Travel restrictions have turned 11 overtouristed destinations into quiet, almost unrecognisable places, even for those who live there. It's a bittersweet experience for the people we talked to.
For the past two months, many of the world's most popular destinations have been shuttered to visitors, leaving monuments, museums, shops, restaurants, bars and streets almost empty.
As the world reopens and residents step out, they are faced with the reality that life today is different from what it was before Covid-19, and will likely remain this way for some time. One of the most significant differences — a bittersweet realisation for most — is that there are currently no tourists to attend to or crowds to shuffle through.
We asked people in 11 of the most overtouristed places around the world what it's like. In the Galápagos, it feels like time has rewound to a previous era. In Prague, it has been a relief to admire a bridge that in recent years has become a popular spot for selfie-stick-wielding Instagrammers. In Venice, a city that has long been overwhelmed by tourists, Venetians, for once, aren't outnumbered by visitors. In Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, as in Bali, fear of the loss of tourism has given way to a focus on family.
Although tourism is the lifeblood of the economies of these destinations, and the need for travel to resume may be dire, this moment of pause has allowed locals to experience something that only recently seemed impossible: having their homes to themselves.
— Tariro Mzezewa
The following interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Gianluca Boscolo, 30, is a web developer from the northern Italian town of Chioggia. He has lived in Rome for three years.
After two months of quarantine, my friend and I ventured back to the centre of the city from our home in the Montersacro neighbourhood. We walked to the Circus Maximus and the Colosseum and it was a strange sight: No one else was there.
You have to understand that I work in an office in the Monti neighbourhood by the Colosseum and every day, I used to wade through the crowds entering and exiting the Coloseo Metro station to get to the ancient amphitheatre and the Roman Forum. At first it was bizarre to be there without all those people, but as it sank in, it became a beautiful, new experience.
I am from Chioggia, a town just south of Venice, and I always dreamed of living in Rome. Being here during this time has been difficult, but for the past week, the city has been romantic, like a dream. We walked to the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps and there were so few people there, we were practically alone.
Exploring our city these days is like discovering a new city. Even the mundane things that we once took for granted like getting gelato or having a coffee outside now feel special. Yesterday, we got some pizza and suppli in Trastevere. Imagine walking through Trastevere, across Ponte Sisto, along the Lungotevere without it being lined with people.
This experience is making it possible to see the city that we live in with new eyes. Normally we walk to get where we need to be, but walking now gives us a chance to see details that we don't always notice when you're elbowing your way through a group of tourists who walk on you. We went to St. Peter's Square, the Pantheon, Villa Borghese.
Right now, Rome is visited only by Romans and it's a strange feeling. It's sad that we don't have tourism because we rely on it and it will soon be an emergency if we don't get tourists back, but we have been enjoying this brief respite.
Rome is a living museum and it is a privilege to have it all to ourselves.
- As told to David Farley
Darko Perojevic, 41, is the chef and owner of the restaurant Azur. He has lived in Dubrovnik most of his life.
The Old Town of Dubrovnik, where I've lived most of my life, hasn't been empty like this since the war and the eight-month shelling of Dubrovnik in 1991 and '92. We all have had some lingering sadness because the emptiness of the city is a reminder of that time.
The situation here is bittersweet, really. Bitter because I'm the chef and owner of a restaurant in Old Town — called Azur — that relies on a lot of tourists for business. But it's sweet because walking the empty streets on a sunny day feels great. No need to elbow your way through the cruise ship crowds. There's no smell of overused frying oil from restaurants. The terrace of my apartment looks out over the Old Port and instead of restaurant tables taking up the space on the port, there are now freshly used fishing nets drying on the cobblestones.
Kids are playing on the streets just like I did when I was a kid. Back then there were not many restaurants occupying public spaces and squares, so the whole city was our playground. For a moment it feels like we got the city back for ourselves. We played football yesterday in front of my house in the Old Port. As soon as we go back to normal this will not be possible. I think we all know this can't last forever and that's why we want to use Old Town as our playground as much as possible while it lasts.
Another surprisingly positive thing is catching up with old friends. Most locals don't go to Old Town, especially in the tourist season. But now, you can only see local people here all the time. I can't walk the length of Stradun — the main pedestrian street in Old Town — without meeting like 20 old friends.
We all know here that the notion of quarantine began in Dubrovnik — as a 14th-century act to prevent outsiders from bringing the black plague into the city — so my friends and I are often joking about how quarantine has returned to the place where it started. It gives us more confidence these days. We've dealt with this before — it's in our DNA — and on some level, we know we'll overcome this plague just like our ancestors did over 600 years ago.
So, in the end, we're not making money but we've got our town back to ourselves. We usually get kind of annoyed with all the tourists in Dubrovnik but people here are even back to loving cruise ships again.
- As told to David Farley
Ayu Rasmini, 43, was born and raised in Sidemen, a village that's popular with travellers. She is the owner of Pondok Masa Depan cottages and wellness retreat.
Each day in March more and more tourists left our village. It was so sad to see. Now, there are no tourists here except for one American from Seattle who has been in our village since February and doesn't want to leave because he loves the energy here.
Normally at this time, I would be doing yoga, massage, healing ceremonies and trekking with our guests from around the world. Instead we are making beautiful gardens and planting banana, papaya, eggplant, tomatoes, sweet potatoes and cassava. We worry what will we eat if this lasts too long, so we want to make sure we have enough food. This is a very difficult time. There is so much work to be done. Still, we have some routine that we do not change. We still do yoga twice per day. And we still watch the sunset and then say our prayers. I appreciate life and I accept everything.
It is so quiet here now. I would say it is like hibernation. Bali is almost in a coma. Now we spend so much time with our families and we realise how important family is. Now we can see inside ourselves and realise what is really important in life. For my sons especially, it's boring. I get stressed out because my youngest one, who is 14, he would like to play video games all day if I let him.
This is good for the air and for Mother Nature. Our planet has time to recover from all the suffering. It is a time for healing. But this cannot continue too long. People are nervous here. The question everyone wants to know is until when? Until when? Until when?
Here in Bali we have much less Covid than in other places in Indonesia because we are disciplined. And we are close to nature, we live healthy and we pray.
But without our travellers from other countries it is very difficult for us now. It's like we have lost our energy. After this is over, we will go back to being who we are.
- As told to Dave Seminara
Stefan Gudmundsson, 52, is a captain of a whale-watching ship in Husavik, Iceland.
I saw a tall spout the other day, about half a mile north, and have been wondering if it was a fin whale or maybe the blue whale. I didn't check. The ship's deck was loaded with lumpfish and the fish do not ask to see whales.
My whale-watching boat, The Apena, was originally built for fishing and her purpose is back to basics for the time being. The vast Skjalfandi Bay, nudging the Arctic Circle, has provided a livelihood for my family of fishermen the past 150 years.
Given the bleak prospect for tourists, it seems like I am about to add another year to the legacy.
The town of Husavik is the whale-watching capital of Iceland — some say Europe — and my fleet is one of three tour operators. I was first in my family to sail out with binoculars instead of fishing gear, about 20 years and 350,000 passengers ago.
The season starts when the whales finish their migration from winter waters. That was early March this year, around the time Iceland closed its borders.
In my fourth week of fishing, I counted six or eight humpbacks and minke whales feeding on a school of capelin. All that is missing are audiences.
Sunny days are the strangest. Sailing into harbour you expect to see people lined up for tours and dining outside. Back then you almost needed a navigator's eye to find good parking.
I don't miss it just yet but I do wonder when the time will come again. Fishing takes my mind off the problems ahead and there isn't much I can do about them anyway.
What will Iceland without international tourists really look like? I hope at least Icelanders grab the opportunity when the summer holidays begin and see for themselves.
Meanwhile, the whales will be out there, performing for their friends and fishermen.
- As told to Egill Bjarnason
Anna Lopriore, 44, was born and raised in Holland, and lived in Milan, Tokyo and New York before returning to Amsterdam with her husband and two children in 2017. She works as a user-experience designer.
We live on the Bloemgracht, a tree-shaded canal in the Jordaan neighbourhood just a block from the Anne Frank House. The bridge in front of our house had become an Instagram hot spot and selfie-taking tourists were constantly stumbling obliviously in the path of anyone trying to cross the bridge. We'd become accustomed to it and then suddenly it was all gone. Our 4-year-old had just learned to ride a bike and now we could use the city's usually bustling streets and bike paths without being terrified he'd get hurt in all the traffic.
Miraculously we were blessed with two months of gorgeous weather — brilliant sunshine and almost summerlike temperatures. To avoid gatherings that the police couldn't easily control, boats were banned on the canals in the city centre. With weather this nice, Dutch people feel almost obligated to be outside in the parks or on the water. But for the last two months, instead of the hubbub of boating parties, we sometimes saw solitary paddle boarders gliding across the otherwise still waters of the canals.
Another first was that King's Day, the national holiday at the end of April for which the partying starts the night before and lasts at least 24 hours, was cancelled this year. But people still went out for a stroll, many dressed in orange, waving flags, and families gathered in front of their houses and it felt more quaint and sweet than a big drunk party.
Probably the neighbourhood that's been most transformed these last months is the Red Light District, a place I normally endeavored to avoid at all costs as it was usually so clogged with tourists that it was impossible to cycle through. I always thought it was a seedy and ugly place, but lately I've been crossing it en route to a friend's house and it's stunning. There are beautiful houses I'd never seen before because I had to focus on the zigzagging revelers.
It's hard to think about so many people losing their livelihood amid a tragic pandemic. But I also can't help being nostalgic for an Amsterdam that could be. The city has been so beautiful and quiet — there was a magic to it that's not ever going to come back in any way.
- As told to Andrew Ferren
Yago Hortal, 37, is a painter who was born and raised in Barcelona.
Since they loosened the restrictions, it feels almost like when you're up very early in the morning and everyone is rushing about. Except that so far the stores never open and there are so many more people wearing athletic gear than before. With exercise qualifying as a reason to go out, Barcelona suddenly has become very sporty — although seeing people running with masks on is a novelty.
The other day I walked by the city's cathedral, which is very close to my house, and realised I could actually stop in front of it and see it. No one bumped into me or pushed me out of the way. There were no street musicians competing with each other for tips, and I didn't have to be conscious of my wallet and who was around me. I could just look.
After being confined indoors, it's natural that you see things with fresh eyes. Usually Barcelona lives at night, but now when the sun sets, it already seems super late. The city and the air are cleaner. There seems to be a different light or somehow more light.
While tourism has obviously dropped off almost completely, it's become clear how many foreigners actually live here, there are people from all over the world.
Recently, my neighbourhood, Sant Pere, where the old city meets the 19th-century Eixample, as Barcelona's famous grid of broad avenues is known, had problems with pickpockets and street crime. It seems clear now that most of that was aimed at the tourists, so the city now feels safer. Even on La Rambla or the Paseo Maritimo, which were always packed with people and could feel a little dangerous, you can now walk without worrying about security.
Yesterday I went to the beach for the first time since confinement and once again it almost seemed like a normal day with people on bikes, skateboards, jogging — except that all the chiringuitos (beach restaurants), bars and other businesses were closed. At first, there's this immediate sensation of normalcy, but then you really look and notice the constant police patrols to ensure no one actually steps on to the sand — let alone into the sea — and it brings you back to the reality of the moment.
- As told to Andrew Ferren
Sandra Clot, 46, is a pianist and piano professor who has lived in the historic Marais district for 20 years.
The Marais is one of the main places that tourists visit in Paris. Normally getting to my home on a Saturday afternoon is a trial because there are so many visitors swarming around. Tourists come to the Marais for "leche-vitrine" (window-licking in French) because of all the boutiques.
The Marais is one of the oldest, most historic neighbourhoods of Paris and is known for its quaint village-like charm. But it had become a retail Disneyland where visitors came to spend money, but not necessarily for the history.
I knew the Marais belonged to locals again on the first night of France's national lockdown, when I opened my window to clap for caregivers. The light had faded and I said to myself, "Paris is no longer the City of Light."
Sadly, there were few people at their windows, because so many apartments in the neighbourhood have been converted to Airbnbs for tourists. But instead of the noise of crowds and suitcases on the pavement, the streets were deserted, and there was an air of enchantment. You could hear the birds singing and the wind blowing the leaves on the trees.
I've been out very little, only four times during confinement to get groceries. For the first time in a while, I walked down the rue Vieille du Temple and rue Rivoli toward Saint Paul. Before confinement I avoided those streets and others in the Marais because they were so clogged with people.
I have taken a real secret pleasure rediscovering the beautiful buildings and having the streets to myself. All the locals I passed were smiling too. I have the impression of having found a quality-of-life closer to what I desire, meaning more local interaction and less pure consumption. Real life has returned to this corner of Paris with families and children who play in the street, and getting to know my own neighbours.
Confinement has proved to be a charming pause from the chaos, and I'm actually kind of dreading the reopening, because I don't miss the crowds.
- As told to Liz Alderman
Nicola Ussardi, 42, has been furloughed from his job in a wine and pasta shop near St. Mark's Square.
Now there's a lot of people around, and they're all Venetians, it's kind of nice. Until May 4, we were confined to our homes, but now the lockdown has been eased, and I'm happy to move around at a slow pace, with no tourists around. Venetians are reclaiming their spaces.
St Mark's Square is almost deserted, so we're seizing the opportunity to go there: It has become a mini-pilgrimage, people go there just to say hello and pay respect to the "master of the house," what we call the bell tower because it's so majestic. Now we can finally enjoy this place, which used to belong to tourists. Two or three decades ago, it was normal for Venetians to take a walk there, but then mass tourism took over the square. Now you can breathe in some authentic Venice.
It's a good thing, we don't want to go back to how things were before. Overtourism was the norm, but it wasn't normal, the city was overwhelmed, it was like a transumanza. We had to deal with tourists at every waking hour, everything revolved around them. I live in Cannareggio, one of the less touristy neighbourhoods, and even here Venetians were outnumbered. I used to have breakfast at the local cafe every morning, and it would be four locals and 10 tourists from the bed-and-breakfasts nearby, that's how my days began. Around St. Mark, it was really all hit-and-run tourism, people staying here one of two days, always in a hurry, with eight minutes to eat lunch.
That mass tourism won't come back, and I am glad it won't. Sure, it will be a challenge economically, because most of the business here is about tourism. I myself am in a temporary layoff because I work in a touristy shop, and most of the people I know are in similar situations. The problem is that Venice has relied on mass tourism for years, and now we don't have a plan B. But eventually we'll have to find one.
- As told to Anna Momigliano
HALONG BAY, VIETNAM
Lind Nguyen, 29, along with her husband, Trung, own the Wander Station restaurant.
On May 1, it was the [Labor Day] holiday and it's supposed to be busy everywhere, but then we are empty, we have no customers, so I decided to close and have a look around. Everywhere was empty, the road, the stores, the walking street, everything. Like a scary movie.
In normal life there's supposed to be hundreds of boats cruising in the bay, music playing — pum, pum, pum — and people having beer outside and walking around. But now no more.
I'm sad and worried. How long does it take to get back to the normal life? I just want tourists back here, meeting up, chatting and having fun. This place is just hanging there; we are open but we don't have any customers, not 'any' but very little. To keep open, we have to pay for the electricity, the rent, the staff, everything, but we don't want to close.
It's boring. I get bored, and everyone needs money to survive. I miss making new friends, sharing stories, learning more about their cultures. I never get bored. Now I'm bored. Even my English is not as good as before, because it's been a long time, three months already.
People are more thinking about their families, friends, careers so they pay more attention to learning. I'm texting with some of my friends and they're also doing the same, staying healthy, learning something new, reading more. Like learning English for all of my staff and I'm learning Spanish and I've started to grow a lot of vegetables.
We will remember this time as a very important point. Everyone is scared of the virus, scared that life is ending.
- As told to Patrick Scott
Vendula Stoklaskova, 44, owns the Stoclass design boutique. She has lived in Prague for 15 years.
At the beginning of our lockdown in March I walked from Letna across Cech Bridge, down Parizska street and then to Marianske Namesti where I was bringing some masks to the Red Cross. It was really quite strange. The first thing was that I saw Charles Bridge from Letna, and I know the view very well — I normally go that way every day. On Charles Bridge there was nothing to be seen other than the statues, which was very bizarre. That view will stay with me until my death, because it was really nice weather and there weren't any people out at all. It was about two weeks into the quarantine and we were already used to there being little traffic. And really, Charles Bridge — to see only the statues on it, that was just it for me.
And another thing was when I walked from the Intercontinental Hotel down Parizska street, and from the Intercontinental you could see all the way to Old Town Square. And that was also really quite strange, since normally you can't see that far because of all the people. The street was empty and to see the walk straight down, that felt very unnatural. On the way from Marianske Namesti to Old Town Square there were only street sweepers and pigeons, nothing else. It was even almost scary. It was such a weird feeling.
And then I took some masks to a friend down at Vyton. I crossed the river at Charles Bridge in the evening. I just stood there and looked, and there were only a few Russians walking by. I stopped — even in normal circumstances when I'm walking I stop and look a lot — and it was all terribly impressive.
You just see the beauty of the city. I read this also somewhere on social media: People were commenting that they notice different details in the city now. For me, Prague seems greener, and I would say its beauty really came out. For example, I was looking down from Petrin Hill, and I had the feeling that Prague itself, that the buildings and everything just look brighter. I don't even know how to describe it.
- As told to Evan Rail
THE GALÁPAGOS ISLANDS
Arturo Izurieta, 56, is a consultant and former executive director of the Charles Darwin Foundation in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, in Ecuador's Galápagos Islands.
It reminds me of when I came here in '84. The lockdown is from 2 in the afternoon until 5 in the morning. Taxis are only allowed once a week based on license numbers. There's a lot less cars, scooters are not allowed. Motorbikes you have to have a permit.
I come to town just to see a lady who prepares ceviche. My wife said "let's give her a hand," and I cycle in with a mask on. I'm waving at people without knowing who they are.
In '84, most people were at Parque San Francisco where the post office was, near the municipal dock. A few in the streets, which is more or less what you get now. In the '80s, most of the tourists would just walk the highlands.
Gulls, oystercatchers are taking advantage of this open space with no people.
I haven't missed tourists but I do put them in the equation of how Galápagos will restart. But missing them? No. Maybe hotels and tour operators miss them. My mind has been drifting toward my family and personal life, meditating on opportunities that could arise.
Galápagos is shut completely, no cruises, no nothing. Why not take advantage of that and lead, give Galápagos a week of rest, every year? There is a proposal to discuss this with civil institutions, residents.
This is the Galápagos we dreamed of. People are waking up to the revival of the islands, having a cap on tourists. We are already surviving without any activity. Every day, you have the freezer truck with the fishermen, giving away fish. Whoever can afford to pay, pays. Since March 14, two months with no operations. Restructuring the cruise ships will need to be included in that week. This would give a lot of credit and recognition to the Galápagos. I think people are sensible enough to realise it would bring more benefit than anything else. It's a big idea that we have to try. Do I sound too optimistic?
- As told to Adam Popescu
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