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This time last week, I was wandering the rocky streets of Positano, a small village on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. Positano sits almost vertically on the steep cliff, with pastel peach-colored houses stacked on top of each other against zigzag streets where local vendors sell sips of limoncello and colorful ceramics. At the bottom is a pebble beach where, if it is warm enough (which it usually is), you can swim in the clear, turquoise waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Positano enjoys a mild Mediterranean climate and proximity to luxury and wealth; it houses one of the most famous and majestic hotels in the world and served as the backdrop for Diane Lane’s whirlwind romance in Under the Tuscan sun. Twenty years later, the city has become synonymous with the greatest of influential travel landscapes, clogging Instagram with photos of beautiful people on boats, staring in wonder at the skyline behind them.
It’s also the most unpleasant place I’ve been to. It has little to do with the city itself, which housed resorts and villas for the European elite. since the roman empire but contains only small traces of its ancient past; as our guide explained, “there is no history here, it’s just for relaxing and taking pictures”. Fewer than 4,000 people live in Positano and tourists three times more than them.
It’s also not really the fault of the crowds, although, like apparently everywhere else in Italy, they are endemic and unavoidable and sometimes contribute to a feeling of claustrophobic doom so great that the only way out is to separate you from your body and disassociate yourself until you finally reach the open air. On the contrary, what is most disturbing about being in Positano is knowing that you have been duped, and realizing that just because you can afford to go somewhere does not mean that means you need nothing more than the experiential equivalent of flying in Basic Economy. Being in Positano as a middle-class person – someone who can afford to travel and miss work but can’t, say, afford to buy real estate in the town where he lives – it’s feeling silly to believe that it could have been better, or that being there is actually a benefit to the lives of the people who live there.
The fact that there are so many more people traveling abroad now than ever in history is not necessarily a bad thing; luxuries that were once only available to the ultra-rich have been democratized by low-cost airlines and bargain deals on sites like Airbnb, Booking.com and Expedia. For many people, the summer of 2022 was their first trip abroad since the pre-Covid era, and despite the continuing risks of travel and confusing and conflicting regulations on masking and vaccines, planning a international travel is now almost seamless. Experience: Online travel agencies only offer their users the highest rated itineraries, ensuring a publicly verifiable experience. What if you could go to the best cities possible, eat in the best restaurants possible, and take the best photos possible, why wouldn’t you?
Our cultural obsession with having “the best” of everything is a subject that endlessly fascinates me, but traveling is different from, say, spending hours on Wirecutter or scouring Amazon reviews for the best kitty litter. Anyone who can afford the best cat litter will likely end up with the same formula; the same cannot be said for restaurants or hotels, which limit the number of people who can be there. The problem with travel at this particular time isn’t too many people traveling in general, it’s too many people wanting to experience the exact same thing because they’ve all been to the same websites and read the same reviews. It created the idea that if you don’t go to that specific bar or stay in that specific neighborhood, all the money and time you spent being here has been wasted, and you’re settled for something that isn’t as perfect as it could have been.
Yet the opposite is often true: if you ignore much of what the internet recommends, you’re much less likely to have the Positano problem. The real luxury, as any wealthy person knows, is the ability to separate yourself from the masses, to avoid being next to or even seen by ordinary people. In the age of algorithms, the only way to replicate any semblance of luxury is to take the less traveled keystrokes. A vacation is not, or at least should not be, a to-do list, something to be optimized with meticulously timed bookings months in advance, although more and more that is what it is. a trip: unless you have booked a reserved time slot, Florence’s must-see museums and “you have eat here” pasta restaurants in Rome are inaccessible for those who do not want to spend hours in line or so cramped that being there is no longer pleasant. And just like in other popular travel destinations awash with wealthy tourists who benefit from the undercurrent of underpaid locals offering them a unique experience, this is compounded by the fact that those who actually live there cannot afford luxury. they peddle.
Not only did I feel a bit ridiculous to be in Italy, considering how many other people on my Instagram feed had the exact same thought this summer, but I felt ridiculous not knowing how great this all was become competitive, that no matter how many recommendations you receive from friends or strangers on the Internet, the same will have been given to thousands of other people who are just as unhappy to see you there as you are .
Traveling right now feels like walking into a Chanel boutique and looking at all the beautiful clothes, maybe brushing the shoulder against them, but never being able to put them on, while being looked down upon with disdain by the people whose job it is to weed out the unrich. I’ve never been to a Chanel store because I know not to buy from a place I can’t afford, but I haven’t learned that lesson in travel yet. Everything about the way the industry works now – booking sites, credit cards, Chase points, Instagram – leads us to believe that in fact we box afford to visit a place like Positano, and that it will be just as glorious as the photos taken at the most expensive resorts. However, being adjacent to luxury is not the same as experiencing it. In fact, it can make us feel deprived of something we never had in the first place, but somehow feel like we deserve.
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