Once you have been shocked by an army of tourists confined to the narrow lanes of a once charming place, one vows never to wind up in a tourist trap again. But that is a mistake.
The reason that most tourist traps keep trapping tourists is that despite their dose of jostle, commerce, and kitch appeal, they usually offer something special that visitors remember. Despite a million sweaty tourists shuffling along the canals, Venice is still remarkable. Despite the busloads of harried Chinese city slickers piling into Lijiang, China (photo above), the place transcends the crowds. The trick is to redeem the trap.
The three ways I know are to shift time, place, or perspective.
First, appear when crowds don’t. Morning, overnight, winter, or rain. It is amazing how wonderful a trap can be in bad weather and “bad” light. Be there at dawn (see above), or midnight, or in the depth of snow. The harsher the conditions, the sweeter the pleasure.
Second, get off the main route. That’s true of a small town as well as a city. Most crowds follow a very narrow path and once you depart from that, the place’s soul opens up. Many, many times I’ve detoured only one block from a tourist trap to discover a virtually intact neighborhood. If you are willing to venture further off the designated route, you’ll soon find real magic.
So, go off season, and off the path. Third, shift your expectations. Forget the stereotypes, and appreciate what is actually there. The lives of the vendors, the pop culture of the souvenirs ramped up facades — these are what is REAL now. They have their own beauty, there own dignity, which I have learned to savor.
However, there are some tourist traps that really are only famous for being famous. People flock to them because people flock to them. These places are not too hard to identify and avoid; most decent guidebooks will steer you clear of them. But don’t avoid very popular places because they are crowded or commercialized. Their popularity is a signal that something special hides within them. See if you can find it.