1 June 2014


Crowds viewing the Mona Lisa
at the Louvre in Paris, France.
Photo: Wikicommons
There was a time, as a tourist in Paris, when you could just saunter past the Mona Lisa, which hung on a nail in the Louvre like any other painting. Indeed, in 1911 a thief simply unhooked it and walked away. Nobody noticed it was missing until the following day, and it wasn’t recovered for two-and-a-half years.
Since 2005, the smirking Italian has been housed in a gallery that has been carefully designed for managing crowds, and where special acoustics dampen the tourist hubbub. This frankly small and drab painting is one of the most ludicrous must-sees of world tourism. Good luck if you can catch a glimpse of the Mona Lisa, which not only lurks behind thick-bullet-proof glass and a barrier, but must be admired over the heads of black-haired Chinese tourists and Da Vinci Code conspiracy theorists.
An orderly British queue sign.
Photo: Wikicommons
Over nine million people a year tramp through the Louvre and, on the busiest days, some 65,000 of them file past the Mona Lisa. Yet this pales in comparison to the nearly 14 million people who visit Nôtre Dame cathedral, where your chances of any quiet contemplation (or prayer) are as remote as smiles on the face of a Parisian waiter.
I was in Paris earlier this year and skipped both Nôtre Dame and the Eiffel Tower, thanks to their two-hour queues. This got me to thinking. It seems to me that we’ll all be doing a lot of skipping in future, because queues are just going to lengthen. Quite simply, there are lots of tourists about. This year, some 50 million Chinese alone headed overseas. By 2020, that number is estimated at 100 million. Russians, Indians and Brazilians are also increasingly mobile.
Sign on a British motorway.
Photo: Wikicommons
Good for them, but you can be sure crowd management will become a major issue in tourism. A moving walkway has been mooted in the Louvre to keep the crowds moving past the Mona Lisa. Sounds improbable? Actually, there’s already one in the Tower of London to trundle you past the British crown jewels. Nor is the idea new. When Michelangelo’s Pietà was displayed in New York in 1963, queues were shifted along “on a conveyor belt, not unlike the belts used to carry animals into slaughterhouses,” as art critic Robert Hughes recalls in Things I Don’t Know. “I had been granted a prophetic vision of the future of American ideas about museums...”
Maybe, in the end, we’ll just have to make new decisions when we travel. There was a time when I was a “must-see” junkie needing my fix of famous tourist sights, including the Mona Lisa and more cathedrals than I now care to remember. But last time I was in Paris, I just opted out. Two hours in a queue, or time spent sitting in a café watching the world go by? It turned out to be an easy choice, and I dare say more enjoyable than squinting at a painting of an Italian woman who looks like she suffers from toothache.
Besides, I’m keen to enjoy my coffee while I can, before it too is served on a sushi-train conveyor belt, and I’m soon asked to move along.

Please join the conversation and leave your comments on queueing… or skipping sights all together.

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