Growing up, my parents frequently discussed taking me and my sister to Italy. I heard many stories about an almost mythical land — the country that my family is from, where fashionable people floated from cafes to museums and priceless art stood at every turn. Above all, we sought a world so different from our own, craving its unparalleled uniqueness. That vacation was their dream for us, so during Christmas of 2018, after over a year of planning, my sister and I left the country for the first time to finally visit this magical land.
We started in Rome, at the same hotel my parents stayed in 20 years before. The 72 hours spent in the city occurred in an unending rush of activity, bouncing from the Vatican to the Trevi Fountain to the Colosseum. As we went about, I noticed some familiar names of stores in the U.S., but they were far from the main sites of the city, and especially far from the Vatican. From the tours through the ancient ruins and the lengthy dinners spent in restaurants my parents remembered fondly, I felt the magic of a new world we had dreamed of for so long.
But the novelty of traveling dissipated after we arrived in Florence. I had expected it to be calmer than Rome. The latter was filled with endless sounds of chatter, honking taxis and bells in the air. Florence has world-renowned landmarks too — The Ponte Vecchio, Italian Galleria dell’Accademia featuring The David, The Uffizi, The Duomo, Michaelangelo’s tomb — but it had a quaint taste, at least in theory.
But what truly amazed us was not the throngs of people waiting with us for the same major attractions, but the lack of culture right outside of them. Local businesses that once lined the streets were replaced by department stores and luxury shopping: H&M, Zara, Gucci, Versace, Prada and more. It had the same atmosphere as a mall I could find 40 minutes from my small town. It was too familiar. On this of the Arno river, where the tourists mainly frequented, the Florentine-ness, as I refer to it, felt diluted.
Tourism, more specifically how to be an ethical tourist, has been a growing topic, especially in activist spaces. Shopping, specifically department stores and malls, offers us familiarity in a foreign place. While shopping itself isn’t immoral, the standardization of these industries in catering toward tourists tramples the local businesses, and therefore the city’s unique culture. It was close to impossible to find any native Florentine businesses. Perhaps it is selfish of me, desiring the roots and labors of this complex city, but I would like to believe my desires also reflect an appreciation for them as well.
This means of consumerism goes beyond Florence and Europe in general. Mass tourism to Hawaii has negatively impacted its culture and environment, draining these resources away from the Native inhabitants. Unlike the situation in Florence, a study of Hawaii and other locations involves conversations of racism and ecotourism. Limited by my own experiences and knowledge, I won’t discuss these intersectional factors, but bear them in mind as you travel outside of the mainland United States. This is to say these critiques aren’t focused solely on Florence. Negative effects of tourism across the world take root in this globalization.
Part of being a good tourist is like being a good guest; you know the customs and rules and you respect the host and take part in their lifestyle. Relating to the idea of escapism when traveling, one should maintain a certain level of awareness as they go about. Who and what are you engaging with, and what is that doing for your host city?
Most importantly, recognize that your experience is not solely tied to tickets and tours. Some of my favorite moments had nothing to do with the major attractions surrounding us. They came in many forms; laughing at the British tourist who nearly trampled us in Raphael’s room of the Vatican museum; a picture from Christmas day that had a beam of light shooting into my hands, as if it could be a sign from my grandpa; linking arms as we wandered down cobblestone streets and happened upon cafes; making a brief friendship with a waiter who remembered us when we returned two days later because the food was too good to not have again before we left for home.
My favorite memory occurred within a print shop close to the Ponte Vecchio. Francesa was an artist who ran the shop with her husband and son, accompanied by her dog, Oggy. She took copper etchings and copied them onto the paper, which she would then paint. Each piece was unique with slight variations between copies. Amid conversations about cars and arts, she made a somber note to us about the state of Florence: throughout her life, she’s seen many artisans disappear from the city, a result from both lack of interest and competition from foreign companies. She and authentic artisans are now few and far between.
When I look at the prints we bought, featuring smiling young women and ornate door knockers, I feel her genuineness and that of her craft. It connects me to Florence, not the commercial shops and their crowded lines. It is for the citizens like her that we must do our part to preserve the places we visit. Tourism doesn’t have to be destructive, turning nations into globalist shopping districts with a smattering of history. There is a responsibility to be learned and applied while traveling abroad that prioritizes that magic of diversity around the world, and not assimilation to what we already know.
Elizabeth Wolfe is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.