28 November 2010

Discovering and rediscovering and re-rediscovering Venice in winter

This just in: The New York Times' travel section has discovered Venice in the off-season. Again. For the third time in six years.

2010: "Venice in winter"
In summer, Venice is torrid, stuffed to the gills with the 18 million tourists who overwhelm it each year, clogging its bridges, swelling its vaporetti, vastly outnumbering the famously grouchy residents and making the city seem like one big floating Disneyland— a perverse metaphor for the future of Italy, if not all of Europe, a place that has staked its future on selling an image of its past and may yet be destroying itself in the process.
2009: "Frugal Venice, family style" [The link goes to the Frugal Travel blog, but I'm 90 percent sure I saw it on the front page of the travel section when it first came out.]
It is hard to imagine such consideration in the depths of summer, when Venice is descended upon by millions of tourists, who constitute a flood as unnavigable as the acqua alta, or high water, that periodically drenches the city’s sidewalks and campos from September to April.
2004: "Breathing more easily without the throngs"
For anyone who has been to Venice in summer -- when it becomes an Italian theme park, with thousands of tourists jostling for space on the Piazza San Marco, trying to snap a souvenir photo of the Campanile and then lining up for a coffee at Caffe Florian, which opened in 1720 and has presumably been overcharging ever since -- winter can be a revelation. Gone are the cruise ships, the group tours, the throngs of camera-toting daytrippers flooding out of the Santa Lucia train station each morning, guidebook in one hand, stopwatch in the other.
Way to branch out there, guys. And while I certainly agree that Venice in the summer is, well, stuffed to the gills with millions of tourists in search of an Italian theme park . . . I'm also not convinced that telling people to go in the off-season is the best, either, at least not for a tourist hotspot like Venice. Because in the same sense that some people argue that staying on the beaten path is the most ethical way to travel--because you're not beating new paths--one could also make the case that expanding the tourist season in Venice won't cut back on the numbers in the summer; it'll only increase them the rest of the year. (I'm not actually sure I completely believe any of what I'm saying in this post, by the way; I'm mostly just putting it out there for discussion.)

VeniceLand. See that elaborate building? It actually houses a roller coaster.
Personally, I think we should just leave the good people of this famously dying/drowning/theme-park-ifying town alone. Seriously, don't go. Or limit stays to one or two days (or, conversely, mandate week-long stays). Or maybe we can be open to visitors for one month a year. Perhaps we could all work out a deal where, like children of divorced parents, tourists can visit Venice and, say, crumbling Pompeii on alternate weekends, plus the Roman Forum on holidays.

18 November 2010

Fill in the blanks: [place] on $[number] a day

Arthur Frommer didn't just give travelers a strategy for cheap travel. He also inadvertently gave travel writers and other journalists a strategy for cheap headlines. It's not quite as ubiquitous as, say, "land of contrasts" and "off the beaten path," but it's still pretty common. Just last week, the New York Times ran a travel article titled "Los Angeles on $100 a Day."

And a few days before that, when certain conservative politicians and pundits (who apparently hate math as much as they hate President Obama . . .) leveled the charge that the president's trip to Asia was costing $200 million a day, the debunking headlines practically wrote themselves, like this from the Times' Caucus blog: "India on $200 million a day? Not!"

I wondered how common this was, so I put my research assistant, Mr. Google, on the case and was quickly presented with a list of other examples. Like:
  • A few years back, the Times had a series called "High & Low" (retitled in 2009, in a slight nod to the economic times,"Save or Splurge"). Each entry featured pairs of articles about visiting a particular place on two different budgets: "____ on $250 a Day" and "____ on $1,000 a Day."
  • From a Space Daily article on the Mars Rover: "Mars on One Million Dollars a Day." 
I was also curious, in light of Monday's post about the evolution of the dollar amount in the guidebook titles, to see what amounts people most often plugged into the "on $___ a day" construction. I checked both Google overall and Google News specifically (going back to 1980). Here's a graphic representation of what I found, with the X axis listing the various dollar amounts:  

Some notes for the pedants/sticklers/genuinely-curious: 
(1) Most of the amounts I looked at were actual amounts used in Frommer's book titles. I added in some other nice, round numbers (e.g. $100, $500) that seemed like logical ones for people to plug into the dollars-a-day construction. One thing that's interesting about this, for example, is that there are considerably more articles that discuss something on $100 a day (14 results) than $95 a day (4), even though the latter was an actual Frommer's guidebook, the last one to have an amount listed in the title, in 2007. 
(2) I did several variations of each search, using different phrasing (e.g. 5 dollars, five dollars, $5) and I searched for exact phrases, so that it was always "____ on $_____ a day." 
(3) Even so, the link between many of these results and Frommer's guidebook titles is, of course, only coincidental and in passing, having nothing to do with travel, e.g. "even today, many impoverished Martians live on $5 a day." 
(4) Still, most of the news results, at least, are indeed clearly intended as a play on Europe on $5 a Day
(5) Seriously, if you're still reading this, you deserve a prize. Tell you what: let me know you made it this far and I'll write you a haiku. 

15 November 2010

Greetings from snowy Minneapolis

[Okay, this isn't about Europe or tourism, but it's, uh, kind of about travel. Hometown travel, anyway.]

On Saturday, it snowed here in Minneapolis. Biggest November snowfall in nineteen years. That night, I went for a walk around the downtown riverfront area, one of my favorite spots in the city--hell, in the whole world (not that I'm biased or anything)--and took some photos.* Enjoy! 

* Thanks much to @maggiekb1 and Boing Boing for picking up the top photo after I posted it to Twitter on Saturday night. My moment of very minor internet fame, I guess--at least until that video of me doing karaoke with Lady Gaga and Nicolas Sarkozy finally surfaces. 

From $5 to $95: the evolution of a guidebook budget

You used to be able to find the Europe on $__ a Day guidebooks listed on the Frommers.com web site, here. Now you land on a page reading "404 error - page not found." The metaphor is all too obvious, all too cheap, yet still retains some essential poignancy: the guidebook that led millions of people around unfamiliar terrain is now lost itself.

The "dollar-a-day" books ended in 2007, fifty years after it started; the final version was Europe on $95 a Day. The timeline below shows how the titular amount evolved over the years. Just for kicks, I've added the inflation-adjusted worth of $5 in 1957; these amounts are listed in brackets (and for the record, according to the US government, $5 in 1957 has the same buying power as $38.87 now--in general terms, if not in travel terms). 

1957:  Europe on $5 a Day
1972:  Europe on $5 and $10 a Day  [$7.44]
1979:  Europe on $15 a Day  [$12.92]
1981:  Europe on $20 a Day  [$16.17]
1987:  Europe on $25 a Day  [$20.21]
1990:  Europe on $40 a Day  [$23.26]
1991:  Europe on $45 a Day  [$24.23]
1996:  Europe on $50 a Day  [$27.92]
2000:  Europe From $60 a Day (note the change in wording!)  [$30.64]
2000:  Europe From $70 a Day 
2007:  Europe From $95 a Day  [$36.89]

(Note: I wasn't always able to determine the precise year of each title change, so in some cases it's an educated guess based on the earliest publication date I was able to find for the title.)

11 November 2010

Outtakes: trying not to be sketchy in Vienna

The Vienna chapter is a bit bloated and unwieldly; I'm trimming it into shape right now. Here's a scene I ended up cutting:  

My stomach grumbled. I trekked on and bought a pastry, ordering in flawless German. It had a distinctly Old World taste, that of thousand-year-old church mortar. I cursed in flawless English.

My sinus headache roared. My throat itched. My feet ached—everything ached, actually, from this nasty cold and from the washboard mattress at the hostel. I wandered into a park to sit for a while and dig into the bag of cough drops that I'd bought. There were several open benches near the entrance, and I started to sit down but thought better of it upon piecing together the circumstances: the benches were facing a playground filled with kids. And I was a single man. Specifically, I was a weirdo clutching a battered paperback and what appeared to be a bag of candy, and staring with watery, twitchy eyes. Perhaps in Austria, such persons are considered good luck, but I wasn't about to test it. I kept walking and found another cluster of benches, each with a man sitting alone.

“Excuse me,” I asked one. “Is this the area for the non-pedophiles?”

Well, that's what was implied, anyway, in my simple, “Gutten tag,” croaked as I sat heavily on the opposite end of a bench from him. I dug in my pocket for a tissue, then blew my nose like a trumpet fanfare. The guy eyed me and walked away, toward the playground.

08 November 2010

Quote of the day: a tourist is a tourist as a skunk is a skunk

From Robert Byron's The Road to Oxiana:
“Alors, qu'est-ce que vous êtes, Monsieur?” 

“Je suis homme.” 



“Je comprends. Touriste.” 

Even “voyageur” is obsolete; and with reason: the word has a complimentary air. The traveller of old was one who went in search of knowledge and whom the indigènes were proud to entertain with their local interests. In Europe this attitude of reciprocal appreciation has long evaporated. But there at least the “tourist” is no longer a phenomenon. He is part of the landscape, and in nine cases out of ten has little money to spend beyond what he has paid for his tour. Here, his is still an aberration. If you can come from London to Syria on business, you must be rich. If you can come so far without business, you must be very rich. No one cares if you like the place, hate it, or why. You are simply a tourist, as a skunk is a skunk, a parasitic variation of the human species which exists to be tapped like a milch cow or a gum tree. 

At the turnstile, that final outrage, a palsied dotard took ten minutes to write out each ticket. After which we escaped from these trivialities into the glory of Antiquity.

02 November 2010

The best of touristic intentions ...

They're the classic antidotes to tourism as usual: packaged tours that combine travel with doing good. Ecotourism gives insight into fragile ecosystems and cultures in transition by providing many of the trappings of standard tourism in a more sustainable package. Dark tourism (a.k.a. grief tourism) provides ostensibly worldview-expanding looks into favelas and former concentration camps and the, well, darker side of life. And voluntourism ... well, the punning name should be self-evident.

All certainly laudable in concept. The intentions are good, and often the results are, too. Buuuut ... just as there's nothing inherently wrong with doing the standard-issue Grand Tour, there's also nothing inherently better about trying to save the world in your two weeks of vacation. Sometimes, alas, you can do more harm than good. NPR's "All Things Considered" tackled the topic of voluntourism today and had some interesting observations:
But in South Africa, some researchers now claim that foreign visitors aren't actually helping the children they work with. In fact, they might be harming them.

The South African government has expressed concern about so-called AIDS orphan tourism, and the Department of Social Development recently said that it will study the issue.

... The psychological literature talks about attachment theory — very young children are programmed to build attachments," she says. "And so, you've got these sort of repeated abandonments — first with young children whose parents may die of AIDS. And then they go to live in an orphanage where you often have high staff turnover."

The process continues when well-meaning tourists come to volunteer their time, she says.

"And then you've got tourists that are coming as sort of the third wave of this abandonment. Children are left behind to remember a series of these foreigners who come in and then leave them there," Norman says.

01 November 2010

Quote of the day: guidebook as script

"Modern tourist guides have helped raised tourist expectations. And they have provided the natives—from Kaiser Wilhelm* down to the villagers of Chichacestenango—with a detailed and itemized list of what is expected of them and when. These are the up-to- date scripts for actors on the tourists' stage." 

-- Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image (1961).

* The Kaiser Wilhelm thing is pretty amazing, actually. I've heard several versions of the anecdote given in this 1950 Time article:
"At the stroke of noon one day, as the imperial military band began its daily concert in front of Berlin's imperial palace, Kaiser Wilhelm interrupted a conference of state by jumping to his feet. "With your kind forbearance, gentlemen," he said, 'I must excuse myself now to appear in the window. You see, it says in Baedeker [guidebook] that at this hour I always do.' "