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Written by: Amineddoleh & Associates LLC

Much has been said about the post-pandemic travel boom. There has been an unprecedented level of global travel in recent years, measured by rising hotel costs and airline reports of strong demand. Despite a possible economic recession, global travel is showing no signs of slowing down any time soon. Not even rising inflation can stem this tide.

The increase in travel means an increase in the tourism industry.  Cultural heritage sites worldwide have been slammed with visitors. And while growing interest in cultural tourism can be a positive thing, the impact of increased tourism at sites presents unique a unique risk. Whether by mistake or through concerted effort, irreversible destruction of tourist sites by tourists themselves is a growing problem. With more people comes more responsibility to protect vulnerable pieces of cultural heritage – before the damage is done.

Tourism can be a good thing. Experiencing new culture can be beneficial to individuals, because it broadens their perspectives. And, for responsible tourists, it is possible to visit cultural sites sustainably. However, reckless tourists can do more harm than good.


Overtourism and Revenge Travelers

It’s time to brace for the selfie-takers.

Residents of UNESCO-protected World Heritage Sites have faced never-before-seen surges of tourists to towns all around the world. One recent target has been the 800-person village in Hallstatt, Austria, which many believe to have inspired the architecture featured in Disney’s smash-hits Frozen and Frozen II. The daily influx of nearly 10,000 tourists, plus the hubbub of activity they bring, has forced the villagers to erect a wooden fence between their village and the gawking visitors. The fence, though unsightly, does a fine job in obstructing their charming panorama from view. The effect is less imposing than if they were to “pull an Elsa” and construct a castle of ice, but villagers hope it will still be effective in curbing the number of daily visitors.

Erecting a fence as a simple measure to deter unwanted tourists. This is not a crazy solution, nor is it cruel – these cultural sites must be protected. For delicate places, such as Hallstatt, the risk of destruction caused by overtourism is simply too great.

One need look no further than Angkor Wat, Cambodia to understand the devastation left in the wake of too many tourists.  But it has not only been the impact of increased foot-traffic that has destroyed the city’s delicate sites.  With tourists comes the trappings of the tourist industry. This means that even the most cautious and conscientious tourists who travel to the site are part of the problem, when they make use of these commercialized offerings.

When Angkor Wat became a popular spot for visitors, the flood of tourists disrupted the peaceful site. Flashy shopping malls, a neon theme park, and even a golf course were built. Prior to the commercialization, this land once held a peaceful, provincial village. As construction plowed ahead and visitors increased, water sources in the surrounding areas began to face an alarming increase in pollution levels. Untreated sewage flushed from hotels flooded into previously pristine waterways. The hospitality industry further complicated matters by draining underwater reservoirs to service their guests. Many sacred temples, including the Bayon, with its Buddha-carved towers, have begun to sink, because of the environmental impact of draining the reservoirs.

What would the site be like without the tourists? Cambodia got a taste of turning back the clock when the site closed to visitors under pandemic-era restrictions. One travel writer remarked that the effect was a reversal back into “a sleepy country village.” Cultural heritage experts certainly saw the benefit of sites being given a rest from the damaging tourist industry. However, the pause was short-lived.

In 2022 and 2023, the global travel time-out has rebounded in full-force. The opening of global borders and accessibility of vaccines served as a green-light for anyone feeling cabin fever in lockdown. In fact, reports are skyrocketing of “revenge travel” as a way to make up for time lost sitting at home for two years.

Not all of these tourists are flocking to Europe, but it does seem to be a target. Countries like Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal have proven to be hotspots. Italy continues to be a target for pent-up travelers, due to its vast and storied collection of art and architecture.

All Roads Lead Tourists to Rome

Not every tourist is a boy scout.

Some tourists purposely vandalize sites to make a statement. Whether as a show of activism, a declaration of love, or simply as a way to blow off steam after travel delays, tourists’ intentional acts target precious sites. Pompeii, the Roman Colosseum, and the Roman Forum have all fallen victim to predatory tourists. Not all vandals are the same – each site seems to attract a different kind of criminal.

Pompeii, for example, addresses thefts. There is an entire exhibit at the site showcasing stolen artifacts travelers have “sent back” to Pompeii. The reason for the travelers’ sudden change of heart? Usually, it’s reports of “bad luck” from carrying around the stolen objects. Vandalism, on the other hand, is more common in structures such as the Colosseum and Roman Forum. The draw of vandals to these sites seems to be a show of good old-fashioned bravado.

In 2020, an Irish tourist who merrily carved his initials into the Colosseum posted a gleeful selfie of himself at the site, pre-vandalism. The smile was wiped off his face when he was promptly arrested and faced with a $2,400 fine.

Just last week, the Colosseum fell victim to another vandal: a British tourist sketched “Ivan+Haley 23” on the wall of the Colosseum. Shockingly, this is the fourth reported vandalism act at the Colosseum this year so far. Unfortunately for Ivan, an American tourist named Ryan Lutz filmed the vandalism in-action. Lutz attempted to show the footage to Colosseum guards, but the guards refused to take the video seriously. In response, Lutz uploaded the content to social media. This alerted the Carabinieri to the incident.

The video enabled the Carabinieri to use facial recognition technology to make photographic comparisons of possible suspects. The latest press release from the Italian police force stated that they believe they have identified the culprit (Ivan Dimitrov, 27, who also goes by the name Ivan Hawkins) and plan to bring criminal charges. This includes penalties of up to $15,000 in fees and five years in prison.

One wonders at the blind courage this lover must have had, in order to boldly deface the precious architecture in broad daylight. However, with the influx of tourists, the very act of vandalism is easier to get away with than ever. Large crowds make it nearly impossible to monitor individual guests. Moreover, when large groups of tourists enter sites, without a guide, it becomes even harder to keep tabs on tourist activity.

According to some experts, tourists’ bad behavior may be the result of their perceptions about Italy. Due to cinematic masterpieces, such as “La Dolce Vita” and “Roman Holiday,” some people view Italy as “a place devoid of rules and laws, where everything is art and therefore nothing is art.” In a lawless place, tourists let their hair down, and coupled with the anonymity of travel, people are on their worst behavior. Sadly, this leads to both intentional and accidental damage and destruction.

Sites have an interest in allowing visitors to enjoy themselves and move freely about the space.  Sites that impose too many rules regulating tourist behavior risk losing ticket sales. No tourist wants to be chastised while on vacation. This presents a difficult balance between making sites appealing for tourists, by not imposing rules that are too restrictive, while also making sure tourists do not harm precious pieces of cultural heritage. The Italian economy thrives on the tourist dollar. As a result, even though tourists can cause destruction, the communities that the tourist revenues serve benefits from their visits.

The best solution for striking this balance is to require tourists hire an official guide for vulnerable cultural heritage sites. When knowledgeable guides from reputable organizations lead bespoke tours, through sites, the result is both a win for the cultural heritage site and the overall tourist experience.


Unintentional Destruction

Unintentional destruction of cultural heritage is also a pressing issue, and it is one that may best be mediated by governmental action. The rise of unintentional damage is no surprise considering the clumsiness of the everyday traveler. By no means a troupe of ballerinas, tourists range from rowdy high school seniors on their end-of-year trip to honeymooners blissfully unaware of their surroundings. In short, accidents happen.

Take, for example, the Spanish Steps. Wine spills, dropped chewing gum, and the general wear-and-tear of tourists clambering up-and-down the steps prompted government involvement to prevent tourist traffic. A tourist caught sitting on the steps may be fined upwards of $400. This rule was enacted to “guarantee decorum, security and legality.” Actions prohibited by the rule include those “not compatible with the historic and artistic decorum” of the city’s famous center.

Despite issuing few actual fines, the regulation has been surprisingly effective in curbing unintentional destruction. As it turns out, all it takes is a stern warning from a uniformed officer to embarrass a tourist into modifying her behavior. The effectiveness of a warning shows how well regulations, such as this one governing the Spanish Steps, and a similar rule preventing tourists from diving into the Trevi Fountain, work to prevent unintentional destruction. Tourists generally do not want to cause harm and are eager to modify their behavior when asked.

Those looking to avoid a warning from an Italian officer (or worse, be forced to shell out euros for the actual fine) would be wise to hire an official tour guide. Official tour guides are well-versed in the behavioral rules governing each site and can customize a tour based on individual needs. Moreover, experienced guides know the site’s layout and construction. This enables the guide to carefully navigate tourists through a delicate site, which reduces the risk of damage caused by tripping or mistakenly veering into off-limits areas.

In all, the benefits of a bespoke tour given by an official guide work to protect cultural heritage in ways that rules alone cannot. Plus, tour guides also have insider knowledge of the best place to get gelato, post-site visit.


Paths Forward for Italy’s Tourist Sites

Italy has many options for the proactive protection of national cultural heritage sites. Regulations promulgated to protect sites become even more effective when they are announced in conjunction with marketing measures aimed at bringing tourists to a site. This serves to give tourists a better idea of the risk that they encounter when they visit sites, even before arrival.

An incredibly effective way to accomplish this goal is to impose regulations for a site alongside its growth in tourism. One example, the underwater cultural heritage site of Baia, Italy, illustrates the impact of working to proactively prevent cultural heritage destruction stemming from problematic tourism from the start.

Baia, Italy (also pronounced Baiae), the once above-land site of Nero’s beachside vacations, has recently emerged as a new tourist destination. The draw is not hard to understand: an ancient resort town, is now underwater. And, it has a historical reputation for being known as the Monte Carlo of Ancient Rome.

The recent effort to market Baia as a tourist town have happened alongside new written rules to guide tourist behavior. Tourist behavior related to visits to the site by canoeing, underwater diving, and snorkeling are all clearly delineated by the Parco Archeologico Sommerso di Baia in their Regulation. Moreover, since 2012, authorizations are needed for individual tour operators who meet certain requirements to conduct activities at sea.

This makes it easy for tourists to use of official guided tours. By hiring a reputable guide, they may travel thoughtfully, passionately, and sustainably. These regulations are not overburdensome on individual activity. Without them, excited tourists may find them difficult to follow and adhere to in heat of the moment. The success of these regulations is likely due to the involvement of reputable tour guides, who ensure that all visitors have a customized, bespoke and enriching experience – while keeping the site safe for generations to come.

However, not all visitors will make use of knowledgeable guides, and some of hellbent on behaving badly and causing destruction. In light of these acts, in April of this year, Italy’s Council of Ministers approved a bill that would impose fines between €10,000 and €60,000 on individuals responsible for defacing heritage. In addition, these individuals may also face criminal charges. In a country full of evocative historic sites and cultural treasures, Italy continues to update its laws to protect and preserve these mandmade masterpieces for future generations.

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Cite this page as: The American Institute for Roman Culture, “Problematic Tourism on Ancient Roman Sites” Ancient Rome Live/Amineddoleh & Associates LLC. Last modified 07/12/2023.


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