For the last few years there’s been a running joke in my family that you could call “the Greek island receipt”. Roughly once a month – and more often in the summer – one of us will share a post, usually (but not always) from an American, featuring an obscene bill paid at a restaurant in Mykonos or Santorini. The image will show that a tourist has paid upwards of €100 for water, sometimes more than double that for a single cocktail. As a family of Greek-Americans (my dad was born in Greece and was the first of my family to ever leave) from a non-touristy part of the Peloponnese, the joke is obvious. Most of Greece is cheap to visit, and it only takes five minutes of googling to find that out. There are hundreds of other places beyond the most famous islands that are just as picturesque and far more interesting for a fraction of the price. Even if you insist on visiting the tourist hotspots, you can go online and easily find endless lists of hotels, bars and restaurants where you aren’t going to end up getting scammed.
Lately, though, social media has been rapidly filling up with content that looks a lot like Greek island receipts. Tourists are flooding into disproportionately popular southern European destinations and then voicing shock and dismay at their infamously extortionate prices. Not only that: these tourists also appear amazed that these locations are not car-friendly American cities and require more than a straightforward drive to reach. Last week, a TikTok of this ilk went especially viral (getting just under a million views on TikTok and nearly 60 million views when it was posted on Twitter) featuring an American woman complaining about the costs and quaintness of the Amalfi Coast. “To get to the highest of the high points, the beautiful hotels… you have to walk up 160 stairs,” she says with exaggerated exasperation, before lamenting that the area is pedestrianised. She complains about having to fly to Italy, get a train and then a ferry: “It’s impossible to get here.” In a since-deleted follow up video, she explained that this part of the Amalfi Coast was much more “difficult and time intensive” to get to than people on social media had made it seem.
Though this woman’s post was almost certainly, on some level, tongue-in-cheek – something the mass-backlash to her video suggests has been largely missed – the sentiment is indicative of a growing approach to travel: where the expense, inconvenience and logistical requirements to get to certain places are not only tediously moaned about but appear to come as a genuine surprise to the people who booked themselves on these trips. Guided solely by what they’ve seen on social media, hordes of tourists seem to be spending thousands on international holidays without researching beyond their TikTok feeds (this tracks with the rise of younger demographics using TikTok as their primary search engine). When they arrive, they seem truly distressed that these locations don’t perfectly match the sanitised images they’ve seen online. Only a few days before the Amalfi Coast video was posted, an American tourist went viral for complaining that Paris was not a pristine paradise, but a city people live in, with some rubbish visible in public bins.
The reason we’re seeing so much of this content now is probably linked to the fact that Americans are travelling abroad much more. Tourism in Europe this summer (including to the UK) is being boosted by people coming from the US, credited to a combination of pandemic savings and a strong dollar. This surge in tourism has triggered a huge spike in glossy, high-saturation travel posts on TikTok and Instagram, where identical videos about the same handful of locations in Greece, Italy and France show up ad nauseam for anyone who consumes even a light amount of travel content. (It should be said that Brits are also guilty of this, if at a lower volume.) The bulk of it appears to promote a vision of whole countries that is extremely narrow and misleadingly homogenous – full of beach clubs, high-end resorts and fancy meals. Even the posts that claim to be showing you the “cheap”, “real” or “alternative” places to go still often highlight places that are just as touristy (for example, TikToks suggesting a little known alternative to Santorini is Rhodes).
This type of content reveals an increasingly pervasive belief that travel should be predictable, glamorous and above all frictionless; that we shouldn’t be confronted with anything more or less than the images and videos promoted to us. It’s an attitude that insists a short walk or a ferry ride equates to being tricked, and that actually being required to do research is labour intensive. It also reveals a sense of gullibility and mindlessness from many people towards what they see online – wrongly believing the images on their screens reflect reality, rather than a fun-house version of it. People don’t consider that content built to make you follow or book might require even the lightest interrogation. This leads to a strange travel paradox, where even as people are travelling more than ever, and with so much information available, travel is getting more limited and stupider. Despite a wide expanse of places to explore, the most visible online content promotes only a uniform, select few.
After a celebrity visited Greece last week, going to an island truly off the radar for most Americans, my dad and I voiced our surprise. We joked that one upside of this trend has been that, with the same locations promoted so often and so much blind loyalty to what people see online, most tourists will typically confine themselves to places we weren’t going to visit anyway. But this attitude is also indicative of a tourist’s mindset. Real people live their real lives in the places overrun because of their popularity on social media. And no one truly benefits from living in a society where the idea of travel is so narrow. While we should divorce ourselves from the narrative of the “right” kind of travel or the idea of “good” and “bad” destinations, we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking the same logic should be applied to good and bad tourists.