The Rise of 'Bucket List' Syndrome – Are We Faking it at the World's Biggest Attractions?

The Seine River flowing by the Eiffel Tower in Paris
Photo by IakovKalinin/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

by Annabel Fenwick Elliott, The Telegraph, March 7, 2018

The first time I saw the Eiffel Tower, at the age of 13, I was underwhelmed. Then again, this sort of architecture isn't everyone's cup of tea and sulky teens are usually philistines regardless of where you take them.

Likewise, however, when I moved to New York in my 20s, I genuinely never once felt the urge to tour the Statue of Liberty or hop on a bus to the Empire State Building. I knew what they looked like already, and I hate crowds.

I used to feel guilty about this, and wonder if there might be something wrong with me. When I read the late writer A. A. Gill's account of the first time he visited Rome, in which he described bursting into tears and sobbing at its beauty - my first thought was, "but did you actually?"

Take a step back to the earliest days of leisure travel, before the dawn of photography (less than 200 years ago), and I can absolutely imagine how mind-blowing and culture-shocking it must have been to see Egypt's pyramids for the first time as a European.

For just one per cent of the all the time we’ve spent on Earth have we been able to see a photo of what another country looks like before getting there.

So it’s hardly surprising that when I visited Bali last year, got off my bicycle, squinted at the Ubud Rice Terraces and waited for the 'moment' to hit me, as it would have hit those 18th century Europeans in Egypt, it didn't.

A mosquito bit me and a tourist whacked me on the back of my head with a selfie stick instead. Yes, the view was beautiful. But the light wasn’t great, it was drizzling and the crowds were ruining it. In short, it was always going to be a dud version of the one I’d seen in all the artfully shot photos and films.

Displaying an emotional reaction to the sight of a famous tourist attraction is, I suspect, often more disingenuous than we care to confess. In the same way we ooh and ahh over someone else's baby even though it looks like a gargoyle, or display marvel at a friend's newly painted kitchen whether they've done a good job on it or not, many of us feel obliged to manifest awe in the presence of a Unesco-listed site.

In my quest to discover whether I was alone in this potentially loathsome character trait, I addressed the rest of the Telegraph Travel desk, and everyone had their own reluctant anecdote:

Greg Dickinson, on visiting Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater: "Reality dawned. Other people? Here? At this unique ecological marvel?"

Penny Walker, on seeing the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris: "I fought through huge queues to get to the front, and it was only a little bigger than a postcard. I could have had a better look at it by getting a high-res image up online."

Is that it? The tourist attractions that are far smaller (and more disappointing) than you think

Oliver Smith, digital travel editor: "Venice was a bit of a disappointment with its crowds, overpriced gondolas, and cruise ships spoiling the view. Angkor Wat was ruined somewhat by all the touts hassling us. And Udaipur is one city that looks infinitely better in photographs."

Are we being spoiled brats? Spoiled, certainly - if you’ve seen BBC's Planet Earth, for example, you’ve already seen the world in its most spectacular presentation thus far. And the more Disney-like depictions of Paris you’ve been exposed to in your lifetime, the more you’ll find yourself faking awe when you eventually go and look at the Eiffel Tower in real life.

In its most extreme form, scientists have actually diagnosed a disorder known as "Paris Syndrome", first coined by a Japanese psychiatrist stationed in France in 1986. Experienced almost exclusively by Japanese tourists with a highly romanticised notion of Paris, the disappointment of being faced with its reality has been known to cause symptoms including hallucinations, dizziness, depersonalization and delusional states - albeit in rare cases.

Surprising alternatives to Europe’s most overcrowded cities

Perhaps it’s time we went back to the beginning and readdressed the real reasons we’ve always had that tug to leave our posts and venture into new territories in the first place (war, trade and pilgrimage aside). To discover something new, and to seek brief asylum from the routine of our everyday lives.

And maybe that’s enough.

Perhaps we’d be better off satisfied that the pyramids of Egypt have by now been thoroughly documented, that it’s not actually worth all the time, money and effort required to go and stand before them in real life, elbow-to-elbow with a scrum of fellow tourists, just to say you’ve done it, just to take yet another substandard photo of it. Particularly, as the Telegraph’s Greg Dickinson pointed out last week in his manifesto against the bucket list, as you’re actually ruining these amazing places in the process.

And don’t feel guilty about scratching whale watching off your to-do list either: it might well be a letdown. You’ll waste hours waiting, possibly seasick, for a glimpse of a barnacled bump. Watch Blue Planet if you want to see how incredible whales truly are, and book your next trip to a place you’ve never even heard of if you’re seeking a true adventure.

By now, I’ve just about managed to forgive myself for leaving a country without having seen its star attraction. Thank goodness I checked the TripAdvisor reviews from my hotel in Croatia before I set off to see the Plitvice Lakes last summer, because my view of them remain untarnished. To me, the Plitvice Lakes are a staggering feat of nature, and look like this:

Had I actually gone, bang smack in the middle of peak season, I’d have been confronted with this:

Instead, my friend and I asked a native Croatian - with some difficulty regarding the language barrier - to point us in the vague direction of a beach that wasn’t rammed with burnt Brits. We were ripped off renting a car, got lost, but eventually wound up at a hidden cove accessible only by scrambling over some tricky rocks, and spent the rest of our day bobbling blissfully in a secluded part of the ocean we’d discovered ourselves.

I still have no idea what that cove is called, and we had such a nice time, we forgot to even take a photo.


This article was written by Annabel Fenwick Elliott from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].

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