I’m not often a tourist – a real tourist I mean. I usually travel to places for work or in order to meet friends. But last week I visited Naples in Italy for the third time in my life, as a common tourist. Just four days of sightseeing, eating and enjoying doing nothing in particular. Of course I could not avoid observing things around me that got me thinking about authenticity, place management, tourist promotion etc. Here are some initial thoughts that would need to be developed further in order to make any meaningful contribution to urban studies:
As usual, tourists concentrate in few areas of the city. In Naples it is a small part of the old town, mostly around the “decumani”, the ancient Greco-roman city and in particular around the two main streets, the narrow Via dei Tribunali and Spaccanapoli. It was the former that impressed me the most, because it managed both to hold the hordes of tourists and an array of shops that serve residents (fishmongers’, greengrocers’ etc). What often happens in tourist cities is that over time visitors displace locals, a phenomenon that becomes most visible through a change in retail structure. What also impressed me about that street is the fact that it was not pedestrianised. This is quite astonishing, knowing how pedestrian zones are a constant fetish among planners (now seconded by bicycle lanes) as some kind of panacea for cities. At first it is quite disturbing, as I found it hard to walk down the street without being disturbed by honking cars, but then it actually dawned upon me: the two above observations are probably related. People can still use their cars to reach their homes in the surrounding blocks (though they’d have to use an ice-breaker to get through the masses of people) and go about their everyday chores, like buying groceries or moving about with children and the elderly. The narrow street, the mass of people and the lack of parking, actually limit the use of the car to a minimum, but those who need it, can still use it.
In general the lack of consideration for the tourist is a standard feature in Naples. Starting at the airport where you need to ask to find the bus to the city, the metro and the trains, signage is a disaster. Even ticket machines have their own mind and you can look in vain for instructions of use. This increases the visitor’s stress and makes it almost impossible for people of age or any kind of disability to navigate the city. But then once again I realized that I didn’t mind. Quite the opposite, really. The fact that the city is there mostly for the locals and not for the visitors makes it feel more real, less commodified. We have filled our cities with signs for tourists, marked “scenic walks”, “suggested sights” etc., that everything seems packaged and ready to sell. Recently, I have been trying to think of the concept of “place authenticity” as the opposite of place commodification and the Naples experience somehow made sense in the whole concept.
I Idefinitely don’t want to be treated badly as a tourist: I don’t want to fall into tourist traps, eat crap food and pay lots of money for bad hotels. But I also don’t want a place to turn its existence upside-down just to serve me, as it’s happened to some tourist destinations. It’s not good for the residents, but it’s also not good for me. I want to experience something authentic, not something created and packaged just for me. Can tourism management accommodate both?
*This entry was originally published on the blog Places.