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Photography bans could be a deterrent for overtourism

It would weed out the people who just want a picture from those who actually want to see a famous site.

I took my best-ever travel photo in a grand Hindu temple in the city of Jaffna, in northern Sri Lanka. It's a picture of the late-afternoon sun slanting down through a courtyard in the center of the temple, illuminating a small, thin man with a palm-frond broom who is sweeping the marble floor. Dust particles can be seen in the beams of light that surround him, and in the shadows behind are rows of golden pillars disappearing into the distance.

But the curious thing about this photo is that it doesn't actually exist for anyone else to see. It's only in my mind. There was no photography allowed inside the temple, so despite the frantic itching in my fingers to reach for my phone in the moment that I saw that amazing scene, I had to resist. Instead, I stopped walking, studied it, and seared it into my brain. It's still there, and I think of it frequently.

There's something to be said for not being allowed to take photos everywhere and anytime. We've become such camera-happy travellers that we've almost forgotten how to meander, observe, absorb, and remember without clicking a button. There is a frantic desire not only to commemorate every experience with a photo, but also to post it on social media to prove to others that we're doing fun, cool things.

The problem is that this obsessive photo-taking is affecting the quality of visits to well-known tourist attractions. It's adding congestion and confusion, with all those extra slow lineups, screens blazing, repeated posing, hands in the air, and irritated security guards. This is why more cities and property managers are considering full photography bans, or at least reviewing how to allow photography in a less intrusive, more beneficial way.

An article for CNN offers some examples. The city of Amsterdam has removed its big I AMSTERDAM sign to cut down on the selfie queues, and the Van Gogh Museum has designated selfie spots where people can take pictures next to enlarged versions of iconic art. In Mexico City, Frida Kahlo's home charges an extra fee for photography, and the UNESCO heritage site Cast Barragan requires a photo permit to be purchased. Many other destinations, such as the Bone Church in Czech Republic and Gion neighborhood in Kyoto, have banned photos outright.

After my trip to Sri Lanka, when every person in the group insisted on taking a picture of the same thing, I realized just how much I dislike repetitive tourist photography. I took the bare minimum of photos for the articles I knew I'd write about the trip or if I saw scenes that struck me as truly beautiful or unusual, but I tried mostly to focus on remembering and seeing what was around me, not trying to record it other than through writing in my travel journal – and of course, no selfies. As Lilit Marcus wrote for CNN,

“Separating photography as an art form from the instantaneous quality of likes online means that you value the picture you took for its own sake, rather than for how others react to it.”

CNN cites a trend forecast that thinks some tourist destinations, i.e. hotels and restaurants, will start to fight back against the Instagram craze by redesigning interiors to be dark and intimate and not conducive to photography. Some predict it will become trendy not to post about trips, to remain mysteriously silent. It will be interesting to see what happens.

I Amsterdam sign© K Martinko – Pre-smartphones (2008), when it didn't even occur to me to get in the picture & there was no one else around

Personally, I remember most from the places where photos weren't allowed because I worked harder to remember them, like that temple I described at the beginning. And it was even easier to do when others around me weren't waving their phones and posing repeatedly. I know I'd be very keen to go on a tour where photos aren't allowed at all, like the ones offered by Wild Frontiers and mentioned on CNN. (I'll find out more and write about them for TreeHugger.)

If you haven't pondered it before, take a moment to think about how often you whip out a camera to take pictures of things without pausing to absorb the scene. Ask yourself if it's annoying to anyone else around, if it's disrespectful, if you'd want to be photographed if the tables were turned, and how you'd feel if a tourist in your hometown were doing the same. A bit of mindfulness and self-restraint, practiced collectively, could go a long way toward creating a more pleasant atmosphere.

It would weed out the people who just want a picture from those who actually want to see a famous site.