Could ‘Paris Syndrome’ spread to your destination?

Excitement turns to disappointment when cities fill with tourists, making local people angry and visitors look for someplace else.

Peak season in Paris

This is the first of three posts which will deal with the consequences of tourist overcrowding in cities and what can be done about it.

“Headaches, palpitations, depression and suicidal thoughts”. Those were some of the symptoms doctors identified in the early 2000s among visitors to Paris – in particular Japanese – who were overcome with disappointment to find that their experience of the French capital didn’t meet with their dreams. The problem became so serious that in 2004 the Japanese Embassy in Paris set up a special helpline to support disappointed visitors through episodes of what became labelled as ‘Paris Syndrome’. That was over a decade ago. With armed soldiers now patrolling a city on edge, and some of the major monuments looking pretty tarnished, how would those Japanese visitors cope today?

Last week I was in Paris and happened to visit two of the city’s most popular tourism hotspots: the area around the base of the Eiffel Tower and the steps in front of the Sacré Coeur. Despite the latest reports suggesting that tourism arrivals in Paris have declined this summer as a result of recent terrorist attacks, this was still high season in the city and tourists were everywhere. The experience didn’t quite provoke Paris syndrome, but it came close. While roaming soldiers has become a sad but perhaps inevitable side to life in Paris, it wasn’t the only thing that punctured the romantic atmosphere.

No filter: one of the Sacré Coeur fountains mid-Augusts
No filter: one of the Sacré Coeur fountains, one morning, mid-August

The area at the foot of the Eiffel Tower had become a large dustbowl (it had lost its normally tidy grass since giant screens were placed there to show the Euro 2016 football in June) and was crowded with tourists waving selfie sticks while illegal hawkers pestered anyone and everyone non-stop as they tried to sell souvenirs and alcohol. The following morning the steps of the Sacré Coeur in the morning were more serene, but rubbish floated in the fountains, and hawkers and pickpockets circled among the crowds.

Where’s the breaking point?

The problems affecting Paris are certainly not unique to Paris, as many other popular tourist hubs around Europe are starting to discover. In fact, the residents of Paris have probably become used to the rising tide of tourism more than most (that’s not to say they like it). So while these problems are not new, there are a number of factors which are causing this problem to become more urgent:

Firstly, overall, international tourism arrivals are increasing. In fact, the UNWTO’s long term forecast to 2030 suggests that from now until 2030, an average of 43 million additional trips will be made each year. If some of the world’s tourist attractions are already at saturation point, what’s going to happen when these new tourists join the back of the queue and find they can’t get a ticket?

Secondly, city tourism bureaux used to be able to maintain some degree of control over tourist numbers by limiting hotel licences. In this way, a city could only accommodate the number of tourists that its hotels allowed. Tourists also used to hang out in the city centres or cluster around the main attractions. Of course this has evaporated as peer-to-peer rentals through platforms such as Airbnb have allowed tourists to stay above, below and to each side of local residents in private apartments, and increasing numbers of tourists seek to see their chosen destination through the eyes of a local, albeit with a leisure traveller’s frame of mind.

Finally, there’s ‘the sheer hell of other people’. When Jean Paul Sartre wrote in in his 1944 play ‘Huis Clos’ that “Hell is other people” I don’t think he was referring to drunken tourists (however it is possible). Nevertheless, this is the way that many residents of European cities have started to feel about the spaces in which they live, and their daily encounters with tourists who are going to more extreme lengths to generate fame online by doing dumb things. Examples include the Italian tourists who ran naked through the streets of Barcelona, or the increasing numbers of tourists who are jumping into Venice’s Grand Canal. In fact, Barcelona and Venice –both popular with weekend city break and cruise ship visitors – have both featured in the international press and the resulting coverage has arguably damaged each destination’s brand promise. However lots of cities have to deal with tourists behaving normally or badly, while trying to keep the peace between visitors and locals.

I’ll discuss this complex situation in more detail in my next post.

In the meantime, follow me on Twitter @genctraveller


2 thoughts on “Could ‘Paris Syndrome’ spread to your destination?

  1. Yes, even with some places being ticketed to reduce the number of people visiting, they often let so many people in it cannot be safe…we went to the Sistine Chapel this summer, booked ahead online for a slot which was the earliest in the day and still there must have been over a thousand people being channeled through the building during that time – we were swept along shoulder to shoulder with no chance to stop and enjoy the art!

    1. Interesting to hear that. I think it all comes down to how responsible the museum/attraction management feel towards the place they’re managing. On one hand they’re usually entrusted with heritage protection by the government, on the other hand they’re under pressure to make money (and it’s anyone’s guess where that money goes in the Vatican), so they’re keen to get as many people through the door as possible. Even more worryingly, at Macchu Pichu I saw the visitor limit easily exceed 2,500 people in one hour (that’s the limit per day). The management are happy to tell UNESCO one thing, and then go and do exactly something else if it makes them richer. Still, it all affects the visitor experience badly – especially when people get too hot, tired and irritable. Bear in mind that visitor numbers in the next decade are only going to go up!

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