New College of the Humanities

Touring through the Past

Graham Gendall Norton takes us on a magical mystery tour of the world of historical tourism.

Leisure travel has burgeoned, become hugely globalized,  and airports and resorts are unbearably crowded at holiday times. So are the centres of European culture in summer. Increasingly, in the winter, so are tropical destinations. These include some UNESCO World Heritage Sites, like India’s Taj Mahal, with its seven million visitors a year – some Indian, others from all over the world, and Cambodia’s Angkor temples, which now has over a million. Tens of thousands more flock over Christmas and the New Year to the beaches of Thailand and the Caribbean. Cheap flights, cheap packages, all drive it on. But a reaction is becoming evident, with those who can choosing to travel out of the frantic seasons: and others, green-principled, concerned with global warming and pollution, opting not to fly.


While some travellers look for a place to relax, or enjoy the sun, the nightlife or spectacular scenery, the historical traveller is seeking something of the authenticity of the place, a sense of the texture of the past. This means doing one’s best to get away from the crowds. Overcrowded sites, museums, streets cannot but impair the insights which it was the hope that the visit would achieve. Add to this an inescapable and aggressive marketing of souvenirs and possible over-interpretation and the sensational orchestration of a few selective elements in the story, and many are tempted to retreat in despair. To avoid the worst of it, timing is of the essence: visit very early in the morning in the tourist season, or better, out of the peak season altogether.

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