondered how long it would be before someone objected to the comment” suggests you recognise the comment for the smug racial stereotyping it is. Not to mention it has been several decades since Americans wore plaid trousers with any regularity.

  28. Call me Bob Jones if you must….but one doesn’t travel from New Zealand to Rome just to sunbathe in St Peter’s Square or to check out the coffee shop – we want the Sistene Chapel as much as the plebs do. So stick a $200 entrance fee on it, and give $100 back upon leaving to those who surrender all their photographic tools.

  29. Ben, you come across as a real killjoy; you really do. I was at the Vatican City exactly a year ago. As much as we can decry the throng of tourists, it isn’t all that bad moving as an ectoplasmic mass. Time is critical when you sightsee, and our young Italian-American guide did a good job moving us through the corridors of the museum and on to the Sistine Chapel. You only get to see a small part of what there is, because of the size.
    Despite the repeated warnings of not to take photographs, it is impossible for such warnings to be heeded; there are so many different nationalities and the sheer size of the numbers make it an exercise in futility.

    After about 5 hours, which included the Basilica, I came away feeling the whole experience had been condensed, but also rewarding.

    Lighten up, Ben. I’m wondering if your travel experience extends no further than reading the Travel supplement in the Herald at your local library.

  30. Never being well heeled enough to travel for me it still is the domain of the wealthy.The problem isnt the tourists ,its the number of tourists and the number of people on our overcrowded planet.Address this issue and other issues will fall into place.Perhaps you should be greatful for the ability to veiw such monuments to the ability of people, rather than complain about the crowds ,the lack of sunshine or whatever.

  31. 31

    Agree with Ben, much better to go in the off season. Still not devoid of hordes entirely, but way easier to get around and stand and stare. Other tourists/travellers are more likely to be adventurous types, too, or (as in Italy) locals taking their own break. Also, the weather is a genuine contrast, which adds to the exotic appeal, even if you have to pack more clothing.

  32. Tillbury I have travelled extensively around Europe and have always avoided the touris traps and peak times. I am not a killjoy. If you wish to move with the herd you are free to do so and in fact I encourage you to do so, to leave unspoiled the many places that people like you lacking any imagination or initiative never discover. I will choose to beat my own path, thank you.

  33. @ Ben. So what you’re saying is: that when visiting Rome, forget about seeing the Colosseum, the Vatican, the Altare della Patria, the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain etc; and in Paris, give a wide berth to the Eiffel Tower, Sacre Coeur, Notre Dame, the Louvre, Napoleon’s Tomb etc., because there are just so many tourists also visiting? Find a quaint cobbled street, instead; which shows you are more culturally-aware and a traveler with “initiative”.

  34. Waxy, I am not saying that. If being packed into the Sistine Chapel like sardines turns you on, go for it. Personally I would rather miss all these highlights since being jostled by the many headed would ruin any pleasure I might get from looking at a work of art.

    In every European country, if you are prepared to go off the beaten track there are wonderful architecture, beautiful churches, small galleries and you can see all these places for nothing and in comfort. It does not make me more culturally aware. As I said I prefer to make my own path not follow in the tracks of others.

    With all these great attractions there is as I have said before a ‘trainspotting’ mentality. If you go to Rome, Paris, etc, they have to be ticked off so you can come back to NZ and say, “I saw the Sistine Chapel with 10,000 other people and it was a wonderful experience”. If that is what you want; great, but I do not wish to share that with you. As it happens I have seen all the attractions you mention (I am an avid train spotter) but I have timed my visits carefully.

    I would also have to say that the memories I have are not of these attractions, but accidental discoveries far from the madding crowd. As one contributor observed they have been places where I have been able to stand and smell the roses, not the BO.

  35. we have always travelled in either early or late summer (northern) and never had queues or large crowds and have enjoyed beautiful weather too.

  36. I agree with Alan about travelling in winter. I was in Florence over Christmas a few years ago and walked straight into the Uffizi and got to really see the pictures without having to stand on tiptoe and strain to see round people. If you’re going to visit churches, museums & art galleries, winter is the time to go. It’s also often cheaper because it’s the off-season. – And no school party groups to dodge. I always feel that the camera gets between you and the experience. Besides, if you want a picture as a souvenir there are always plenty of postcards taken in better light at the kiosks by the door.

  37. 37

    I would not be so concerned with dills on The Continent, as with partially clothed Westerners in Muslim countries, partying hard and dissing the culture.