The efficient tourism problem

Everywhere I travel, I hear a common lament. Such and such a place is overrun with tourists. Everyone tries to discover the undiscovered gem of a spot.

However, the internet makes information flow so efficient that all travelers have easy access to the list of the top sites, restaurants, and hotels in every destination, just one mouse click away. Today's undiscovered gem of a beach is dotted with hundreds of pale white American bodies tomorrow.

A tourist complaining about other tourists is travel's version of NIMBY-ism, except it's not “my backyard,” it's someone else's. In a perfectly efficient travel market all the best sites will be overrun. Hotel vacancy rates might act as an artificial limiter, but the ability for massive cruise ships to dock in a port at noon and disgorge thousands of tourists each afternoon has long since rendered such ceilings meaningless.

[Everyone will complain about the tourists until virtual reality suddenly depresses tourism, and then everyone will complain that the local GDP has cratered and that no one bothers visiting places in person anymore. Perhaps cities will try to trademark their physical sites so they can collect a vig on any sale of any virtual reality experience based on their location.

And of course, some tourists are obnoxious and boorish. For this piece I'm setting those barbarians aside, no one likes them.]

Even docile, respectful tourists can alter one's experience of a place when they amass in great enough numbers. Yet how can I complain when I'm one of them? This is the traveler's conundrum.

I've learned to have a certain zen about it all. Some sites are great and will always draw a crowd. I revisited Michelangelo's David in Florence a few weeks back, and it is always surrounded by dozens of tourists snapping photos. It's still a fucking masterpiece, and it still stuns me.

If you're lucky enough, the most exploitable inefficiency remains visiting places in the offseason or in off peak hours. It's not just how much free time you have, but when you can call upon it that determines its value.