Photographer Pat Kane was hiking Hang Mua mountain’s upper peak in intense heat and humidity last February, alongside his wife and several women in high heels and traditional Vietnamese dresses (áo dài). They were all on the way to see the view of the lower peak towering over the ancient countryside landscape of Ninh Binh, Vietnam, where limestone karsts jut out between the rice paddy fields and wetlands of the Red River Delta.
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After taking in the beauty, Kane and his wife made their way back down the mountain, passing the well-dressed women still taking selfies of themselves against the stunning backdrop. This view was one of the most impressive of Kane’s journey to 18 countries and 60 cities since last fall. But like many who have travelled since travel restrictions have eased, Kane has become a “self-loathing tourist,” and wonders whether visitors going in droves are ruining the beauty of places like this.
“Although tourists are contributing to the economy, we can’t help but ask: Are we overdoing it?”
This year, many popular travel destinations have taken steps to prevent overtourism’s impact on the environment and local communities. Amsterdam launched a “stay away” campaign to dissuade “nuisance tourists” who partake in all-night drink and drug benders, Athens joined 22 other European cities in urging the European Commission to limit short-term stays, and Italy’s Portofino introduced legislation to discourage tourists from lingering for selfies.
Kane – who returned this spring from seven months of touring Europe, the Balkans, Fiji, New Zealand and Southeast Asia – brings the issue back to the personal responsibility of the tourist.
“Coming out of COVID, there’s a lot of frustration, and people want to travel,” he says. “But I also see there’s a lot of entitlement. The world doesn’t owe you anything simply because we all had to stay home for a couple of years during the pandemic. To me, it’s a privilege and we have to remind ourselves about that. Don’t treat it as your playground and not be a nice, normal human being. The people who work at the airports, the tour guides and anyone in the service or travel industry deserve a break too.”
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A member of the Timiskaming First Nation, Kane has photographed communities in the Northwest Territories for the past 18 years. His international travels were not only a lesson in humility, but a welcome shift from his regular photo work. “Travelling was an opportunity to find the joy and fun in photography again,” he says.
Kane took around 100 photos a day. In crowded hotspots, he intentionally looked for quiet moments to capture. But he spent more time in the affordable, less touristy areas such as the village of Theth in Albania, Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana, New Zealand’s coastal city Napier, and Chumphon city on the Central Gulf Coast of Thailand.
“Your experiences are more genuine and new in places like that,” he says. “Going off the beaten path enriches your experience so much more, because you’re not waiting in lines, and you get a better understanding of places and people when you engage with the culture, people and try new food.”
Along his journey, Kane captured many moments of serenity, beauty and surprise that remind us what travel is really all about. Here are a few that stood out.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
The temple complex plays host to thousands of tourists and both Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims each day. A visit to this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a humbling experience. The monumental architecture and intricate bas-reliefs made us feel small, and the diversity of tourists was a testament to how important the ancient city is to people across the world.
I was hesitant to photograph any monks because I didn’t want to exoticize them through my pictures. While we were touring inside of the temple, a monk was walking down the same corridor toward us, carrying a camera. I complimented him on his camera and asked sheepishly if I could take a portrait of him but soon realized he did not speak English. Nonetheless, he put his camera aside and stood next to a window, an invitation to have me photograph him. I showed him the photo, thanked him and he smiled and moved on.
Later, outside of the temple, we walked past these monks and they noticed my camera. Without saying a word, they posed next to the Naga, the statue of a guardian serpent that is found at the entrance of many Cambodian temples. They waved me closer to take their photo for no other reason than to be friendly. The exchange was brief, but it was nice to feel welcomed and encouraged to make these portraits.
After hearing music and singing from outside of our hotel, a receptionist encouraged us to take a look at the wedding inside. She said everyone was welcome to say hello and extend their best wishes to the newlyweds.
It’s an example of why of all the countries we visited, Albania was a highlight. There is a sense of joy and community in the small nation that doesn’t get many tourists compared with most places in Europe.
Wherever we went, people asked us if we were enjoying ourselves and if we liked being in Albania. In most towns and cities in the country, people gather along promenades in the evenings and walk and mingle with each other. In the shqip language, it is called xhiro – a time to exercise after dinner and catch up with family and friends. The practice began during the communist years as a way for people to share news and check in with each other. The tradition continued as the country transitioned into a democracy in the 1990s. Today, it is a way to see and be seen, and to socialize with friends and strangers alike.
We met many people on their evening xhiro and many told us how it is a good way to feel connected to their communities. My wife and I continue to walk – to xhiro – even back in Canada as a break from our work and home life, to meet with people and explore the nooks and crannies of our city.
The lake is a popular destination in the city’s Old Quarter. Vendors sell flowers, fruit, fritters and sight-seeing tickets along the pathway, where visitors come to see the lake and nearby temples and attractions.
Many tourists hire professional photographers to have their photo taken against the backdrop of the lake. For locals, this is a place to relax, stretch, exercise and socialize.
In one of the world’s most bustling cities, scenes of calm and peace are rare in the Vietnamese capital. When we saw this group of men sitting together, it was a reminder to find places away from the crowds and to reflect on the people, scenery and culture around us.
Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
The bridge was built in the 16th century but destroyed in 1993 during the Croat-Bosniak War. It was reconstructed in 2004. Shelled-out buildings remain standing in Mostar, stark reminders of the horrors of war in the 1990s and its impact on the people here.
Walking across the small, beautiful bridge was like stepping through the culturally rich but complex history of this Balkan country: each step in reverence to the men and women who built the bridge, those who died to protect it and those who preserved it.
Queenstown, New Zealand
Visitors are encouraged to feed Dougal grain pellets by sticking an arm inside his mouth and dropping the pellets inside.
Queenstown markets itself as the world capital of fun and adventure. For us, that involved a tour across Lake Wakatipu to drink wine, watch dogs herd sheep and, of course, to feed Dougal, which was a highlight in adventureland. As soon as our guide demonstrated the technique, I knew I had to get my camera ready to capture this moment.
People from across Bavaria gather to eat, drink and socialize at local festivals in September each year – the most famous being Oktoberfest in Munich. Markets like this also bring crowds of tourists and I was hoping to capture the fun and humour of the festival with my camera.
As we walked, shopped, ate and drank, we noticed the decorative lederhosen worn by most men and women was unlike the campy outfits you see at German-style beer gardens in North America. This man’s stockings, his shoes and the colour palette of the whole scene stood out to me.
Prague, Czech Republic
The city is a well-known cultural and economic hub of central Europe, filled with gothic and baroque architecture at every turn. Castles, museums, galleries, pubs and stores fill Prague’s Old Town. The city seems like all you would imagine if Europe was bundled together in a single place. The medieval Charles Bridge is an icon of Prague and is packed with tourists, performers and street vendors.
It was refreshing to capture this quiet moment between two people in the commotion around them.