When Tourists Attack

Travel Blog  •  Jim Benning  •  08.11.05 | 12:00 PM ET

One fall night a couple of years ago, I found myself on a tiny island in the middle of Lake Patzcuaro in the Mexican state of Michaoacan. I’d come to see the traditional Day of the Dead celebration, when families hold vigils at the graves of their ancestors, decorating them with flickering candles and bright orange marigolds to welcome the ancestors’ souls back for a visit. It’s a beautiful tradition I’d witnessed in other areas. There was just one problem on this night: The island’s small cemetery was being overrun by so many visitors that one couldn’t begin to appreciate the occasion. People were shuffling through the cemetery cheek by jowl, elbowing one another, tripping over tombstones. There was little room to walk or even breathe. 

I left angry that Mexican tourism officials, who had waged an advertising campaign promoting the event with flashy posters, had failed to regulate the number of people on the island. Not only did the overcrowding spoil my evening and that of the other visitors, but more importantly, it surely ruined the night for the few families actually holding graveside vigils. How many would return the following year? It’s possible in places like Patzcuaro to love a tradition to death.

Overcrowding promises to become an increasingly vexing problem at many tourist sites around the globe. The world is in dire need of strategies to manage crowds. So I was happy to come across an article in The Art Newspaper surveying overcrowding issues and raising a number of potential solutions. One idea proposed for some spots is the introduction of fees. “There should be a charge to visit Venice, although with the same kinds of concessions that museums give to students and the old,” the article states. “Through imposing or withholding charges, you could encourage tourists to go off the beaten track and thus spread the numbers around. It should be cheaper, for example, to visit the whole of the Louvre, but without the Mona Lisa, than to see just the Mona Lisa. If it is free to visit Bologna, a wonderful town of medieval towers, great art and the best food in Italy, but which has never been on the Grand Tour circuit, then the busloads may decide to go there rather than Florence, where a charge should be levied.”

Fees won’t work everywhere, of course, but brainstorming solutions is a start. Fortunately, many are working hard on this, including the folks at Planeta.com, who promote thoughtful, eco-friendly tourism in Mexico and beyond.

4 Comments for When Tourists Attack

ron mader 08.15.05 | 12:07 PM ET

Thanks for the kind plug for Planeta.com!

Beautiful essay. I do not understand why many countries—Mexico included—promote so few places so massively. It only leads to the problems Jim details.

I would not blame tourists for the problem of overcrowding should not be blamed on the tourists. Travelers are generally poorly-served and ill-informed by promotional material from governments and tourism boards. My fingers are crossed that someday this will change.

Steve Bridger 08.16.05 | 8:28 AM ET

Totally agree with Ron. When asked, I always suggest that people avoid Janitzio and journey a few kilometers to the east, to Tzintzuntzan…or elsewhere altogether…


Jim Benning 08.19.05 | 4:25 PM ET

I agree, Ron: Tourists are not to blame. I imagine if enough visitors are unhappy and visitor levels drop, tourism boards will be forced to better manage popular destinations.

And you’re right about Janitzio, Steve. The best Day of the Dead experience I’ve had was in Oaxaca a number of years ago, where there are numerous large cemeteries. Given how much press Oaxaca has received lately, of course, the place may be more crowded these days.

Ron Mader 10.02.07 | 8:57 PM ET

A quick note to say that we are updating our guide to Day of the Dead in Mexico

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