From Dubrovnik to Tulum, 21st-century tourists cycle through destinations with brutal speed, descending en masse on one supposedly-undiscovered city or beach town after another. At Vox, Kyle Chayka reflects on the perils of overtourism while traveling around Iceland, where he goes on a Game of Thrones bus tour, takes a dip in the entirely human-made Blue Lagoon, and watches the northern lights… in an IMAX theater. Rather than inspire nostalgia for a time when authentic travel experiences were still possible (the 16th century, maybe?), the trip leads him to acceptance. We can never live like locals; our “wanderlust” is shaped almost entirely by algorithms and market forces; and maybe that’s just fine — or at least better than playing a never-ending game of authenticity one-upmanship.
In the face of overtourism, I want to make an argument for the inauthentic. Not just the spots flooded with tourists but the simulations and the fictions, the ways that the world of tourism supersedes reality and becomes its own space. It is made up of the digital northern lights on an 8K movie screen, the manmade turquoise geothermal baths, and the computer renderings of high-budget television shows overlaid on the earth. I don’t regret any of these activities; in fact, the less authentic an experience was supposed to be in Iceland, the more fun I had and the more aware I was of the consequences of 21st-century travel.
This is not to discount the charm of hiking an empty mountain or the very real damage that tourists cause, disrupting lives and often intensifying local inequality. But maybe by reclaiming these experiences, or destigmatizing them, we can also begin regaining our agency over the rampant commodification of places and people. We can travel to see what exists instead of wishing for some mythical untouched state, the dream of a place prepared perfectly for visitors and yet empty of them. Instead of trying to “live like a local,” as Airbnb commands, we can just be tourists. When a destination is deemed dead might be the best time to go there, as the most accurate reflection of our impure world.