The report last November that the Vatican Museums are considering putting a cap on visitor numbers because of overcrowding came as no surprise to me.
The 54 galleries of the museums, which stretch for seven miles and contain some of the world’s greatest treasures, attract over six million visitors a year.
I was not surprised, because the overcrowding at the Vatican is part of a larger picture of how mass tourism in Europe is making some cities unbearable in the summer for tourists and locals alike.
Budget airlines such as Ryan Air and Easy Jet have made cheap travel to Europe possible, and millions of us search their web sites for bargain flights. If you are lucky, at certain times of the year you can find return flights to some cities for as little as fifty quid.
And now we have more and more cruise ships disgorging thousands of passengers in cities such as Venice, Barcelona, Dubrovnik, and Amsterdam.
It’s hard to escape the feeling that Europe is being turned into a giant theme park.
While local shops, restaurants and hotels rub their hands with glee at the hordes of tourists crowding the streets, locals are not so happy.
In cities across Europe, there are now regularly protests about everything from noise and litter to Airbnb out-of-towners pushing up house prices. The deregulation of taxi laws has seen a spike in taxi services like Uber clogging the streets.
Venetians have long complained that mass tourism is swamping the city, famous for its canals. Traditional businesses such as pharmacies and bakeries have been replaced by tacky souvenir shops and many locals have moved out.
The figures for Venice are startling. The city’s population has dropped to 59,000 from a peak of 164,000, and each year, between 20 – 24 million visitors descend on it.
In Barcelona, fewer locals now do their shopping at its famous food market, the Boqueria in La Rambla, because so many tourists go there. They come to gaze at the incredible array at fresh meats, fish, and cheeses on display, but not to buy. Some stalls now sell takeaway food and put up “Photos No!” signs.
It’s the same all over the centre of Barcelona. The pavements are too crowded. When I was last there, I wanted to see the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s amazing unfinished cathedral. But I couldn’t face having to join such a long queue and then when I eventually got inside having to shuffle along with hundreds of other people.
If you travel to any European tourism hotspot, it doesn’t take long to work out that one of the largest tourist groups is now the Chinese. I remember three years ago sitting on a ferry in Sorrento about to depart to Capri when I was astonished to see nearly a hundred Chinese tourists suddenly clamber aboard – each one of them eating grapes from a bag.
In her book Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism Elizabeth Becker says one of the main reasons the Chinese travel to Europe for is for shopping. “They shop for brand names, luxury clothes, jewellery, luggage, and whisky, anything with prestige.”
So many Chinese tourists come to Venice that tour operators often drop them off at pizza restaurants and cafes owned by Chinese, and they are directed to shops selling “Venetian glass” that was made in China.
When I took a train up the Italian Riviera to visit the Cinque Terre, five historic towns nestling by the sea, it was standing room only. And you could barely move through the streets in each town. In this case, most tourists seemed to be other Europeans or Americans with backpacks.
In the UK we have similar problems with mass tourism. Those of us who live in London know to avoid areas such as South Kensington, Piccadilly, and the South Bank at certain times of the year.
Elsewhere, because locals in Cambridge have complained about not being able to move around easily, the tourism body Visit Cambridge and Beyond has been forced to take the step of encouraging the Chinese to visit in smaller groups and it is also working to tackle coach congestion in the city’s narrow streets.
While down in Cornwall, fans of the BBC TV series Poldarkarrived in such numbers that it threatened what attracted them in the first place: the tranquility. Last year, the Cornish tourist board pleaded with people not to visit its beaches, but to stay away from them!
Well, I’ve decided to avoid visiting any towns and cities in Europe that are tourist destinations. Instead I’ll go to somewhere off the tourist trail, where I don’t have to join a long queue to buy a train ticket and where there are no tourist menus – I just hope lots of other people don’t have the same idea.