A plague of picture-snapping posers

I’m obviously not the first person to have had an uncivil thought inside the Colosseum in Rome, where my view and right-of-way were severely blocked last summer by walls of tourists taking selfies, with their backs turned to the arena. My uncivil thought was this: Where are the Barbary lions and the leopards and panthers now that we need them?

In its heyday in the 2nd century, the Colosseum could accommodate well over 50,000 Romans cheering its spectacles, which at times included the damnatio ad bestias, the condemnation to beastsin which wretches who’d had the misfortune to get crosswise with the authorities were removed from the arena with, shall we say, extreme prejudice.

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Now with the coming of summer in the northern hemisphere, the selfie-crazed tourist onslaught is again at a peak. Those of us who pack our good manners when we travel—you and I, for example—only stand by and shrug, as I did in the Vatican Museums while watching tourists who were not looking at the paintings but instead were taking selfies in front of them. 

What is going on here? When did the world’s tourist spots get overwhelmed with picture-snapping posers?

Let me provide at least a snapshot of an answer with some statistics. Tourism is growing at staggering rates, internationally and domestically. The United Nations’ World Tourism Organization says that in 2017, over 1.3 billion people made international visits, up from a mere 25 million in 1950. There were 76.9 million international travelers to the U.S. in 2017. That same year, according to the U.S. Travel Association, Americans logged 1.8 billion domestic “person trips,” defined as one person traveling away from home overnight and staying in paid accommodations.

That’s a lot of people on the road, and all of them pack at least a cellphone if they aren’t carrying a traditional camera. Travel and tourism represent the world’s largest commercial service industry. And it’s the engine driving the selfie phenomenon that’s plaguing spots from the fountains of Rome (where selfies were banned after tourists began stripping to their underwear to splash and pose) to Dubrovnik, Croatia (which has been overwhelmed with selfie-mad tourists at locations where Game of Throneswas filmed) to Yosemite National Park (where visitors have been injured trying to take selfies with bison that evidently do not want to be in the picture). Last October, a married couple fell off a cliff to their deaths in Yosemite while taking a selfie for their travel-adventure feed on Instagram.

Media accounts and even academic studies have focused on Instagram and Facebook being largely responsible for the worldwide plague of selfie narcissism. A typical headline: “Linked to Death: Are Instagram and Social Media Ruining Travel?” 

Pushback is occurring. Bans on dangerous or intrusive-to-others selfie-taking are being instituted all over the world, and those infernal telescoping selfie sticks are now widely prohibited in museums and at tourist hotspots. Some vacation destinations are setting aside designated selfie areas. In the U.S., the National Park Service is working with researchers from Colorado State University on a campaign to encourage selfie-crazed visitors to keep a safe distance from various kinds of wildlife. Social-media petitions urging limits on selfies are springing up.

But the impulse to take travel selfies is mighty. For example, after this past winter’s overabundant rainfall in the desert Southwest created spectacular early springtime “super blooms” of desert wildflowers, the Los Angeles Timesfretted that masses of selfie-taking visitors had begun pouring into the deserts and tramping on all the splendid wildflowers. “Instagram-hungry crowds are destroying the super bloom,” the headline said with alarm.

Of course, the desert wildflowers will be long gone in the blazing heat of summer, but selfie fanatics do have a new—and harmless—venue in Los Angeles, where the Museum of Selfies opened this year on Hollywood Boulevard. For the $25 admission, visitors can wander through interactive exhibits and, the museum’s website enthuses, “take a deep dive into the fascinating history and unseen depths of this popular cultural phenomenon.” 

And yup, selfie sticks are allowed.

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