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Back Doors and Overcrowding A world view

The subject of Overcrowding and back doors comes up a lot and and RS takes his lumps, I think unfairly. So I'd like to broaden this out a little for some perspective.

In the early 1980's I was living in Washington DC and needed to get to Bali. I called several "Travel Agents" and "Bucket Shops" in the US (Washington, LA and SFO) looking for a flight to Bali.

Not a SINGLE one of them knew where Bali was or it's capital city (Denpasar) or even WHAT COUNTRY (Indonesia) it belonged to. I had to tell them. To say that our view of the world was limited would be an understatement. And I see and read much the same in some of the posts every time this subject comes up here.

One could be forgiven for thinking that no one knew about Bali then and you would have it for yourself. Far from it, just like in Europe many others had access to information we did not have or were not interested in. Bali at that time was overrun with Brits, Germans and Aussies who were all complaining about how it was overrun. THEIR guidebooks had listed Bali for many years...Tony and Maureen Wheeler put it in their original Asia on a shoestring guide. And this was a BIG boost to crowding there.

My first time there I stayed in a small and very cheap guesthouse at about $5/day. The last time I was there I stayed at the Oberoi. I had a private compound bungalow with it's own pool last inhabited by Mick Jagger. ($800/night in 1992)

Similarly on the same first trip I spent time on the Thai Island of Koh Samui. Then it had one dirt track around the island and a few clusters of thatched huts renting for $2/day right on the beach. A bottle of Mekong Whiskey was $1 and you could eat a seafood feast for about $2. (With beer)

Now Koh Samui is an international resort chock a block with 4 and 5 star resorts. Not unlike the Oberoi

This is not a Europe-centric issue it is world wide and has been going on for a very long time. World population in 2018 is reliably estimated at 7,632,819,325 (yea that's 7.6 Billion).

In 1984 when I first went to Bali, and was going to Europe twice a year, the world population was only 4,701,530,843 (4.7 Billion). This is a rise of 2.9 BILLION PEOPLE. That is a little more than TWICE the population of India in 2017. In addition and just as importantly, in the 1980's 44 percent of the worlds population lived in extreme poverty earning less than $2/day. Now fewer than 10% are in that condition. (NY Times). Meaning that MILLIONS more are able to afford to travel.

This past year I spent 4 months in Europe and experienced the incredible overcrowding for myself. Never in all my previous trips to Europe going back many years have I encountered so many people, crowding so many places.

However given the information above it should be no surprise to anyone that the so called Back doors no longer exist as they once did. The best back door of all time was Koh Samui. It took less than ten years from my first visit to the opening of an international airport and big changes. Not only do these changes come they happen very fast.

(I originally posted this in the other discussion on Back Doors but after re-reading it I felt it was a bit off topic for that discussion and I deleted it and re posted it as it's own thread)

Posted by
293 posts

Thank you for the post. I agree that back doors are rare and when discovered and publicized, quickly become overrun. With more and more of the world traveling, it will be more difficult to find those out-of-the way places with local charm.

For those of us who care about the problem of overtourism and the impact on the people who live in those environments, we can bring a backdoor philosophy to our travels. In many of the articles published recently on the blight of overtourism, whether Rome, Venice, Barcelona, New Zealand, etc. there is a discussion about quality versus quantity. In those articles, quality tourism is often described as tourist who stay and eat in the cities they visit, that respect the art/architecture and the people that live in those cities. They search beyond the traditional tourist sites to visit a neighborhood pub/trattoria/restaurant, spreading their money to augment local spend. They treat shop owners respectfully and search out the local artisans rather than trinket shops.

When I visited Venice this past June and spoke with our guide, server at the restaurants, and apartment manager, each of them bemoaned the fact that they could no longer afford to live in Venice. Airbnb and vacation rentals have driven up prices and unless you have inherited a house, it means that you can’t afford the city. Coming from the San Francisco Bay Area and seeing the same trends (not caused by tourism, but tech), it was easy to understand the frustrations and the pain these long term residents felt.

I don’t know the answer, but as disposable income increases globally and more people travel, what we love about so many of the places we have once visited as Back Doors disappears and much like the locals, we lose what was once wonderful about a place. The only thing that I can see doing personally is to spend my travel dollars in way that brings some value to the places I visit.

Posted by
1970 posts

The 21st Century will be far different in terms of the World's birth rate. Check out this link loaded with data.

https://ourworldindata.org/future-population-growth

Projections with the Medium Variant show a leveling off and eventual decline in population growth. Many countries already have a steep decline in the birth rates.

I have traveled to 76 countries in the World and find the type of overcrowding in China and India to be smothering. I understand your concern, however, the future doesn't seem to be a disaster.

Posted by
1164 posts

Thanks for the thoughtful analysis, aarthurperry. I think your perspective is accurate and well-informed.

I will never complain about crowds when I travel, and I will not listen to those complaints from others. When we travel, if it's crowded, we are part of the problem. It's easy to be annoyed by all the other tourists, but each of us is equally responsible. When we travel to what we hope will be a less crowded destination, or to a popular destination in the off season, we are spreading the problem to new dates and places.

The best solution I know is to slow down. Too many of us, with our limited vacation time and budgets, think we need to cram as much sightseeing in as many destinations as possible because who knows when we'll get to go back. While this is understandable, it's bound to lead to disappointment and frustration. If you dump the agenda and just be where you are and don't worry about where you need to go next, the crowds will start to matter less and less.

Posted by
542 posts

I wasn't really addressing the future. I was addressing the past and present. This is how it is now and has been growing for a long time. While I agree that globally birthrates are down in some countries that "trend" can turn around in the space of ten years.

My thrust was that people often view this through the lens of a small geographic area...ie Europe and from the perspective of their own experience and where they come from. I just wanted to broaden that out a bit for a more macro look.

Posted by
900 posts

I 100% disagree that back doors are getting rarer. There are still plenty of places out there that don't have very many tourists. I have been spending months a year recently in Bulgaria, which is a little off the beaten path I guess, but even there outside of the package tourism area on the seaside, you rarely see tourists. Hike after hike, monastery after monastery ... nobody. And that is Bulgaria - great transportation links, been on the radar for decades. How about Georgia? Armenia? How about the Philippines? Papua New Guinea? How about anywhere in Africa? Even in Western Europe, if you get outside the main, well known sites there are literally infinite choices. I spent several weeks last year looking for a car in Germany. The random, beautiful little small towns and places I was seeing were exceptional. And no tourist throngs, some places no tourists period.

Why was Bali undiscovered in the 80s? It was because it was hard to get to and didn't have a great tourist infrastructure. Then that changed. But when you went it probably was rough around the edges. Are you telling me you couldn't find places like that today in Mozambique, or Chile, or ???. But most people don't want to go to rough around the edges places. They want to go to places that their friends have heard about, places that the culture has been spoon feeding them about through movies, books, travel shows etc. Like Paris. Absolutely no idea why people go here. Its a great city and all, but its just inertia. A place that was once great, and the eiffel tower was an engineering marvel, and they were the epitome of sophistication, diplomacy, art, literature. But now they are not, people walk around in the shadow of greatness. Movies like Midnight in Paris just depressingly sum up why people go there. But yet point out places like Dubai are the new center of gravity, where the new eiffel tower has been built, where the new royalty is holding court, and people just scoff. Why would I go there, its fake?

Posted by
853 posts

We are experiencing overcrowding in most if not all of our National Parks and States Parks here in Washington State. Now with the government shut down....some parks such as Rainier had to take measures to keep the crowds out because there is no one to watch out for these precious assets. Venice is going to have an entrance fee...but I don't think that will stop people who have arrived in super ships, etc. Herd mentality is having effects everywhere. I follow Scotland because of my travels there. Skye because of it's connection to such tv shows as Outlander has no place to park. I find that many are afraid to take the less taken road.

Posted by
1164 posts

Kaeleku, I'm guessing you've already been to Paris.

I think you're right and smart to not want to go to places that attract tourists. But to tell people who have never been to Paris not to go there because it's no longer as special as it once was is futile. Paris and Venice and Barcelona and other popular cities are not going to become less popular. There are still a lot of people (on this forum and elsewhere) who will go back to Paris every couple of years. And consider the countless people on this forum who love Italy so much they keep going back.

It may be true that there are still a lot of "back door" places in the world, and maybe it was hyperbole for aarthurperry to say they no longer exist as they once did. But it's certainly true that many of the places that used to be "back door" are now mainstream tourist destinations.

If it's written about in a guidebook, it's probably not "back door." And if it's not written about in a guide book, most travelers are never going to find it. And then it won't have a hotel or restaurant or museum, or maybe even a train station.

It takes more effort to go to those off-the-beaten-path destinations. Not everyone wants to travel that way.

Posted by
542 posts

@Kaeleku, I cant help but think that you would disagree with me less if you read me more carefully. So I will try to clarify what I wrote:

You wrote:

Why was Bali undiscovered in the 80s? It was because it was hard to get to and didn't have a great tourist infrastructure. Then that changed. But when you went it probably was rough around the edges.

Bali was not "undiscovered" in the 80's. If you read my lines on Bali I think it's clear that I was pointing out that Bali, while unknown here in the US and thus could be construed as a "Back Door" of Asia from this perspective, it actually was overrun with tourists and in fact had a large and quite sophisticated tourist infrastructure. And was thus not really a "Back Door" at all. It was not hard to get to either. I took a non-stop flight from Wash DC to Bangkok and changed to a flight to Denpasar.

And...

Are you telling me you couldn't find places like that today in Mozambique, or Chile, or ???.

Here is what I wrote: "However given the information above it should be no surprise to anyone that the so called Back doors no longer exist as they once did."

I never said that untouristed, or relatively so places did not exist on the planet, the Republic of Congo is a good example, but rather those places already or once thought of as back doors have changed.

And this from you:

I have been spending months a year recently in Bulgaria, which is a little off the beaten path I guess, but even there outside of the package tourism area on the seaside, you rarely see tourists.

While I agree that Bulgaria is not over-touristed my experience there this past summer is far different from yours. I was there for almost a month and in Plovdiv, Riga and Veliko Tarnovo there were many thousands of tourists and hard to find a place to stay. But you are right it is a delightful place and not over crowded...but it IS definitely on the map especially for European tourists.

Some food for thought from your list of under-touristed countries:

Phillipines: 6.6 Million tourists for 2018

Bulgaria: 11 596 167 (Yes that's 11.5 MILLION) (2018) Not exactly undiscovered. (Source Bulgaria Department of Tourism)

Chile: 7+ Million according to Turismo Chile

I do agree however that Goergia and Armenia are not hotspots for sure. But I think facts are important to keep things in perspective. The places you mention and I listed above, while certainly not overrun, are firmly and squarely on the tourist trail. And I would not class them as "Back Doors" at least in the sense that RS meant and most people percieve.

Posted by
10165 posts

If one had followed the famous song by Lolita, "Seemann" that smash hit in Germany in the beginning of the 1960s, one would have heard of Bali as Bali was definitely in the popular mind in (west) Germany. I heard that song for the first time in early 1964 when I was in the 9th grade. She mentions Bali among the 3-4 places in that song, that yearning of far away places, ie, Sehnsuchtslieder.

In the mid-1980s I knew of a German young woman, a university student then, who flew to Bali for vacation. She was a kid I had met in 1973 in the Nürnberg HI youth hostel.

Posted by
514 posts

My view is that it's not so much about what country you visit, but where you visit in that country. And when.

Some say that France is overrun by tourists. And it certainly can be, in specific places and at specific times. But it's a big country and there are many areas that have essentially no visitors other than locals. And there are other places where, in some months there are lots of visitors and at other times there are virtually none. Where I live is such a case: every summer the place is overrun with thousands of religious pilgrims. Restaurants are full, boulangeries have lines, and hotel rooms can be hard to find. The hundreds of people dragging their rolling bags from the train station into the central part of the village after a train arrives sounds like the drone of a hundred beehives. But in the wintertime, things are completely different. Sure, the locals are still here, but the whole nature of the town is different.

Even tourist hotspots such as Provence have the same characteristic. One of the more sublime times I've had since moving to France was after a business meeting a bit north of Marseille. We had a few hours to kill before the next train to Lyon, so we went into a small nearby town and had pizzas and carafes of Rhône wine while we waited to catch an evening train. Sitting under the tall plane trees, watching local kids playing and running up and down the steps of the Mairie across the way, enjoying the balmy autumn temperatures and charming setting, well, it's hard to describe how simple, peaceful, and beautiful it was. Yet if we had driven over to Aix-en-Provence instead, all I probably would have remembered would have been struggling to find a parking place, being jostled by tourists on the sidewalks, and being turned away from restaurants because they were full. Sure, Aix has more sights, but it doesn't necessarily offer the visitor a better, more memorable experience.

Posted by
3353 posts

In the category of "information that is not helpful, but continues to stir up trouble", I submit my 4th Edition (ca. 1995) copy of that rare and unsuccessful book, "Asia Through the Back Door" by Rick Steves and Bob Effertz. There is a whole chapter on Bali, as one of thirty Asian "back doors". Quod erat demonstrandum.

(not kidding, this book really exists)

Posted by
542 posts

Yes Bali was known way before I went there in the 80's and as we all pointed out, mostly by the Europeans. I think RS was right (from an American perspective Bali was a "back door" to most of us) though even in the early 90's Bali was not really on most Americans Radar.

Tourism in Bali actually started in the mid late 1920's and took off in the 1930's. In the late 1930's the Hotel Tjampuhan in UBUD was the center of a famous artists colony of Europeans. It was in the 1970's when surfers found it in big numbers that real interest started to peak. Then with the publication of Tony and Maureen Wheelers first Lonely Planet book which really just outlined the old Hippie trail from London to Kabul, Kathmandu and Kuta (Bali) things really got going.

It seems to me that most Americans had very little sense of Bali until President Obama stayed there.

By the way Bali is lovely...still and well worth a visit. The hotel Tjampuhan in Ubud it is a truly great experience. Every room has a balcony and cannot see any other room. There are no phones or TV's (last time I was there) and to call room service there was a hanging drum on the balcony in the shape of a Balinese God. These all had huge erect Phallus's which you remove and use to hit the drum, Each has a particular sound and summons staff to your room. The hotel is built on a cliffside of a jungle river just outside Ubud. Each room is furnished with Dutch antiques and the bathrooms are open air and built like small temples. the Balinese are friendly and reserved folks who live their culture and religion integrated into their daily lives. It is a magical place.

I have been there many times and while I moan at the ever-increasing tourist load I know that in a small way I too am responsible for it's popularity. But the alternative is staying home and never encountering a new place a fascinating culture and expanding your horizons. How sad that would be.

Posted by
3353 posts

Maybe someone should take a crack at defining exactly what a "Back Door" is...

Well, actually Rick Steves actually has a book and a website on the subject 🙂

Looking at the 2017 edition of the book, he says (page 533) when he first wrote the book, what he considered Back Doors were what he thought were undiscovered nooks and crannies. He then acknowledges that with "ever more sophisticated travelers" and better guidebooks, they are no longer undiscovered and many suffer from congestion. He goes on to say that now, rather than focus on specific places, he encourages travelers to go beyond tourist traps wherever they go.

I don't think that is out of line with what many people here think. But its easy to target RS for what people think is the abbreviated version of his message.

Posted by
8319 posts

Yup, the term "Back Door" is elusive.

Also elusive is the concept of caring about overtourism; then flying off to Venice. Sort of like caring about animals then kicking a dog.

A place is only overcrowded relative to a person's personal interests. The shop OWNER in Venice probably enjoys the "over crowding" while the employee at the shop may have an issue with the new environment, but should be thankful for the tourist wages he earns. The retired couple that lives above the shop, well, I understand that they may not be too happy. And me? I am a bit claustrophobic and so crowds dont lite my fire so I started heading east a long time ago. Not that i dont love Paris and I think everyone should see it once in their life.

I just figure when a situation begins to be detrimental to the values of a culture, they will take corrective action. Not for me to judge for them.

And you have to look at where they are concentrated and when. I found the number of arrivals in tourist accommodation in Bulgaria in 2017 was 7.2 million. In the Czech Republic the number the same year was 20 million. The Czech Rep is about a fourth the size and I imagine 80% of those arrivals were in Prague. With Bulgaria, Sofia isnt the real draw. I suspect that 80% of the 7.2 million is spread across a half dozen locations. A real difference when you are walking down the street.

Posted by
9431 posts

@Bets: Of course South Pacific was filmed mostly on Kauai, but most remember it as the mythical island Bali Ha'i.

Posted by
542 posts

Tales of the South Pacific basis for the play/musical and movie was actually based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book by James A. Michener written during WWII and published in 1947. Actually based on the island of Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides.

As for "Back Doors" there's one for you.

And as for a definition...Yes I know about RS's Def and book but was hoping to unearth other definitions.

Posted by
10165 posts

"A place is only overcrowded relative to a person's personal interests." How very true!

Re: "Some say France is overrun by tourists." It all depends where you are and when. Since I've been going there only in the summer starting in late May, it may be true. It is certainly not true, not swamped with tourists, Americans or international, in Northern France.

Where? From the Somme, Nord Pas-de-Calais, this Germinal country, to the Belgian border The same applies also to Brittany.

A place that is overcrowded, overrun, swamped, inundated by tourists in the summer, eg, when I am there, the main question is if that bothers you.

Posted by
7122 posts

The term "back door" should probably be retired and go into the same category as "travelers checks." It is outdated and no longer used. The original name of the company that owns this website was "Europe Through the Back Door" before it changed a number of years ago.

Overcrowding is anywhere people want to be. In Europe, with cheaper flights and the opennes of some countries to allow their people to travel--you didn't see many Chinese tourists 25 years ago--the number of people desiring to travel has increased tremendously. Add to that the ease of getting information on anywhere thanks to the internet and you will run into travelers just about everywhere. Not just the main tourist attractions.

In 2018, I spent 246 days in Europe. That's about 8 months give or take a few days. I learned that where I was and how crowded it was had a lot to do not just with the place's popularity but the time of year. And trying to beat the crowds took quite a bit of research and planning. (Top tip--if you don't have to travel in summer, don't.)

Posted by
713 posts

I just wanted to say that I thought the original post was quite well written and has made me think. Thank you! :-)

Posted by
3208 posts

Of course, a lot of sites are crowded - everyone wants to go to the Louvre and St Mark's and Westminster Abbey - this is why I have no issues returning to big cities multiple times - the great thing is being able to visit the places that the 1st timers don't visit and to get more off the beaten path. (Other than the overcrowded buses/subway). On our 2nd trip to Rome (2014), we went to Ostia Antica and there weren't many people there - like our first visit (2008) when we went to Appia Antica and barely saw anyone. But both really interesting spots to see. Last year, we went to Paris for the 4th time - we returned to the Louvre, but were able to go to less visited wings and saw some interesting stuff, avoiding the big crowds, visited some 'lesser known' churches...we wandered and sat in the Tuilleries and watched the world go by without having to go-go-go to get to the next spot. I've seen all the 'big stuff' in Venice, so now when we return, we can get way away from the crowds for a much nicer visit.

Yes - I do realize my extreme privilege in being able to revisit these beautiful cities. If anyone had told me in '08, before our first trip that we'd have subsequently gone back 6 more times, I'd have thought they were crazy. We figured if we could go once every 5 yrs, we'd be lucky.

This is also how I've learned spending more than 3 nights in a big city helps you to get off the beaten path - even if for a day. I learned that the hard way after our first few trips - slow down, spend a little longer in a spot if necessary - and if you can do that, schedule a day to just wander. I know people only have so much travel time, but boy oh boy - I've def learned to travel slower.

Posted by
542 posts

I hear a lot of the same advice to the overcrowding issue as in previous threads and it is valid...up to a point.

The idea that you can free yourself from crowds by going in the "Off Season" is changing rapidly. In some places there simply is no such thing anymore there simply is the packed season and the less packed season. Many of the popular places of Europe have gotten very crowded during western religious holidays. In many places not only is summer full tilt but so is Autumn and Spring.

While time of year certainly can lessen the crowds it may still feel very crowded to many at the so called off season.

I have been to Europe in the winter several times and while charming and nice Christmas thru New Years can be incredibly crowded as it seems to be anywhere in the world.

Geography, weather, location all play a part when people decide to travel.

But there is another part to this. Since the 1950's our vacation time has been steadily declining in terms of how long people are willing to stay away from work. Job insecurity at all levels plays a part here. So the tendency I think is to take more shorter vacations and try to pack as much in as possible. This leads to the "If this is Tuesday it Must Be Belgium" style of travel. Cramming as many of the big sights in as you can in as little time as you can. God knows if you will even have a job next year or the economy will collapse. Read this as the Financial insecurity part which is as important as the Job insecurity part.

So as a result the iconic places, sights and experiences are even more crowded than they ever have been. It's easy to throw off remarks like; "Just go in the off season" or "Why not try Armenia?" or "Ignore Paris and go to "X instead". But is that really reasonable for most travelers seeing Europe for the first, second or even third time? The Iconic places are so numerous and flung so far apart that in those short trips all these hardworking job/financial insecure folks can't possible see it all. And we have all seen the posts here of folks that are asking if their 45 stop itinerary is too much for 5 days...Part of the overcrowding problem I think is a symptom of our changing economic and cultural reality.

Of course the above applies mostly but not exclusively to Americans. Europe is changing in this direction too as is Australia and Great Britain. Just not as fast as we have done.

Posted by
2495 posts

Personal account as I live next to Glacier National Park. While wonderful, it’s being visited well beyond capacity. No easy solutions. See also many other tourist attractions around the world.

Posted by
126 posts

There are still plenty of places out there that don't have very many tourists.

Case in point: Puerto Rico. We just spent two very enjoyable weeks there, and apart from Old San Juan, saw very few tourists. That may change for 2019 since the NY Times made it #1 of its "52 Places to Visit."

Another case in point: my own corner of New England - Amherst/Northampton/Berkshires - has countless cultural attractions (homes of Emily Dickinson, Melville, Edith Wharton; famous colleges; Tanglewood in summer, and much more), and it is far from overtouristed.

Posted by
2664 posts

The Internet makes it much easier to disseminate information about "just about discovered" places. Not only destinations (cities/towns) but individual hotels, restaurants, even smaller museums, monuments and so.

In another thread, I commented about how in a related forum (not RS) there were some people grumbling and complaining that once-affordable slightly 'outdated' hotels in big cities realized they could make much more money renovating and going into the boutique-lodge scene.

This all being said, in big cities with notorious "overcrowding" in Europe, such as Barcelona and Amsterdam, I still find it very easy to find nice and uncrowded areas that deliver a nice visiting experience.

In the specific case of Amsterdam, which I know very well (I have lived for some years in the Netherlands), all it takes to avoid serious overcrowding is to pick some parallel canals to the most famous ones, with similar architecture, and to stay clear or a very narrowly defined area around the Dam and the 'Red Light district'. Then, crowds are perfectly manageable or absent. It is almost funny, actually, how predictable crowds (except football-related visiting crowds -- which are dangerous and menacing) are, and how easy it is to have a nice city experience avoiding them most of the time.

Again, in the case of Amsterdam, indoor attractions are doing their part by extending opening hours and making themselves reservation-only. I know many people hate this trend as it requires them to lock-in their travel days beforehand, but improving the visiting experience it does...

In Venice, avoiding crowds is not really difficult, I'd say 70% of the main island is not crowded, at all, and has again similar canals and houses. Of course some spots (San Marco) are inevitably busy. Yet, what makes visitors' experience really bad is often the fact people do not want, and will not for their lives, go out of main routes, or take more time to wander around. Which is also a by-product of the mentality that "you can see Venice in 1 1/2 days and then there is nothing else to see". I tend to dismiss locals with anti-tourist mentality because tourism is the only activity that make the archipelago there economically viable as a working city. Without tourists flocking since late 18th Century, most of the main archipelago would have decayed into a ghost area -- too expensive to maintain for normal modern life.

To expand on my previous point: hurried-up itineraries are the mediate cause of many 'overcrowded' vacations, I came to realize. When people want to cram a lot of sightseeing with only "must-see", "must-eat", "must-listen" activities, traveling on holidays require a lot of rushing from one "must" to another. So when someone says that 2.5 days are 'enough' for Rome before you might want to tackle a day-trip, what one means is a run on the hilly cobblestone streets to 'clinch' the major sights, with little time left for anything else. This inevitably means staying on very crowded streets, and not even bothering trying anything that is not a "top 10" site (even though a top-30 site in Rome would still be the major attraction of many a European city elsewhere had it been transplanted).

In this era with easily accessible Internet and whatnot, "back doors" sure are more a matter of mentality than a specific set of places. As every single corner with beuaty architecture and every single food delicacy is Instagrammed and becomes viral, there will be no such thing as 'undiscovered' or 'hidden' gems any longer.

Posted by
8319 posts

Common sense and good balance is what I strive for.
There is a reason that the top 100 world sites are the top 100 world sites, and they remain on my list of "must see", but with a little planning it can be a bit more tolerable.

The key is balance. If I am going to go to the Acropolis, that same trip will take me to Macedonia where I can escape the crowds and see something unique and where I can actually witness some legitimate local culture that hasnt been corrupted for tourist dollars. Both equally valid stops.

Posted by
900 posts

The Internet makes it much easier to disseminate information about
"just about discovered" places

I actually disagree with this. I think the internet is a feedback loop. Yes, you can often find "hidden" places but they are buried in 1000 posts about the mainstream locations. You have to know about the place to begin with, otherwise you get steered in the normal direction. I mentioned this in a post the other day ... deep ruts in the travel road. Hawaii is the classic example. I participate in the forums here ... it is 99.9999% mainstream. Even people asking for "gems" get mainstream advice. Same as the RS forum ... tell me about Florence, where should I go in CT, should I go to Hydra or Santorini.

Posted by
8319 posts

Kaeleku

Part of the problem is that everyone's interests are different. With not much to go on we are asked, "what to do in Europe", to that you will always get the safe answer (the published top 10). Tell me you are one type of political animal and I might send you to Ukraine, another type of political animal and you might find Denmark more interesting. A 65 year old romantic novel reader needs to go to Paris. Fred; East Prussia. Someone like me, Armenia. Otherwise the answer is London, Paris, Rome.

I think too many people squander their trips because they dont realize their own interests.

Posted by
7423 posts

"I think too many people squander their trips because they don't realise their own interests."

If they are not cognizant of their own interests, then anywhere they travel should be just hunky dory.

Posted by
542 posts

"The Internet makes it much easier to disseminate information about
"just about discovered" places"

I actually disagree with this. I think the internet is a feedback
loop. Yes, you can often find "hidden" places but they are buried in
1000 posts about the mainstream locations. You have to know about the
place to begin with, otherwise you get steered in the normal
direction

While you are correct that the internet CAN act as a feedback loop. It really depends on how one uses it.

I googled the following: "Top Ten Unknown Travel Destinations" and in the first 5 links got back one site that recommended the following: Ladakh, Faroe Islands, Nicaragua, Malawi, Namibia, Wadi Rum Jordan, Ethiopia and Madagascar...and this is not the complete list.

And I think it is this kind of return on a search that Andre L was talking about. In the 1980's you would have to read books to find a place like Ladakh.

So in a way you are both right. But the results depends on ones ability to use search engines to return what is in your imagination. And frankly I think the so called "feedback loop" exists more in sites like this which are based on a narrow focus of interest and that is understandable.

Posted by
1641 posts

Ah yes...nostalgia. Back in the 80's people were saying how great it was back in the 60's. In twenty years, these will be "the good ole days". I guess we are only one good pandemic away from being able to visit Venice without the crowds. So unless you have a time machine, live in the moment.

Posted by
10165 posts

My first trip in 1971 I used history books as well as travel brochures, even though Europe on $5 a Day" was the rave at the time. I didn't use it.

In the 1980s I used "Let's Go" and for (west) Germany also the "Michelin Green Guide" which contained surprisingly some pretty esoteric places and recommendations totally not found in American guides.

Posted by
207 posts

Very interesting post and very interesting responses. I agree with some who posted there are still plenty of back doors yet to be opened. We may forget that many responses on this forum encourage people to look at guidebooks and do research when planning their trips.

RS and others specifically list these "back doors" in guidebooks and videos and TV shows, so it is natural they are becoming popular and crowded. Does RS deserve his "lumps" for broadcasting these "back doors? Absolutely not. He is a businessman!!! A businessman who runs a multi-million dollar travel business. Promoting these places sells books, travel videos, and tours. I think some people forget this fact because the man loves his job and is enthusiastic about what he does. However, make no mistake about it, his business comes first otherwise the only thing that would exist would be this forum and he would be on here with us talking about his personal travel experiences.

Many people here have been to Europe plenty of times and begin to delve deeper into major cities and countries they enjoy. Some of us have the resources and time to travel longer and we take time to explore cities and villages that we consider "off the beaten path". Sometimes you hit gold and other times it's a miss. Usually, there is a little something to see in any location. Sometimes it is just a simple little church, a beautiful vista like a river, a lake or a hilltop or just a small eatery to have a bite of lunch and move on to the next location.

I would challenge the experience traveler to find their own back doors because if it is listed in a guidebook or on a TV show, it is no longer a back door. I look at map of a country on Google Maps, pick a city, village, etc. I enter the name on Google and look for any information I can find. If it looks interesting and it is reasonably accessible, then I try to work it into my trip. To me part of traveling is discovery.

If there is a place you discover and love to visit, it is temporarily yours until many others discover it as well. Keep it to yourself or choose to share it on the net with the world, but never let crowds stop you from seeing any place you desire.

Posted by
10165 posts

"...because it is listed in a guide book.., it is no longer a back door." Well, one could look at it in this way. I totally dissent from this view as it pertains to Germany.

Over the years I've used travel brochures (lots of them), definitely history books, guide books, ( almost exclusively two, Let's Go and Rough Guide), and personal recommendations from acquaintances and friends to prepare for the trips. I was recommended to see Marburg, Rüdesheim am Rhein, Celle, Magdeburg, Husum, Rheinsberg/Brandenburg, Bad Ems, Speyer, etc

Obviously, I have not been to all of these recommendations and more.

Bottom line..."...never let crowds stop you from seeing any place you desire." Very true, be it at Versailles or Notre Dame.

Posted by
16940 posts

I've been going to Germany for over 30 years. When I went to Neuschwanstein in September, 1988, it was relatively uncrowded. I went back in 2013, and it was very overcrowded with Asians. It was the last week of Oktoberfest, and apparently a lot of people who had been in Munich were coming out to Füssen after the time they spent in Munich. Four years later, I went back to Füssen in mid-October, and it was again relatively uncrowded. It was more crowded than it had been in 1988, but nothing like it had been during Oktoberfest.

Last year, in late October, a week after going to Neuschwanstein, we went to Rothenburg odT. It was busy, but not overly crowded.

So, I think part of it just depends on what time of year you are there.

This thread reminds me of the comment by Yogi Berra, "No one goes there anymore, it's too crowded."

If all you want to see are the major tourist sites, then you will find crowds, but if, like me, you just want to hang out in Germany, there are still plenty of uncrowded places (back doors).

A year ago, we spent 9 days in a little town on the Main river, half an hour from Würzburg. There's nothing there of tourist interest, but it is a sample of small town Germany, a cute little town with a main street lined with shops, restaurants, and fachwerk buildings. And no tourists to speak of.

When I have been there recently, Oberstdorf, Kleinwalstertal, Lindau, and Oberstaufen were uncrowded. So what I am saying is that if all you want to see are the "must see" places, the places everyone has to see, you will probably find crowds, but there are still a huge number of back doors still available.

Posted by
542 posts

Let me bring this back to the world view of this problem once more.

Way back about 1998 I first went to Cambodia. Pol Pot had just died and while I was there Hun Sen brought out some of the top KR leaders out of the jungle in a vain and stupid attempt to "rehabilitate" them in the public eye. They were actually touring the country when I was there.

The KR were still killing people in the far northwest of Cambodia and around Angkor. I had to fly to Angkor to avoid the shooting along the road north from Phnom Penh. Siem Reap was a dusty dirty little burg at that time with the only oasis being the Grand Hotel d'Angkor a Colonial era pile of luxury in a desperately hurt country.

I have photos of Angkor where my friend and I are the ONLY people there. Now it resembles the Louvre on a busy day.

A couple had been shot only a week earlier at the nearby ruins of Banteay Srei. It too was deserted when I was there. Land mines were everywhere still.

Now even though Angkor may make many peoples list of "Back Doors" it is in fact very popular world wide and attracts millions of visitors every year now. And it is one of the worlds truly great sights.

If you really want a back door go during or just after a war as I did in Sri Lanka. I rode a motorcycle for a month around Sri Lanka when they were at war with the Tamil Tigers. Tourists were thin on the ground in much of the country. I had to pass many many military checkpoints where teen aged soldiers with Automatic weapons held me at gunpoint while perusing my passport. But I was treated well, welcomed and survived. I also got a view of a country, one of the worlds last remaining Edens, that few have.

But the fact is most will not go to places like that especially when they are at war...but increasingly this is what it will take to get "off the beaten path" People talk a lot about "back doors" and getting away from the crowds but few are really prepared to go to places like the Congo, Kazahkstan or Uganda to REALLY find a back door.

As I think about it more I am coming to the conclusion that there really are very very few true "back doors" left in Europe. There are just crowded places and a bit less crowded places. But all of the continent is well known and traveled. That is not to say that it is not worth visiting...it most definitely is and I love much of it.

Posted by
10165 posts

One way of comparing if such back door places still exist as this pertains to and can be seen in Germany, if you subscribe to such a concept in the first place, is to compare and contrast a specific place over the years.

My first time in Sigmaringen, certainly a historical town off the American tourist radar and not in their comfort zone, (then and now) was in August 1971.

Absolutely no tourists there or around town, not even German youth staying in the IH hostel. I remember this clearly since that multi-bed bedroom only had two persons, this middle age guy and his young son, and I was the other occupant. It was the emptiest hostel bedroom I ever stayed in.

I took a guided tour of the Schloss, one couldn't visit it otherwise, the tour was given only in German. No other language was asked about or even mentioned by the young woman guide. On the other hand , why should she, since it was expected that if you wanted to take tour you had better know the language in order to understand.

Not until July 2009 did I revisit Sigmaringen, still only a few tourists. A couple (European but not British) took part in the guided tour of the Schloss, the rest were German. Bottom line, architecturally the town had changed, had expanded, urban growth, etc, but tourist wise still empty of them, no international or anglophones.

Are there other towns in Germany with the similar stories tourist wise...I can name them too, eg, Lüneburg comes obviously to mind.

In Germany ( and in France too ) in the summer, assuming you know where you're going, there are lots, lots of places, these "back doors" from beach towns and to urban centers, where the only tourists and visitors you'll run into are locals. How often have I seen guided tour groups in German walking around in Weimar, Lüneburg, Meissen, or Magdeburg?

Posted by
8319 posts

As I think about it more I am coming to the conclusion that there
really are very very few true "back doors" left in Europe. There are
just crowded places and a bit less crowded places. But all of the
continent is well known and traveled.

Among the places you can go and see much fewer tourists, especially English speaking tourists are:

Albania
Montenegro
Moldova
Serbia
Bosnia & H.
Macedonia
Kosovo
Armenia
Georgia
Belarus
Ukraine
Poland
Slovakia
Bulgaria
Romania
Azerbijan

And you would be amazed at the history, culture and nature waiting to be discovered.

Posted by
3353 posts

I don't think the term "back door" was ever meant to be synonymous with "undiscovered". I think it has to be taken in context, and is not so much a location, as an opportunity to you as an individual. If all you've seen of Germany, for example, is Munich, Oktoberfest, and Neuschwanstein, then as well known and touristed as Rothenburg odT, and Bacharach are, they are still places where a tourist can see and experience something different, if they choose to. RS's target audience for his books is middle-class, post-college-age Americans. Not all of whom are looking for adventure, but might be looking for experiences deeper than easy. "Door" meaning an entry point into a culture, not necessarily a checklist sight.

Posted by
7423 posts

An interesting list. To my eternal shame, I would rather go to France. Or Greece. Or Italy. Or Germany. With the utmost regret I admit this.

Posted by
1756 posts

@Aarthurperry: People talk a lot about "back doors" and getting away from the crowds but few are really prepared to go to places like the Congo, Kazahkstan or Uganda to REALLY find a back door.

The reality is people don't even need to go to those places to find a "back door". It's human nature for people to want to go see the places that are most talked about and repeatedly seen in guidebooks, on social media, on television shows or in films - for sure those well-known locations have plenty of famous sites to visit...crowded as they may be, they are certainly still worth seeing at least once in a lifetime. People want to go to familiar places so they can brag to friends and co-workers that they traveled to a place that's known to their audience. Seriously, I can talk to someone about New Zealand (a country very much written about and seen in films) and if I say "The Catlins is the most beautiful place in the world!" I'm likely going to get crickets. But talk about Queenstown (which I wasn't all that impressed with) and people are all ears.

In Italy I lived near a small beach town on the Adriatic back in the late 80s. To this day, it's not written up extensively in guidebooks - in fact, it barely gets a passing mention and is only featured in the kind of guidebooks that weigh about 15 lbs. and list every single little town - it's definitely never mentioned in the Blue Bible. The tourists that visit this beach are almost exclusively Italians from other parts of the country, but even in peak season, it never feels crowded - ever. On occasion, you'll find a stray German. It's an absolutely gorgeous coastline and it stays semi-frozen in time because there has been little development over the decades - it remains largely the same as it looked over 30 years ago. I've recommended it to co-workers and been met with this blank stare because they aren't at all familiar with the name, so they instantly change the conversation to "So do you know anything about the Cinque Terre?" or "Would Positano be a good place to go for a few days?".

I have little patience for people complaining about "overcrowding" or "too many tourists". I've lived in many major U.S. cities that draw lots of tourists and as a local from time to time I've been asked by some of them to recommend places to eat or drink that will give them an "authentic experience". But often those places I recommend are outside of the well-traveled touristy parts of the cities and might require some actual coordinating with Uber or use of the public transit system - so often I can see in their eyes what I've suggested is "too complicated" and I can almost guarantee in the end they decided to eat at the Cheesecake Factory or whatever other craptastic chain restaurant that's familiar sounding to them was closest to their hotel. As they say in that hideously overcrowded Paris (where I've visited numerous times and always been able to find a spot not overrun with tourists such as myself) "C'est la vie".

Posted by
10165 posts

There are the priorities and there are the lesser priorities along with the absolutely uninterested places world wide. Back doors, overcrowding, etc in Europe is all relative, dependent on one's tolerance to cope and deal with it or not.

If a travel guide asserts that nothing is left to be discovered in Europe in terms of " back doors," then that's a thesis I reject. All the more so as pertains to France, never mind Germany.

The question is if the presence of crowds would deter you from going, be it revisiting or the first time regardless if it's Paris, Blois, Colmar, Metz, Normandy, Cambrai, Avignon, Strasbourg, Rouen, Amiens, Perpignan, Noyon, Poitiers, Tours, Versailles, Reims, Valence, or where ever.

My focus is Europe, period, but that includes visiting Japan and China. From the list I would classify them as lesser priorities eg, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Montenegro, Slovakia, and the Ukraine, which I hope to see, at least some of these, before my traveling days are done, likewise with Lithuania, another place totally off the anglophone tourist radar.

Who goes to these countries? Montengro...I only know 2 who went there, found it lovely. The Ukraine, again two anglophones who went to Lviv, one to see the old Lemberg, and both went to Kiev. Bulgaria...A Vietnamese-Bulgarian young lady who grew up there and speaks 4 languages fluently, French, Bulgarian, Vietnamese, and English.

Posted by
542 posts

@Fred, I have been to Montenegro, Serbia and Bulgaria on the trip I just finished this last spring/summer. And they are well worth a visit.

But with over 11 Million yearly visitors is Bulgaria still a "Back Door"? Are numbers of tourists the only criteria for a back door? Frankly I am not sure we all aren't conflating crowding and Back Door -ism whatever it may be. Likely they are intertwined. I am still not sure I have a great definition for the term...but I know one when I see it.

But I can say this, with some reservation, that RS's idea of a "Back Door" in the big 5 countries of Europe is now dead. Beyond those countries it is certainly up for argument. But that is not even certain. "Undiscovered" places as a concept of little or no mass tourism is almost a bygone thing IE. the number of places are shrinking fast.

What I was trying to point out is that a "Back Door" may be as personally relative as what constitutes crowding. What may be a back door to me may be someone else's absolutely no go destination. Or vice versa.

Posted by
8319 posts

Fred, you know yet another person who has been to Ukraine, Montenegro and Bulgaria!

Norma, I love Paris too. Hope to make my third return trip in a year or two.

I had no idea I would be so impressed with Montenegro, Bulgaria and Ukraine until I went. But yes, it all does come down to what interests you. So never any criticism if these places font light your fire; but someone comparing them to Uganda is sort of ignorant.

People do need to do a bit of research if they want to enjoy a trip and avoid crowds. For instance, how many know that Slovakia has castles that rival any in continental Europe? Or for art lovers some of the best Klimt works in the world are on the walls of a room in a castle in Romania? A cultural message? In Bulgaria there is a great market hall with a synagogue on one side and a mosque on the other. In Montenegro you can trophy deep sea fish one morning and trout fish in the mountains the next. Between the two is a spectacular monastery built into the side of a cliff. And you can on with such descriptions for hours.

Still vacations are rare and expensive and the unknown can be unsettling. What I do is at least one sure bet and one stretch on each trip. 15 years ago that philosophy took me to Vienna (sure bet) and Budapest (pretty much a stretch 15 years ago). Now Budapest doesn't fit the back door catagorie any longer.

Posted by
8319 posts

aarthurperry, everything is relative and numbers can be misleading. There are a number of ways to count tourists but no matter how you count it the city of Prague has very nearly three times the number of tourists than does the country of Bulgaria; and there is no one city that every tourist goes to like the do Prague in the Czech Republic. Even more interesting to me, at least in a lot of the places I went in Bulgaria (along the coast) most of the tourists were Russian. Makes for a totally different experience. Let's be positive, let's look for new adventures and interests.

Posted by
8319 posts

Oh, and I did s little reading on RS early history, and at that time Back Door was tied to budget travel, avoiding crowds was only to avoid high cost; or so is my impression. So, yes, you go to the Eiffel Tower, but you sleep in a dive 3 subway connections away.

Posted by
900 posts

You keep quoting the numbers to Bulgaria. I would say 90-95% of those numbers are package tourists going to the all inclusive resorts on the Black Sea (Sunny Beach, Albena, Golden Sands etc) during summer, and the package tourists going to the ski resorts (Bansko, Borovetz, Pamorovo etc) during winter. Most other tourist sites are deserted. I have never seen crowds comparable to even fifth tier Italian sites at the first tier Bulgarian sites. The only time there are crowds, there is a special event, and even then it is a local crowd. Places like Rila Monastery, a place where I have been at multiple times of the year probably 15 times, probably the number one "cultural" site in Bulgaria, I have never seen more than 100 people there, and usually it is like 25-40. VT gets some visitors, but compare Tsaravets to Versailles. You can't.

I live in a tourist town in Maui where right now the tourists are probably 1:1 with the residents (peak season). I am about to go take my dogs for a hike and I guarantee you I will see maybe 2 people, none of them will be tourists, and that is not an anomaly. It is almost laughably easy to avoid tourists, even at the supermarket, which should tell you a little something about the "deep ruts" I keep referencing and what they are actually seeing.

Posted by
8319 posts

And I think you will find those package tourists are mostly Russian. But even the interesting coastal towns like Varna, Burgas, Nessebar aren't terribly crowded. Nothing like anything worth seeing in Western Europe.

Posted by
542 posts

One of the things I think that carries away some of these threads is the gap between "Perception" and the facts.

Kaeleku Wrote: "You keep quoting the numbers to Bulgaria. I would say 90-95% of those numbers are package tourists going to the all inclusive resorts on the Black Sea (Sunny Beach, Albena, Golden Sands etc) during summer, and the package tourists going to the ski resorts (Bansko, Borovetz, Pamorovo etc) during winter."

From the Bulgarian National statistics site: Visitors by month and country:

1.04 Million from Greece
1.272 Million From Germany
A total of 6.8 Million from the EU

Turkey: 1.4 million

From Russia? 565,754

Busiest months: July and August

So actually out of over 11 million visitors Russians are way down the list. (they are often perceived to be the largest visitor cohort)

Now if they are package tourists cannot be confirmed by the site. And they may be. But what difference does it make? I saw my share of them in Plovdiv and at Rila I counted 6, 45 passenger tour buses when we got there in the later afternoon. Thats 240 people in a very small space (in July) in just one afternoon.

So I am not sure what you are contending, Bulgaria is truly on the map of tourism. Is it less crowded than Rome? Yes but it is still only the size of South Carolina (approx) and far less than Arizona. VT (Veliko Tarnovo) is packed with people from all over the world (last July) So while I respect your view I have to say my experience is much different than yours. The place in Bulgaria that does seem to match your description however was Ruse (and this is changing).

However as a great place to visit without the same kinds of crowds that one finds in Paris, or Italy it's wonderful...but does that make it a "Back Door" or "undiscovered". I would say not. And that really is my point. One mans floor is another's ceiling. it depends on your perspective. And your definition of terms like "Back Door" and "Undiscovered"

Posted by
8319 posts

Interesting statistics, thank you. I found your source and it was for total visitors to Bulgaria. Of those, if you dig into the data a bit, maybe 60% is tourist, the rest "professional". So, maybe about 7 million tourists in Bulgaria last year.

Of those on holiday the Russians make up a substantial number. I leave it at that because the site doesnt have a total, just a bunch of monthly statistics and i just sampled the months. Sorry, not going to spend a bunch of time on this. But you can if you want: http://www.nsi.bg/en/content/7056/arrivals-visitors-abroad-bulgaria-purpose-visit-and-country-origin

While the entire country of Bulgaria had maybe 7 million tourists
Prague alone had over 7 million
Plovdiv, which I suspect after Rila is the most visited traditional European Tour place in Bulgaria had over 600,000 visitors. Sunny beach probably did that many or more as well. I wish could find statistics for Cesky Krumlov as that would be a good comparison.

But its the concept, not the numbers. Its about someplace new, some place with out the wall to wall crowds like Rome or Paris or Prague. For me at least, some place where I can spend a day and not hear an American accent. To learn a little about a culture without the filter of an entrenched catering tourist infrastructure. I've got a few weeks under my belt in each; Bulgaria, Montenegro, Romania and lesser time in Serbia, Slovakia and Croatia. Time to keep moving. Albania and Macedonia are next.

Posted by
10165 posts

Including you, James, then I know of 3 people who have been to Montenegro and the Ukraine. What I meant by my 2 persons comment was that they live or used to live in Calif. Your statement is accurate on Bulgaria. During the commie days I knew two east Germans, obviously not permitted to go Paris or London, even if they wanted to, went to and took their vacations only in east bloc countries along lots of other east German youth then.

You can easily guess where they went? Varna was one place but Bulgaria as a country was the destination by train and hitch-hiking. The first east Germans I ever saw and talked with, obviously youth, was in Prague in 1973, when German was the lingua franca, lots of them, school groups and individual travelers.

"...everything is relative." How true when it deals with traveling! Don't want to hear an American accent...tons of places you can go in France and eastern and North Germany...cultural and historical places where if I've seen foreign "tourists" by eavedropping on their language, they were a few Russians, both youth and middle aged.

Posted by
761 posts

Among the places you can go and see much fewer tourists, especially
English speaking tourists are: AlbaniaMontenegroMoldovaSerbiaBosnia &
H.MacedoniaKosovoArmeniaGeorgiaBelarusUkrainePolandSlovakiaBulgariaRomaniaAzerbijan

I can only repeat myself: most of Europe isn't crowded, and almost all English- speaking tourists visit the same few places. You think Italy is crowded and full of English-speaking tourists? Well, yes, Venice, Rome, the Toscana and Cinque Terre, but almost no American visits Turin and Piedmont for example. Don't believe me? Tripadvisor reviews:
Palazzo Reale in Turin:
3.500 reviews, 340 in English
Palazzina di Caccia di Stupinigi:
1.045 reviews, 50 in English
Almost everyone has visited a Palladian villa in England or the US, but how many have actually seen the works of Palladio? Not too many:
La Rotonda (Vicenza):
950 reviews, 180 in English
And Vicenza is just 50 minutes away from Venice....

It's the same with almost every other country. Germany? Bavaria, the Rhine, Berlin, and maybe th Black Forest. That's 1/3 of the country. I've read that some people here visited Bavaria for the 6th or 7th time... you really don't have to wonder that some places are overrun. Example from Germany:
Neuschwanstein: 16.200 reviews, 7.400 in English
Wartburg castle (inspiration for Neuschwanstein and World Heritage Site): 1.080 reviews, 290 in English

Posted by
7122 posts

It's not just english speakers that make a place crowded. Tourists from everywhere want to visit the best known sights. Many don't have the time, money or desire to go beyond a handful of places.

An example, Lecce in Puglia, Italy. This city is not visited by a large number of english speakers compared to some other parts of Italy. But in the summer it is packed wall to wall with people. Mostly Italians. The fact they don't speak english doesn't make it any less crowded.

Back doors can still be found but they won't be in a Rick Steves guide book, or Lonely Planet or whatever. Locals might know about them but not foreigners. To find them takes a lot of research and most travelers don't want to do that.

Posted by
8319 posts

Fred, Martin, Frank II, I agree completely with all of you. The list of countries was just to provide some extreme examples. The same can be found in most every country. As for my aversion to English speaking tourists, it's not about the crowd; I just want to "feel" more removed from my ordinary life when I travel.

Posted by
1014 posts

I thought the whole idea to Back Door is to find your own special places that the vast majority tourists miss. Some of course are found because they are found in some book. One of my favorites is Threave Castle in Scotland. I have no idea if it more crowded than when I visited in 1999, but I‘m sure it is never overwhelming.

This past spring my cruise ship stopped at a Spanish port. I had noticed an attraction from the city website and visited it. It wasn‘t much but I enjoyed it for 15 minutes. It was not a TripAdvisor listing until I submitted it.

One Rhine town mentioned in Rick‘s book has a great attraction that he ignores.

In Rome we came across an interesting church, no one there but us.

There are back doors everywhere. Finding them while not skipping the major sites is half the fun of traveling.

Posted by
542 posts

JamesE, Yes those numbers are visitors. But the problem with the ones you quote is that they are only those who stayed in what the Bulgarian government sees as "Tourist Accommodation". There are many many perhaps millions staying in Bed and breakfasts, AirBnb's, Private homes and smaller hotels.

Because no visa is required for many countries those probably dont get counted accurately as to why they are in Bulgaria.

But you are right that it is not about just the numbers. But the numbers are important to get a sense of how many people travel to and know a place and can reasonably be a measure of whether a place is "undiscovered" or perhaps busier than the common perception.

I still am not sure I have a good definition of "Back Door". But as I said I know one when I see it.

Posted by
5021 posts

But as I said I know one when I see it.

If you know one when you see it, why on earth would you need an 'official' definition of it? I also know what a back door is to me when I see one, but that may be different from someone else's definition of back door. Maybe it's a concept that just defies definition and you'll just have to accept that you might never get that definition you're looking for.

Posted by
10165 posts

@ James...."feel more removed from my ordinary life when I travel." Exactly. How true!

As pointed out also quite accurately, locals know sites which visitors do not. I would suggest that pertains to cultural and history sites, pleasant and unpleasant, eg, the house/museum of Heinrich von Kleist in Frankfurt an der Oder. Chances are you'll be the only foreign visitor in the whole town outside of the foreign students at the relatively new university.

Using Germany as an example, I call these sites esoteric and have been there obviously as the only foreign traveler amidst locals present, not crowded but certainly well attended. No English heard or any other foreign language.

Some of these salient sites were the Hermannsdenkmal in Detmold, Warburg, the Herrenhäuser Gärten, Schloss Wilhelmshöhe, Neuruppin and Neustrelitz in Brandenburg, Dortmund-Hohensyburg monument, Berlin-Spandau, Kieler Förde harbour cruise, and especially esoteric history museums located not in the big cities but in small outlying towns, etc etc.

Use France as an example...the same applies, even when one is searching for WW1 or WW2 sites, among other things, where when you show up at the site, a few people might be there visiting, exploring as you're doing but they're all locals, certainly not American, let alone international. Repeat visits yield the same results in Arras, Cambrai, Toulon (re the 2nd landing museum in Aug 1944), Neuville St Vaast.

Posted by
900 posts

I am actually getting irritated with this Bulgaria discussion.

There are many many perhaps millions staying in Bed and breakfasts,
AirBnb's, Private homes and smaller hotels.

No, there's not. The vast majority, as stated, are package tourists to the seaside and the ski resorts. Have you been to the seaside? It's wall to wall 8-10 story buildings of people that are teleported in on charter flights from Russia, UK, Germany and NL. The season, as you state, is July and August. I would say the second group is business people, staying in business hotels in Sofia and Plovdiv. Independent tourists are some laughably small fraction of the total, if it is 5% I would be shocked.

I understand you just got done with a trip and stayed in little B&Bs etc, but I have been going to Bulgaria almost every year for almost 25 years and I think I know what I am talking about. Last year, I spent 2.5 months in Bulgaria, and will probably do the same this year. In late June - e.g. the middle of tourist season - I stayed in a tourist town called Bozhentsi, beautiful little town, google it. It's probably the top 3-4 "small tourist towns" in Bulgaria, usually would be mentioned along with Koprivshtitsa, Arbanassi, Kovachevitsa, Shiroka Laka and Melnik. There are probably at least 300 rooms for rent in this town in various B&Bs, hotels etc. I rolled in, researched the best place in town, and stayed there. I was the only guest in a complex of probably 15 rooms. I would estimate I was one of maybe 3-4 people in town. Again, end of June. I was also in Veliko Tarnavo around the same time. At no point did I see what I would consider a crowd. There was some light foot traffic on the main tourist street, and Tsaravets had tourists of course, but nowhere near any site in Western Europe in late June. We went to the UNESCO world heritage site the rock-hewn churches of Ivanovo. Just like the last time we there 20 years ago, we saw two other people. I'm sorry, there is no UNESCO site in Italy where you will see two people in a 1.5 hour long hike and tour.

I counted 6, 45 passenger tour buses when we got there in the later
afternoon. Thats 240 people in a very small space (in July) in just
one afternoon.

Wow, so at the birthplace and spiritual heart of the Bulgarian religion, probably the number one cultural site in Bulgaria, in the tippy top peak of tourist season, you saw 240 people in a complex that is probably the size of 4 football fields in size? I wonder what St Peter's in Rome looked like that day? I would be willing to bet real money that St Peter's in Rome got more people in 8 hours on the day you visited Rila than Rila gets all year.

Posted by
900 posts

And just to really drive this home

Bozhentsi, Koprivshtitsa, Arbanassi, Kovachevitsa, Shiroka Laka and Melnik.

I'm name dropping like the type of towns that would come up in any search of the first tier nice villages in Bulgaria. I hadn't been to Bozhentsi since 1999 ... in the meantime I've been staying in towns like Gela, Gorna Arda, Mogilitsa, Bosnek, Dolen, Trigrad etc ... if the first tier is deserted in June, what do you think the others are? They are literally the back door's back door's back door.

Posted by
8319 posts

Kaeleku; finally you are work up over someone other than me!! I LOVE IT!

The definition of back door is apparently what ever you want it to be. I get the impression that RS's definition has changed over the years too. Look at his old stuff and you will get the impression it is a means for a cheap way to see Europe. Of course with his tours costing so much that definition cant stand any longer. Personally, I don't think it has any meaning other to provide a means for certain individuals to claim some sort of superiority of thought or method. Ranks right up there with:

Traveling with nothing buy carry-on as a mandate to travel (convenient maybe, but not always appropriate or necessary)
Traveling with 7kg only (extreme radical version of above)
Being a Traveler vs a Tourist (same thing in the eyes of the guy serving you in that cafe in Rome)
Having no interest in all the world class sites that have attracted tourists in some instances for over 1,000 years (of course, 1000 years of history was in error)

Posted by
542 posts

@JamesE I agree that the term as used by RS is no longer viable or in line with reality. But I am not as cynical about his motives as some. I think when he first started it was a reasonable call for him to make for the AMERICAN demographic. And once a business identifies itself with a certain tag line, phrase or trademark it is very hard to transition away from that even though everyone knows it might not be true any longer.

As for Kaeleku being worked up at me instead of you. This is an ongoing thing. My posts are just red flags for him/her. I just wish I could somehow find the words to explain that the point is being missed. He/She also has a habit of invalidating any experience but hers/his in Bulgaria. I am not claiming Bulgaria is overcrowded or anything like on the scale of anywhere in Rome...but that many more people travel there than is commonly thought and that to my mind it is not really a Back door at all. It doesnt matter where they go once they are there. What matters is how many people KNOW about it.

And that goes back to the concept of the back door. What really qualifies as a "back door" in today's connected world? I once thought I knew what it meant but it is harder to pin down now. I listed some obvious ones earlier but even some of those are debatable for sure.

This past Sunday the NY times travel section had a list of 52 places to go in 2019 among them Hampi, India, Olkhorn Island Lake Baikal Russia, Gambia, Uzbekistan, Batumi, Georgia, Dakar, Senegal ( a place I have been) Iran, Plovdiv, Bulgaria (kaeleku are you reading this?) and others some better known and some lesser....BUT if it is already in the NY Times can it qualify as a Back Door?

My guess is there are many more visitors to many of these places than we would think. (this does not mean one should not go but possibly be prepared to have a different experience than you might imagine)

Posted by
60 posts

Btw, last year I had reason to communicate with some of the RS staff about an unrelated matter. Unprompted, they informed me that nowadays Rick keeps many of his Back Door locales out of his guidebooks.
I am done. The end.

Posted by
7423 posts

The whiff of “holier than thou” seems to have dissipated. For which, much thanks.

Posted by
60 posts

Everybody above has made some good points about this contentious issue. Brit foodie author Matthew Fort has just published another book, titled 'Summer in the Islands: an Italian Odyssey'. The book details his recent journeys visiting every single Italian island, large and small, famous and obscure. Fort describes how each isle deals with its status as either 'well-known tourist haunt' or 'back door lesser-known'. Those interested in the realities on the ground in such places may want to read the book.
An aside for Norma, the phrase that my wife and I like to use over on the Thorn Tree forum is 'traveler-than-thou'. The imagery is that of some hypocritical guy whose ponytail is tied too tight. Note please, that I do not mean to infer that anyone above here fits that description.
I am done. The end.

Posted by
15212 posts

gregglamarsh, If anybody in this office did make the statement above that you attribute to us, then it was only in jest. It's more likely that you have mis-remembered and they actually said the opposite. Either way, it's not correct.

Posted by
60 posts

Laura, I swear that one of your colleagues made that statement. Honestly, I am not kidding, exaggerating nor misremembering.
I'd have to go back to the original response (impossible now, given that I eventually erase all emails), but if memory serves, that comment was made last summer. I came this close to asking in a follow-up email whether they might share that unpublished list of places with me---would love to have cross-referenced it with our own personal files/list. I recall that I offered up Bevagna, Umbria, plus the isle of Folegandros, as worthy considerations for Rick's supposed secretive list.
Pretty sure by the tone and content, that nobody was jesting in their response to me.
Incidentally, my wife also recalls the specifics of the email in question.
I am done. The end.

Posted by
8319 posts

aarthurperry; the term Back Door as personally defined and as a way of self evaluation of options does serve a purpose. For lack of a better term I use it a lot when thinking out loud. For me it describes unique places that respond to my personal interest. I avoid the "hidden gem" description, cause whats a gem to me may be coal to someone else. Especially when working at the fringes like i tend to do. I call people to task all the time and a few resent it, but its my nature. Cant stand elitism for instance. But all in all the RS books, philosophies, tours and forum members are all great resources no matter what we call them. You and I disagree more than we agree, but you do make good arguements and you do make me think. That beats the heck out of sitting around with people I agree with ... boring.. Keep challenging.... Thats how everyone learns..

Posted by
3353 posts

Threadwear, yes, this is pretty much what he says in the most current editions of his ETBD books. We all evolve and how we travel changes over time.

Posted by
542 posts

JamesE Wrote: "You and I disagree more than we agree, but you do make good arguements and you do make me think. That beats the heck out of sitting around with people I agree with ... boring.. Keep challenging.... Thats how everyone learns.."

Thank you for that. I think it's interesting that my perception is that we agree about 50% or more than we disagree.

I do agree with your take on the "back door" but still am ambivalent about the term and how we make it meaningful when we write or speak about it as the world shrinks.

Posted by
8319 posts

Its a poorly defined term. It means to each what they want it to mean.

I generally upset folks here when i push back against blanket terms and generalizations and elitism. When i hear it i almost always take the other side. "There are no back doors" is one of my favorite to push on. I also love, "because I am experienced I have learned to find the back doors". That one packs two into one: generalization and elitism. Right now I am having fun with short term rentals are bad because they displace the working class. Oh, and "experienced travelers spend more time in each place". Love it. Why? Because the argument makes me think. Sometimes my views are softened, sometimes the opposite. Some day I think I will get the boot.