Our recent trip to Sarah's hometown in the historic city of York had us under its spell in more ways than one. Whilst wandering through its charming cobblestone streets, we noticed a real change in tourism.
From the medieval street in York now overrun by Harry Potter themed shops, to accusations of Edinburgh becoming ‘Disney Town’, we’re discussing whether the effect of Hollywood on historic locations has gone too far.
We’re also looking at how Instagram and Social Media are influencing our travel choices and if the impact is positive or negative. From visiting iconic locations made famous by The Holiday and Notting Hill, to the rise of instagrammable backdrops for businesses such as the fake flower wall.
Join us as we talk cream tea breakfasts, Dracula pilgrimages, and try to work out what a Ghost Merchant actually is?
This episode ended up in York Press!
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This series is produced by Emily Crosby Media.
Click here for the full transcript
In today's episode, we're heading straight to the comments about tourism and asking are our favourite destinations losing their authenticity.
We're discussing whether historic cities are becoming little more than branded experiences, which have become stripped of their character and charm. And looking at the role of Instagram in driving these trends
From accusations that Edinburgh has become a Disney town to complaints that the film The Holiday has ruined a small village and Surrey, people have a lot to say online about the impact of Hollywood on tourism.
So let's head straight to the comments as we ask whether the effect of Instagram and Hollywood on historic and cultural places has gone too far. So this episode is inspired by our recent trip to York. I grew up in York, my family are from York, and I was back at my family home. And Lisa came over from Norway for a week to visit which was lovely, but this was your first visit to York, wasn't it Lisa?
It was indeed. And you know, I absolutely loved it. And you know, I always wanted to visit as my grandma is originally from Yorkshire, and she moved down to Poole in the 1950s and she always wanted to go back. But now I understand why she was always talking about it. It was absolutely lovely. And I also wanted to see the house that the Bronte sisters grew up in. So it was a brilliant trip. But York city itself was absolutely gorgeous. I loved all those little winding cobblestone streets and just all the character.
Well, York has a lot of character. I mean, it's a very old historic town. But it's got multiple different historic elements that are all intertwined. So it was a Roman settlement and they called it Eboracum. And you have the York walls that were, that were actually the edge of the settlement at the time, and people can still walk on them. And then to the Saxons, it was known as Eoforwick. I don't know if I pronounced that correctly, but that's how I'm gonna say it. And then, of course, the Vikings, and you must know all about the Vikings living in Norway. But they came as invaders and they stayed on in settlements and they called it Jorvik. And the Jorvik Centre is a well known museum there. And of course, it's got the beautiful cathedral York Minster, which I actually went to the Minster Song School, primary school, so I had to go in there a lot. I didn't appreciate it at the time, I have to say, as a child, but yeah, I mean, it's a beautiful old town with these different elements that come out in the architecture.
But it's not just a beautiful place thaepeople were just so friendly. It's a bit of a cliche to say.
Yeah, Yorkshire people.
They're just so warm and like you said, salt of the earth, and we went to that iconic sort of tea shop didn't we, Betty’s, which is right in the heart of York City. And it was just beautiful. Like, would you say it's all art deco in there?
Yes, it is now. I'm trying to I think, the building is, but they've really brought it out in the decor more recently and the huge glass windows, and there's often a very long, very long queue for people to get in. But it's lovely.
I mean, we had the most delicious breakfast and we had some like eggs and eggs royale, just delicious with a cappuccino. But then it was like 10.30 in the morning and the people next to us had like a whole cream tea going on.
Yes. I've never seen a cream tea breakfast before. I'm very very familiar with high tea, afternoon tea. But that was a new one for me.
But then you took me
I took you to The Shambles I did.
For people who don't know it's one of the most recognised historic streets in England, it's often referred to as the best preserved medieval Street in Europe. And for example, I'm just going to read a description that someone put on TripAdvisor, which is, “the short historical street is located in the centre of the city amongst other taller more modern buildings, and therefore can be easily missed, but for the signposts. The narrow street is cobbled and on either side there are old quirky Tudor buildings that give it a closed in and interesting feeling. This is a major tourist attraction so it can get busy but still worth visiting.” And I used to go down there as a child mainly because one of my favourite art supply shops was down there. And one of my fetishes so to speak I used to love collecting art supplies, that and stationery. So I'm quite familiar with the place. It was a very oldy worldy, at the top the buildings across from each other had leaned in so much that you could reach out of one side and shake hands with someone on the other side. So it's got that old world charm. But you know, if you grew up there, you kind of get a little bit acclimatised. I mean, how would you describe it now? Because that is not what it is now, I don't think.
Yeah, I mean, as soon as you step foot on that street, it feels like you've been transported onto a film set, or a Harry Potter theme park. I mean, almost all the shops were to do with Harry Potter, wizards, witches or ghosts. And it was just so funny, because when I was walking along, do you remember, that big puff of smoke came at me, and I sort of jumped out of my skin. And it just was like really like shocking, and it turned out, I mean, it was just a wizard wand in the front of the shop, wasn't it?
Just, just poking out? Yeah, you were being attacked by a wizard wand. And they've really gone to town with the Harry Potter to think and this isn't something that I remember. But yeah, I mean, it was Harry Potter World, essentially that whole street now.
Yes, to be honest, the whole street was just magical. And I can imagine wonderful if you're a Harry Potter fan and into magic. And then we sort of went down a couple of shops didn't we and sort of got away from the Harry Potter stuff and we went into like a wool shop and bought a scarf. And we asked the lady behind the counter, didn't we, when we bought the scarf and said, you know, what's going on? Why is there so much to do with Harry Potter and magic? And she said, Well, the whole street has completely changed over the last few years. And it didn't used to be like this in the Shambles. And that actually, it was all to do with JK Rowling. And the idea that was this was the inspiration behind Diagon Alley from the books.
Yeah, it's definitely not what I remember. I mean, that makes sense. Harry Potter came out in 2001. AndI was born in ‘83. So I had a whole sort of 18 years without Harry Potter. So it's weird as well, because this whole ghost thing, this whole wizard thing. We went into one shop and someone told us - Oh, York's the most haunted city in Britain - which is not something I was aware of, even though I've grown up there.
Yeah, it was a bit strange, wasn't it? Because we went home and we were a bit sort of curious about all this stuff about hauntings and ghosts and Yotk being the most haunted place. So we looked it up and it said that in 2002, York was declared the most haunted city in the world by the Ghost Research Foundation International. The institute registered 504 hauntings in the city. And they said in the Yorkshire Post, there was a comment sorry, in the Yorkshire Post, ‘a surprisingly precise number for something so diaphanous’.
Yeah, I mean, they've got a point.
It’s really exact.
It's really exact, isn't it? Someone told us as we were shopping that the Oliver Bonas shop in York had 20 confirmed ghosts in it. I mean, that's quite a spooky thought, especially because it had a Holy Bible hanging above it. Do you remember when we went in?
It did, it was sort of a beautiful, beautiful old building. But I mean, how do they know that there are 20 confirmed ghosts. I'm not, you know, saying yay or nay to ghosts in either direction. But you'd have thought that if they had someone who could come in and count them that they would have also just sent them home or something or however that works. I don't know. But, but this is not something that people were telling you all about. I don't remember this as a big theme growing up. I mean, they had the ghost tours, but I know they have that in other historic cities like London and I think maybe Edinburgh. And they do have the York dungeon like, like London. But the main focus for me growing up was the Romans, the Vikings and the Minster cathedral, and this ghost / wizard / Harry Potter element. You know, it’s something very new that I didn't grow up with and a bit confusing for me, I suppose.
I mean, come on. Yes, they're clearly capitalising on Harry Potter. And, and I can imagine that really pays off big time in terms of tourism. But you know, this idea of it being Diagon Alley inspiration, The Shambles is even mentioned on the visit York official website.
Yeah, that's crazy for me, because I wouldn't have thought that they would be on the official websites, pushing that element, maybe the shopkeepers. But this is even despite in 2020, so three years ago, JK Rowling herself disputed this, and she tweeted that she was “thinking of putting a section on my website about all of the alleged inspirations and birthplaces of Potter.” And someone actually responded with “there are businesses here in York who will fight anyone probably including you, who doubts that Diagon Alley is actually The Shambles. I would not recommend coming between a Yorkshire shopkeeper and their marketing.” And she actually replied by tweeting “Well, it looks like I've got a fight on my hands, because I've never seen or been to The Shambles”. And despite that, despite her coming out and saying that openly herself, it's still on the visit York official website, it's still really pushed a lot online.
That's incredible. Really a lot of creative licence isn't that? Well, I was never really into Harry Potter. I mean, I understand why it's so captivating. It, you know, it's got a lot of the things that I enjoy too, like magic, wizardry, ghosts and things like that. But I was much more, you know, growing up in the 90s much more into Dracula and gothic literature films. And you know, I had a bit of an obsession with Dracula.
Yeah, I did know that!
Which we’ll talk about later. So I can condone people being into Harry Potter or fascinated with it. But what about you? Were you into Harry Potter?
I didn't read the books. They weren't the kind of books that I tend to read. I'm gonna sound really pretentious. I had a whole thing as well, where I wouldn't read anything that was past, you know, beyond the 20th century. I was like, early, early 20th century was my jam.
You know, and classically, that teenage thing of Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf, who I still love, but I do love the films. I love the films, never read the books, but I don't necessarily want to go to a theme park of it. Let's put it that way. Yeah, I would be much more like you. I mean, I would be very keen to go with you to Transylvania for Dracula. Or or, you know what actually is on my absolute bucket list is the Orient Express. So I suppose that is inspired by a film. You know, in and of itself it's a beautiful thing. So, so I think that would be my ultimate film experience.
Oh, that sounds so good. I'm with you on that. But like I said, I really didn't appreciate how much magic, wizardry, ghosts are big tourist magnets in the UK. In 2017 The Independent wrote “tourism is worth 127 billion annually to the UK economy. And films and literature provide a powerful draw. Oversea holidaymakers who visit castles and historic houses spend about 8 billion annually. Last year, a professor at the London School of Economics said that Harry Potter was worth, wait for it, 4 billion to the UK economy.”
Also, yeah. And they also go on to describe the fierce competition for what they call the ‘Potter pound’ amongst retailers keen to cash in on this phenomenon.
I mean, yeah, I mean, that is a lot. And it brings me on to the York Ghost Merchants, which were another big draw of The Shambles. And I had no idea what it was.
That was such a mysterious shop.
Well, it was closed on the day we went. I was a bit confused. We were trying to work it out. Was it an experience? Was it a shop, you know? And on their website, when we got home and looked, they said, “We are the makers and sellers of the original and finest York ghosts. We’re the only ghost merchants still trading in the 21st century.” And that makes it sound like it's a really long running established thing that you know, they've gone back centuries of people making York ghosts. And I still was very confused. I still couldn't really understand what they were selling. And I looked them up online, you know, and it wasn't on their website. I actually had to do quite a lot of online digging and I found out that they opened in 2019. So not that long running. And they essentially make a sort of ceramic ghost figurine but lots of different ones. And the co-owner Angus McArthur has described it as “York ghost are little curiosities, they’re souvenirs, they’re keepsakes, talismans, charms. They're a bit more than a plastic knick knack.” I mean, they're doing very well, I still see, I still feel slightly confused. They’re collectibles essentially, I think.
I was really confused too. I went online onto Instagram just to see what they are and follow them. And actually, they're super cute. And what's nice is people, they sort of really push that they're super collectible in a sort of timeframe and limited edition. I think that just sort of really heightens the desirability of these things, right?
But when I went back just to look the day it was open when you weren't around. It was incredible, Sarah. The Shambles was completely different. There was just a queue. They said there was a three hour wait to get into the shop. It was insane. And it also had unbelievably 59 billion views on tiktok, these little ceramics and the shop. So it's an absolute phenomenon. And even my taxi driver when he dropped me off to go back to the airport. He said a lot of people, they asked to be picked up from York train station, driven straight to the Ghost shop, buy the figurines and then go back, and they fly back to wherever they came from. Because they're so collectible and they're so obsessed with them, they just want to see The Shambles. It’s the only thing they want to see and that Ghost shop.
Yeah, I mean I'm a sucker for a collectible, even the more we were doing research, I was like, oh maybe, but I was like this isn't actually my thing. Why are you getting suckered into it? It really shows the commercialisation has paid off and the marketing but almost to an annoying level, I can imagine, certainly for the people living there. And we found this TripAdvisor comment that said, “The shops are straight out of a Harry Potter movie and designed for foreign tourists. It is so hammed up, not even Disney would try to replicate it. Please York council do something through the planning laws. It’s such a pretty area but ruined by the excessive commercialisation of the sharps. Lastly, what is the permanent queue of largely foreign tourists, which is always lining the streets of The Shambles? Something about a ghost shop tour?” And so even they're confused. Another one said, “visited the shambles and I'm not sure what I expected, but it wasn't what we saw. A very small street and huge queues to go into a little shop that sold what I can only describe as tiny pottery ghosts”. You know, I can totally see that if I was setting up a business and I wanted it to be successful, I would do whatever it took to market it and make it successful. And this is a genius marketing approach.
And good on them. You know, it encourages the economy and encourages tourism.
But there's something a bit fake about it all I suppose. Which is a bit sad for me. When I think of York I think of authentic history. I mean, it's just there. We get to see into these worlds that no longer exist and authentically so, and yet people are coming just to go by a ceramic ghosts that has only really been invented, what, for years ago? And the Harry Potter thing as well, you know, I do love the films. But for me, York isn’t about Harry Potter. And it's sad that for quite a lot of people, that's the only thing that they're associating with it. I also don't know how many Harry Potter shops you need in one street, because I think it was up to about four or five at one point and that does seem like overkill.
Yeah, exactly. And it reminds me of some of the comments I read online about Edinburgh and it said, “Edinburgh has been turned into Disney town over the years.” I mean, you and I both grew up in tourist towns. I grew up in Poole and Bournemouth and we relied very heavily on tourism, and you know, and I worked at a hotel in Bournemouth on the seaside front growing up, and it was called The Royal Bath Hotel. I would serve all the afternoon teas in the lounge. It was really old fashioned and lovely. It was brilliant and summer in Bournemouth and Poole was so buzzy, it would really come alive and then the winter would come and it'd be completely dead and completely different. And so I would say we relied 100% on tourism. When I did some research and a survey by the National Coastal Tourism Academy. “In 2013, 6.8 million people visited Bournemouth out of a total of 30 million visitors to Dorset. And that visitor spent a total of 501 million. But those who stay overnight are worth more to the economy. And that tourism supports over 12,000 jobs”. So it just shows you how important tourism is to our communities and to our livelihoods.
Oh absolutely. Especially places that are particularly hinged on that. So I spend a lot of time in Cape Town, which is a big holiday destination for a lot of people. And they do rely on the foreign income, particularly because of the exchange rate. And I really saw the effect of the lockdown on Cape Town. A lot of people went out of business. And so I can really see the importance of tourism. But sometimes people forget that people actually live there as well.
I mean, I studied at Christ Church, Oxford, which weirdly also has a Harry Potter connection. The dining hall, it was the inspiration for the dining hall at Hogwarts. They filmed on the staircase going into the dining hall for when they first arrived at Hogwarts as well. But it was very weird living and working there, and also having it as a tourist attraction. I mean, I used to be trying to get to tutorials, and I'd come out maybe running late, and I'd just be swarmed by about 30 foreign children who are dressed in wizarding robes and hats.
Oh, that's so sweet. So sweet.
It's very sweet except for when you're trying to get to a tutorial that you're gonna get told off for. And, and there was one anecdote of my friend’s. So there are parts that are open to the public and parts that aren't. And the parts that the students actually live in, not so much. And he was just trying to study in his room, one of my friends, and a Chinese tourist just came walked into his bedroom, essentially, and started trying to take photos of the place.
And he was just - um, yeah, this is not open to the…
I’m not Daniel Radcliffe
Just, this is just my room, guys. You know, so there is that balance. It can be very frustrating when you're living and trying to go about your daily life and you're just overrun by tourists.
Yeah, and especially when you have something as beautiful as Christ Church college. I mean, isn't isn't there like a little, what do they call it, punting? Where you do the Alice in Wonderland tour around there as well?
So Christ Church really has the Alice in Wonderland theme as well as the Harry Potter theme. And we're I think we're the only college in Oxford that has a working cathedral. So there's all these different elements and there's a beautiful meadows. It is stunning. And I think if you've paid to get in, which I don't think it's cheap, as a tourist, you feel, well, I'm gonna get my money's worth. But it's about the balance, because we've also also, the students pay to be there and to study there. And that is the primary reason for being I suppose, so.
But Sarah, it's not just about Harry Potter, is that I mean, you and I grew up in the what would you say the peakRom Com era? And, you know, Notting Hill, Love Actually, The Holiday
Thank you Richard Curtis!
My absolute favourite is The Holiday, even though I've read so many articles, sort of deconstructing it and saying it's actually a terrible film and all the messages in it are terrible. So let's just enjoy it for what it is right?
But I was in love with that cottage in The Holiday. I mean, do you remember it, the one that Kate Winslet’s character lived in, Iris.
It was so pretty, but I would have said almost too pretty. It'd be the kind of thing that my mom would call chocolate box sweet.
And you know, ideal almost. But the main thing for me about these cute little cottages is, I’m 5’11 and I'm not a slip of a woman, shall we put it that way? I just think, you know, it's like living on a narrow boat. How do you? I'm gonna need the space. I'm also, you know, genetically predisposed to hoarding through my family so I don't know where I would fit all my stuff. But it was gorgeous. Absolutely.
I mean, it was, it was so I, just idyllic and gorgeous. It was, like you said, it's like the perfect little cottage. So when the film came out in 2006, even back then I remember when I was Googling, you could find quite a lot of sites dedicated to where it was filmed, and about the interior design. And now there's absolutely hundreds and the director or the writer and director behind it, Nancy Meyers. She's sort of known for creating these beautiful interiors and locations. You know, she did the Parent Trap with Lindsay Lohan. Something's Got To Give with Diane Keaton. And It's Complicated with Meryl Streep. They always have these beautiful, like I said, interiors, and she's created this phenomenon called ‘aspirational lady porn’.
Yeah I’ve not heard that phrase before.
Yeah. So she started a whole industry of like these Pinterest perfect little cottages and properties. And yeah, so. So fun fact, for those who don't know, that actually the cottage featured in the film was fake.
Yeah. Apparently the producers could not find a storybook looking enough cottage in the whole of the UK, which I found sort of incredible. So they built one from scratch in this place called Shere village in Surrey. And even the landscaping and the gardening was the work of a production team. And you know, to make it all picture perfect for when Cameron Diaz arrived in the snow.
That is crazy. That is, I mean, I know they'll build whole sets, but building a whole house is a whole next level.
I mean, yeah, like if you go round the Cotswolds. I mean, there's just so many cottages. It was incredible, really, that they had to build it. I mean, yes, it's really incredible to think in all of the UK, you couldn't find a pretty enough cottage. But there you go. So I actually visited Shere village with my friend. It was absolutely gorgeous, like really picturesque, but very, very small. Literally, you can just walk around five locations that the film was filmed in, and that's it, you know, the church, the pub, etc. But when I did research for this episode, and looked online last year, there's quite a lot of articles saying the locals absolutely hate this film and what it's done to their village. It's ruined the village at Christmas, as everyone piles in taking photos, and now it's all Airbnb rentals and nowhere to park.
Yeah, I suppose what I'd be tempted to do is rent out my house for a very high price at Christmas and just go somewhere else, because you wouldn't want to be there. I mean, it makes me laugh because I do enjoy it for that sort of trashy rom com feel, but sort of I don't know how Kate Winslet’s character, who's a journalist, earns enough to have such a beautiful house in the Cotswolds.
Yes. Right. Exactly. I mean, it's like that famous thing like Carrie Bradshaw wages, like where are they? How are they affording these beautiful homes? And I was always thought, like, who's looking after the dog? You know, I really get stuck into these details. And I think the film has a lot to answer for in terms of setting realistic expectations for women, you know, like you're gonna meet Jude Law down the pub. When does that ever happen?
But it's not just The Holiday that's impacting a little village in Surrey. There's also the impact of Notting Hill. And do you remember the pink house in Notting Hill?
I do. Yeah, very pretty.
Very, very pretty. But apparently, this house has become a sort of go to place for influencers to take lots of photos. And it's actually been leading to damage being done to the building. So the owner said, “high heels worn by models have cracked the doorstep of his West London home. And his railings have also been damaged. He said people use his home for photos on a daily basis”. A quote from him, “One time there was this really big group, they had changing tents outside. They had two tents there. They take it in turns to sit on the doorstep. They left their bags there and left and they never came back.”
Wow. I mean, they just left their bags and went off. They were like, we don't need them. We've got we've got the shot.
I mean, yeah, I do think the rise of, even though I'm not on Instagram that much, I think the rise of Instagram and influencers has had a huge effect on tourist spots. And in 2019 Insider did an article that was titled “15 destinations, Instagram has helped ruin.” And one of the quotes in there was “these 15 trouble spots have faced overcrowding, gridlock, environmental damages, and more thanks to unwelcome Instagram fame”. So for example, and brace yourselves, “the Tibetan base camp of Everest accumulated over eight tonnes of waste, including human faeces and mountaineering equipment, thanks in part to the flow of tourists who could reach the Tibetan side of the mountain by car.” And I've actually been there when I was 16. So it's quite quite a while ago. I don't remember it being that bad. But I was really not very well at the time. But I think it's absolutely insane that I suppose it just shows whatever you think is just a little thing for one person absolutely builds up when there are 1000s and hundreds of 1000s of people and that's why you have to be so careful. But I'm not gonna give you a lecture on littering right now.
No, no, but it's my pet hate issue. I am that person now. I felt like I fully claimed that when I turned 40, I started picking up litter in my local community because it's so pristine where I live.
On the water. I just can't bear it. But it's interesting because, you know, recently Amsterdam launched a ‘Stay Away campaign’ in a bid to crackdown on anti social behaviour among visitors to the city. Its council has released a digital campaign aimed at 18 to 35 year old men in the UK. And this is nothing new. You know, I've read a lot about Barcelona, being sort of subject to overtourism. It said, “tourist numbers in Barcelona have quadrupled in a decade”, can you believe that?
That is insane.
“And for residents, this has translated into a 50% rent increase over the last past five years”. And this is going back to my point earlier about Shere village that they're saying that it's just full of Airbnb. It's, you know, it's not good for the local community.
No, it's crazy, because actually, Barcelona is on my wish list. I love architecture, so I've always want to see the Gaudi stuff. But you do feel, A, bad the impact that you're having, but, B, it's not fun for the tourists if you have to, if you're in a swarm, even for yourself. But I think it's quite hard to get that trade off between the revenues and the jobs that are generated through tourism, which is obviously very important for the economy and for the locals, but also the quality of life for the people who actually live there. I mean, it's hard to find that balance. But this isn't something that's actually new. For example, Niagara Falls, “as far back as the 1830s, there were complaints that the landscape around the Falls was being spoilt by the sheer number of visitors. And by the mid 19th century, the number of shops, photographers and aggressive guides, were according to some ruining the experience.” So I think, although I think maybe they'd be complaining a lot more today. Closer to home, we have Stonehenge, which I visited only a few years ago. And it was completely roped off. And you know, there was a very set sort of organised path to get there. But in the past, visitors to Stonehenge were actually handed chisels so that they could chip off a little piece to take home. That seems absolutely crazy to me. It would be like turning up. What? Oh, God, I don't know, some beautiful monument and just being like, I'll just take a bit home with me.
I heard they used to do that to the pyramids as well didn't they?
Yeah I think so. Because yeah, back in the day, they used to just do whatever they want. And maybe the numbers were a lot smaller, but it does seem, it seems like a strange thing to do. There's a difference between taking up a stone that you found on the floor and chipping off a bit of the pyramids or something. But according to the BBC, “the practice has now been outlawed since 1900. When the landowner Sir Edmund Antrobus decided that the site needed protecting and he introduced charges. As visitorship increased, the grass in the centre of the stones died from being trampled by 815,000 people every year. So in 1977, the stones were roped off so that people couldn't climb on them any longer.” And that's how it was when I went.
Yeah, no, it was still a great experience. But it was, you know, it's not, I would have loved to have been in there alone. And without rope. I think there was a comment on Reddit where someone talked about “when I was a child, it wasn't fenced off. Me and my sisters used to play on and around the stones. It's a fascinating glimpse back to an utterly unrecorded time and I love seeing it as I pass. The visitor centre and roped off path miles from the stones may protect them, but they really reduce the magic.” And I can totally understand that. I would have loved to have been there as a child climbing on the stones and just enjoying them naturally. But when you've got those numbers, do you have to think about protection. So I understand that too. It's just you know, it is the way it is. But as we've touched on, the fact of Instagram has really affected how people are tourists, I think it’s changed things a lot hasn't it?
It was interesting, because I was thinking about it the other day that I used to buy Lonely Planet books a lot before I went to travel somewhere and I didn't travel a lot growing up. But I bought a book about Thailand, one about California. And then I would go through it and sort of sort of highlight the places I wanted to visit that were interesting to me from those really amazing little reviews of restaurants, historic sites, you know. And you really have to put a lot of work into it and get your map out and everything, you know.
Did you ever used to buy Lonely Planet books?
I did. I probably still would, because I'm such a, I have such a fetish for books and papers. I like, I'm old school. I don't do Kindles at all. Yeah, no, you really had to go through… but there were so many options. It wasn't like, here are five things, everyone go to these five things. You could really, you really had a lot of choice. And it was up to you to build an itinerary. And I'm a big fan of itineraries.
But the point was you'd sort of go through the Lonely Planet books and you'd pick the places that were interesting. It wasn't just like feeling like cities were Instagram checklists. And everyone's going to the same places and taking photos. You know, you don't feel like everyone is spread out. And actually, the travel editor of the Financial Times says that “Instagram is a real issue, and that the tourists boards have a real job to kind of try and get people to visit other places”. And he said “the issue is not overtourism. It’s that everyone is going to the same places.” So I thought that was a very interesting insight.
Well, it's weird to me, because one of the things that I specifically do research on when I go somewhere is, what are the hidden gems? What are the exciting things?
And sometimes I also, I used to play this game, where you get on a bus or a train, (it depends if you're in a safe place), and you drive around until you see something interesting. And then you just walk down that street because I do love architecture. And you get to discover a bit of what it's really like there. That's what I like. Yeah, and according to travel company Topdeck “18% of 18 to 30 year olds book holidays directly based on posts.”
I mean, that's insane.
Yeah, I can't imagine doing that. But, I mean, obviously, it works.
And I read an article ‘#Instagram ruined my holiday’, where the writer said, “Santorini wasn't like this the last time I visited 10 years ago. Of course it was still heaving, tourists have flocked here for decades. And it would be churlish to suggest that many weren't taking multiple selfies on digital cameras in the naughties, too. But they weren't subjecting everyone around them to a relentless public quest for validation.” I think living through the camera is such a big thing these days. I think it's just so hard for people to enjoy it in the moment and the experience. You know, they're so busy thinking about how they're going to portray it later on social media.
That's, that's really true. Men's editor of Conde Nast traveller, he put it this way, “we've turned the camera around, focusing not out but in. Photography no longer encourages seeing. It simply encourages projecting, turning the world's great vistas into mere backdrops for the self”. I think he's put that so well. And it really brings me on to what's not just about ignoring beautiful vistas. Sometimes people go to the level of just treating places that have important historical context, or have a sombre past, just as a set or a photo opportunity. For example, I went to Robben Island, just off Cape Town, and it's where the prisoners were held during the apartheid movement. Particularly Nelson Mandela was one of the most famous inmates. And you do this organised tour and it culminates, and what's what's actually brilliant about it is, the the tour, the people who do the tours are ex-prisoners who are paid, who then make a living from that. And so they bring their own personal experience, they were actually in there. And it culminates in the cell that Nelson Mandela was kept in for 18 years. It's a small cell, and you know, to be locked up, I can't even imagine being locked up for 18 years. But as we came to it, everyone was jostling, pushing each other out the way and trying to take photos. There were even some people holding up their camera or phone over the head of the people in front of them and just snap, snap snapping away. And I was actually really shocked because for me, I had no intention of taking a photo. And I'm not saying you should never take a photo. But I just wanted to have a reflective experience that a real, another human being had been locked up there, you know, unfairly, and had had to live their life in that space. And I think it was something that I just wanted to reflect and have respect for. But I was definitely pretty much the only one like that. Because it was, it was essentially just a crazy jostling photoshoot. And I found that really, really strange.
I just find that unbelievable. Like, really, do they not even have signs up saying you can't take photos? They've not taken that policy, then?
No, and I think South Africa, because there is such a lot of poverty. People will allow what has essentially become poverty tourism as well. You have that in the townships.
Because they just need the money. And they want the income coming in. There are a lot, there are a lot less rules there, I would say. But I also think people just become really desensitised to that feeling. And I was telling someone else's story. And they said, it's strange because there are so many famous photos of that room, there's no need for you to take one. If you want a photo, get one that's actually well done. You don't need to be pushing people out of the way to take a really shitty photo on your camera, on your phone. And I think people have become really desensitised to really, the empathy of what, what, what other people's experiences are. But how much do you think technology and social media has affected our ability to sort of just be in the moment?
Well, there was this comment on Quora that said “98% of humans are not living in the moment. They're living in future moments where they will show their pics to other people on social media and get that feeling of appreciation. I mean, one to two pictures is good, but more than half the time they're clicking pictures in different poses so that they can live in the illusion that their life is awesome by showing it to other people.”
So how are you photo taking and live or living in the moment?
When I used to travel before, back in the 90s, I just had a rubbish camera so I didn't take a lot of photos. But ever since I got the iPhone I do take quite a few pictures. And when I went on one of my first weekend breaks with my new boyfriend, you know, now nearly six years ago, we went to Copenhagen, you know, I had, I was holding his hand. And then I had the camera on the phone, constantly taking pictures, because it's such a beautiful place. And by 8 o'clock in the evening, we got to Tivoli Gardens, which is this beautiful kind of little old fashioned amusement park. I was like, Oh, that's so pretty. That's so pretty. And he said, just put the camera away. It's enough. And I was like, I was like our fat shaming episode, I was photoshamed. And I slid the camera back into the handbag, like, Oh, I'm that person, you know, I'm just not in the moment at all. So I have been there. And I saw it to a really extreme level when I went to Florence for the first time last year, again, another holiday I've been waiting for, you know, after COVID. I had done it for years. And I went there. And my goodness, it was just like following a trail of people doing the same photos. And you finally get to this famous spot at the top of Florence and everyone's looking over to take those iconic sunset pictures. And it was just like you said, it was jostling for position. I even had this young lady, she seemed to have a team of people and I don't think she was famous, just her friends. And they sort of pushed you away like bouncers so that she could look like she was sat on the wall on her own with the sunset behind her. And like her hair being pulled to one side. And I thought I was being cheeky just getting a selfie with me and my partner, but she was not aware at all. So I, I've seen, I've done it myself, I own it, that I have had a tendency to this, and I'm trying to stop it and live in the moment more.
But you haven't brought bouncers with you, so?
I’ve brought no bouncers with me, and teams to kind of make sure I look glorious on those sunset photos in Florence. But yeah, I mean, that is new to me, this sort of doing whole photoshoots like I said, you know, in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, there is like whole theatre productions going on now.
I mean, I've never been like that myself. I've actually almost, I went through a whole period where I wouldn't take photos when I went somewhere. But I loved, and I still do, I love art exhibitions. But sometimes I'd be distracted from just enjoying the art because I'd be thinking which of these paintings am I going to get a postcard off so that I can keep the memory of that, that art and it really felt like I was trying to possess it, like I couldn't just enjoy it in the moment because then it’d be gone. And I didn't trust somehow for some reason there was like, you couldn't just go back to it in your memory, you needed something physical that you could hold on to, that somehow memorialised it.
And I would sometimes not even experience the, I don't think I was experiencing the art as fully as I could, because I was really focusing on that. And that brings me to a Quora comment that I feel sums it up, which says “people are obsessed with taking pictures because they're scared, scared that one day all their precious memories will be gone. Over time as you age your birthday memories store themselves in a tight container, not letting you see them one last time, not even letting you say goodbye. People are obsessed with taking pictures because that, that phone stores their memories for them, most likely being with them until they leave this earth. Just by looking at a single or 1000s of pictures, memories can be reborn, even restored.” And I think that's a very beautiful quote.
I agree. I think it's quite moving. Well, I definitely think Instagram has changed so many things and how we engage with life. I mean, it's not just about tourist destinations. You know, one of the things I noticed in the UK and visiting York, and you well know, is when we get to these cafes and restaurants, and you know, we've just been sitting in Betty's and I was looking over at the National Bank, everything's covered in these sort of artificial plastic flowers and the sort of Instagramable backdrops. And I just was really intrigued by this. I was like, where's this come from? Because yes, I've been back to the UK, like only a handful of times in the last five years, but I've never seen it so much as when I was in York City.
Yeah. And you were actually getting quite irate about it. I mean, but it sort of made sense because almost every 10 to 20 metres, you couldn't go without seeing somewhere covered in fake flowers. And it's really, it was funny, actually, because I was in the Ivy in Soho a few weeks ago, and I was in the bathroom and the ceiling was covered in these very pretty fabric flowers with a beautiful wallpaper down the side. And I was thinking, Well, that's pretty, so I took a photo. So it clearly works on people, but I was surprised at how many of the buildings outside of York had them. It was, yeah, a lot.
I mean, they absolutely were everywhere. And you know, we went and looked this up, didn’t we, afterwards, because we were like, is it just me? And it’s obviously been a thing for a while, because in 2021 The Guardian wrote an article titled “Tacky or trendy? Fake flowers are blooming all over the country.” And they said “the main driver of this boom has been the flower wall with giant garlands of fake blooms and foliage providing a supposedly glamorous backdrop for selfies.”
Well, yeah, I think this trend has definitely started by celebrities. I mean, I don't know if you remember, Kim Kardashian had a flower wall for her wedding to Kanye, but they were real flowers. So I think that that is a bit different.
Yes, I remember that. And actually a lot of UK celebrities, I was just looking on Instagram, they post a lot of pictures with these elaborate and artificial sort of floral backdrops in their own homes. And apparently, this has led to a massive increase in fake flowers at home as well. And Tesco have said, “we've seen a nearly three fold year on year increase in sale of artificial flowers.”
I just can't believe it.
I mean, I suppose it makes sense, because there are these lists of Instagrammable, the most Instagrammable restaurants, which isn't necessarily how I would choose my restaurant. I do love atmosphere and design. But yeah, that's a, that's a whole new level. But the extent of this trend really took me by surprise, because I'm not really on Instagram very much, and it's not every 10 to 20 metres in Cape Town. I mean, what's it like in Norway?
Well, I don't think I've ever seen it like this in Norway. I mean, of course, you've got this stunning backdrop in nature. And I just can't imagine going for a walk in the nature and or the fjords and then suddenly you stop in a cafe with some fake wisteria over the front to make it extra beautiful. I can understand in cities to liven them up. But they look so fake to me. Sorry I'm going into my rant again. I don't think I'm alone, Oisín Rogers of Mayfair’s Guinea Grill explains the rise of these flower walls as “you can't take a selfie with a backdrop of food on a plate when you're dining out. But you can do one against these flower walls. And you can see how initially, you think they may look nice, but they're not. They’re aesthetically awful and environmentally unsound.”
Yeah, I mean, and there has been a backlash, like an article you described. He's not the only one who’s said stuff. There are quite a few people who firmly come down on this trend being tacky. For example, style and etiquette writer William Hanson. He says, “restaurants have had a tough year. And if it helps them get bums on seats, part of me can understand why they do it. But it's just so tacky. Of course, it would be hugely expensive to have real flowers and to have to keep changing them every few days. But why have them at all? What's wrong with an elegant sign on an attractive building?”
And this has been echoed by quite a few online comments as well. So in the Daily Mail, there was one that said “don't understand the attraction of posing in front of plastic or silk flowers. We in the UK have stunning scenery, buildings, countryside, coastal views, etc. Why choose fakery?” And another said, “I saw a cafe in London this weekend with walls covered in fake flowers. I just thought it looked tacky and over the top and I didn't go in as I felt it wasn't clean with all the muck and dust that must accumulate on the walls.”
Exactly. But I think there's so much pressure to make things look beautiful for Instagram. That's the thing, isn't it? So is sort of warping, the kind of environments we're in. I mean, even if they couldn't find the producers a cottage pretty enough in the UK, they had to build one from scratch. It's it's something a bit strange, isn't it? How artificial it has to all be?
Yeah, and I mean, I've mentioned I love aesthetics, and I love production design. And I actually, I used to really like flower displays when they were a new thing. I thought they were, you know, original and beautiful. But they're not original now because everyone's doing it. When I watch a film and I want to step into that world. But I actually want us to step into the reality of that world. I don't want to step into a film set, something that feels very empty behind the scenes. And so that doesn't really appeal to me. But it obviously appeals to a lot of people. So…
You know. So we've gone through just a snapshot of the comments, but I suppose what it comes down to is, do you think Hollywood and Instagram has really changed tourism?
Look, I'm the first to say that films have really influenced where I want to visit and travel. You know, like I said to you, I was obsessed with the film Dracula in 1992. I wanted to go to Transylvania and follow in the footsteps of the character, Jonathan Harker, and what was all outlined in the novel. And at the time, I was 15. And my parents were like, No, you're not doing that.
Kind of understandable.
It was really expensive and a bit odd for a 15 year old to do that on their own. I think I had a few best friends I was trying to enrol to come with me. I’m still trying to get them to come with me.
Yeah, I'm in.
Yeah, okay, good. And still to this day, I want to go and I think with the arrival of cheap travel, social media, you know, online sites that so clearly sort of mark out where you can visit and the filming locations. It's just so easy to experience the world of your favourite film characters now. But look, there is a danger like the commentator said about turning places into Disney towns. Edwin Heathcoate wrote this in the Financial Times about Edinburgh. He said of cities, “they've turned themselves into spectacles. Increasingly, they rely on that tourism, ensuring ever greater degradation of exactly the things that made them unique. The sublime is commodified. If cities reimagine themselves as global brands to attract tourism, they deserve what they get. A city is not a brand. And while we bemoan the pressure of mass tourism, and the creeping privatisation of public space, we are complicit.” What do you think?
Well, I grew up watching movies, and I love the sense of magic on the screen. And if a particular movie has touched you, then you can often want to explore it further by visiting the places associated with it. I mean, I've often done the same myself, particularly with art and literary figures. So for example, Vanessa Bell's Charleston is just one of my favourites. But it does sadden me that beautiful historic places are sometimes being turned into what you can describe as, I suppose, glorified film sets. And what's ironic is that when we see something really beautiful on Instagram, we're often initially attracted to it because of its originality, but by everyone trying to recreate the exact same aesthetic, it unfortunately just becomes banal and well, much less authentic. Following trends are nothing new, but with the rise of Instagram, it sometimes seems that online inspiration has just become a paint by numbers instruction book. But cities are complex systems. And for many, tourism is a really important factor. For some places it's what sustains that city's economy. And so I can definitely understand how important it is, especially after the effects of the global pandemic for the last couple of years. But I mean, if the effects of tourism and how they're managed become unbalanced and make the city unlivable for the locals, or even an unpleasant experience for the tourist, then we need to rethink how we approach this. We're often so driven to see the exact scene made famous by one form of media that we completely miss out on the hidden gems around us. And I suppose what I'd like is to encourage people to enjoy the beauty that we can find in the unexpected places, sometimes even in the town that we've been living in for decades, but never noticed before.
That's beautiful, and I'm going to end it with a comment in response to an overtourism article in The Guardian. Someone wrote, “Dear guardian, if you're so piously concerned about the perils of peasants travelling abroad, please shutter your Travel section, ask Conde Nast to close all its travel magazines, tell the airlines to stop offering 20 pound tickets to Timbuktu, and ask the Poldark team to film the next series in Croydon. Problem solved. Thank you for listening,
and we look forward to seeing you next time.
Thank you to our lovely producer Emily. If you enjoy today's episode, please don't forget to leave a review and subscribe. It really does help us in reaching more people.
Also, you can follow us on Instagram at straight to the comments podcast. Our handle is @s2tcpodcast, and join us next week where we'll be diving headfirst straight to the comments. See you there. This podcast has been produced by Emily Crosby media