The Appeal of Mass Tourism in the Age of Authentic Travel

More than 1.1 billion tourists travelled abroad in 2014 and at times it feels like they’ve all convened in cliched tourist epicenters such as Times Square in New York, Las Ramblas in Barcelona or Trafalgar Square in London. Accessible at any time and with more than enough sights to see for free, these areas are magnets for tourists from every corner of the earth.

Guests for this episodeFred Dixon, the CEO of New York’s tourism marketing organization NYC & Company and Pegi Vail, an anthropologist at New York University and filmmaker who has explored the relationship between tourism and sustainability through her documentary Gringo Trails.

The Skift Podcast is underwritten by FutureCities initiative from MasterCard. Find out more at futurecities.skift.com.

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Their storied reputations, however, often result in a chaotic reality.

The fabricated cultural centers are often completely devoid of the local communities, independent shops and outdoor spaces that travelers are increasingly seeking and accessing via apps and the sharing economy.

Glaring ads, mass-produced souvenirs and meals sold for triple their actual cost are common among the jam-packed sidewalks filled with life-size cartoons and squawking salesman.

Although slipping into a local routine in a strange and foreign city has never been easier, most tourists are confounded by their basic need to know that they have indeed seen and experienced a place as they imagined. There is an unsurmountable desire to confirm that they have arrived and capture that “I am here” moment to share with both the world and themselves once at home.

To their credit, these mass tourist attractions have been in flux, transitioning from once seedy city centers to polished attractions. They are now even trying to draw local life into the mix through art and exhibitions.

To discuss what draws a supposedly independent-minded traveler into the vortex of commercialism and parody that these centers represent, for the inaugural show, the host and Skift reporter Samantha Shankman and Skift CEO Rafat Ali sit down with Fred Dixon, the CEO of New York’s tourism marketing organization NYC & Company, as well as Pegi Vail, an anthropologist at New York University and filmmaker who has explored the relationship between tourism and sustainability through her documentary Gringo Trails.

Our conversation starts by looking at how Times Square has become embedded in tourists’ minds and how local culture is starting to weave its way through giant billboards. We discuss the impact that a “selfie” culture has on tourism and what drives our need to self promote. We then end with a broader look at the role of public spaces within cities, the museum-ization of experiences, and how places like Times Square create a shared imaginary for the future.

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Times Square Photo credit: Justin Brown, Flickr.