Definitions of what constitutes a tourist trap are as varied as the places themselves.
They’re said to be overhyped, expensive, tacky and lack authenticity, yet, despite long lines, Hong Kong’s Peak Tram is none of those things; nor is the Star Ferry plying Victoria Harbour.
A tourist trap can be a city (Prague), an attraction (Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco), a purpose-built resort (Cancun) or a cheap tuk-tuk ride that involves a detour to a gem shop. Many, including Venice and the Great Wall of China at Badaling, are much loved, even though they’re nudging the upper limits of their carrying capacities, while others aren’t as easy to spot.
1 The world famous
Places that preface their name with “world famous” usually aren’t. Tourism royalty has no need to overdo the self-promotion. The Arizona Visitor Centre doesn’t sell its crown jewel as the “World Famous Grand Canyon”, nor do Nepalese authorities advertise hiking and summit climbs up the “World Famous Mount Everest”.
There are, however, any number of “world famous caves” (litter-strewn holes decorated with cheap fairy lights) and “internationally renowned fortune-tellers” (“I sense you are on a long journey, sir”). VisitGuam.com boasts of the island’s “world famous sunsets”, although what makes them better, or more famous, than those that illuminate Phuket, Paris or Pok Fu Lam is unclear.
Including a recognisable landmark such as the Statue of Liberty or Sydney Harbour Bridge in a sunset photo helps, but it’s the silhouette that lends eminence, not the splash of tangerine and crimson.
2 Never again
Many tourism-related enterprises cater almost exclusively to passing trade, including once-in-a-lifetime bucket listers. Cheap and cheerful safari companies, airport hotels and restaurants near the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the Pyramids have little incentive to provide value for money, as they’ll never see you again.
These are establishments where style invariably trumps substance and prime location masks mediocrity. Service is sloppy, food forgettable and hefty surcharges are buried in the small print. Few of us have ever uttered the words, “Shall we eat at the revolving restaurant again?”
Fortunately, even first-time tourists can usually spot a dud. Faded photos of dishes displayed in windows should set alarm bells ringing, as should the charismatic greeter waving a multilingual menu at passers-by. And if staff are dressed in themed or national costume, keep walking – you wouldn’t go to such places back home.
Of course, TripAdvisor and other review sites are forcing proprietors to up their game, although reviews with headings such as, “Beautiful setting, bland food, surly staff” are unlikely to disappear completely.
3 No locals
It’s surprising how many savvy holidaymakers seek out restaurants filled with discerning locals, then go shopping on a glitzy neon-lit main street those same locals wouldn’t be seen dead in. An absence of ordinary stores (and ordinary people) tells you all you need to know about rent in tourist honeypots and why residents shop elsewhere (where in Hong Kong would you buy a camera, Tsim Sha Tsui or Mong Kok?).
You won’t find a hardware store in Dubrovnik’s old town or New York’s Times Square and, if you must hunt for souvenirs in George Town or St Lucia, wait until the cruise ships have headed over the horizon. No one gets a “special price” while the liners are docked.
Sometimes, however, exorbitant costs are justified. Despite TripAdvisor gripes, the price of a steak, beef stew or items from the tuck shop at Phantom Ranch, a mile inside the Grand Canyon, reflects the fact that everything has to be brought in by mule. They’re hardly likely to offer two-for-one deals on sunscreen.
4 Bogus boasts
There is an entire category of tourist trap based on dubious or fabricated claims to fame. Up to a million visitors arrive annually at Loch Ness, in Scotland, hoping to come face to face with a monster but settling for a fridge magnet. Juliet’s much-photographed balcony in Verona has a similarly shaky oral history – scholars point out there’s nothing to connect the house to the fictional heroine, nor was a balcony ever mentioned in Shakespeare’s tragic love story.
Sci-fi sightseers converge on alien zone Area 51 in Roswell, Nevada, where they’ve as much chance of seeing Nessie serenade Juliet as they have of glimpsing a UFO. And Dracula’s Castle was home to neither Bram Stoker’s bloodthirsty character nor Vlad the Impaler, who the cruel count was supposedly based on.
In fact, Stoker never even visited Romania. Still, no point letting the truth get in the way of a good money-making racket.
5 That town off the TV
Destinations become achingly hip and “the next big thing” for a number of reasons. Word of mouth will do it, as will media attention, and if the place should feature as a location for a television series or film, then a spike in interest is all but guaranteed.
Chiang Mai University is popular with Chinese tourists, thanks to the 2012 movie Lost in Thailand, and each year the English county of Cornwall welcomes a quarter of a million excited Germans, who tour the mansions, meadows and beaches they see in Sunday evening TV adaptations of Rosamunde Pilcher novels.
A celebrity sighting or, better (worse) still, a celebrity property purchase (think George Clooney at Lake Como or Madonna’s ongoing house hunt in Lisbon), appeals to those who dream of getting close to the stars and imitating their lifestyles but leaves everyone else complaining about the hike in prices and crowds.
6 Phoney tourist information centres
Another participant in the false pretences field is the “official” tourist information centre. The motives of genuine travel agencies are transparent enough, but businesses that attract customers under the guise of offering free help have an agenda.
Don’t expect impartial advice or money-saving tips – the aim of these for-profit outfits is to lure us into booking often overpriced tours, which explains why there’s someone at the door beckoning us in to look around.
Legitimate, government-funded tourist offices provide information, literature and assistance with no strings attached. After all, no one stands outside the Hong Kong Visitor Centre at Star Ferry shouting, “Come inside and get your free brochures!”