"Hidden Gems": It's Mortifying

Not just lazy. Colonialist.

Kid on a child-sized chessboard, knocking over the white pieces

At the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY, the metaphor is clear. December 2019

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September 1st, 2020 at 8:39pm

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I can't stand the expression.

Like foodie, quirky, bucket list, soak up, nestled, or authentic, "hidden gems" is a cliché of bad travel writing. I'm not alone in thinking this, but while lazy writing is subjectively problematic, speaking about travel destinations with the language of colonialism is objectively terrible.

Calling a city, restaurant, or hotel "hidden" is no different from saying Hernando de Soto "discovered" the Mississippi River.

I understand

Travel contains more than a whiff of colonialism. Yes, we tourists spend money, but what do we do in the process? We show up, make life difficult for the locals, transform the landscape (often in obscene ways), then leave.

In such a light, most people would welcome a "hidden gem." It exists away from the crowds and the noise. It can be a village in Dordogne that, for some reason, everyone drives past, a boutique hotel in Miami which always has a double room available, cheaper than one would expect, or an excellent food truck in Singapore that never has a line.

Standing on the striated rock, looking up at a light and lighthouse

Pemaquid Point Light, Bristol, Maine. Oct 2017

Small house, shrubbery, and sculpture under blue skies

Rooftop sculpture garden and apartment, Harbor Square Gallery, Rockland, Maine. Oct 2017

An enormous problem exists, however. The "hidden gem"

  • Is only undiscovered by outsiders
  • Is uniquely precious to outsiders
  • Could lose its value to everyone if too many outsiders visit

Is this ringing any bells? Let's break it down to hear the carillon.

It's undiscovered

We use the expression "hidden gem" to describe something which locals already know about, visit, and patronize.

The real question, therefore, is: hidden from whom? From the consumptive, potentially destructive gaze of tourists. "Hidden" describes how that place exists in relation to us as a group.

We slap that label on a location other tourists don't know about in order to give the place a special kind of value (more on that in a minute), but calling a city, restaurant, or hotel "hidden" is no different from saying Hernando de Soto "discovered" the Mississippi River.

Computer screens and lots of buttons and knobs, straight out of 1965

Computer bank from NASA Mission Control at the International Women's Air and Space Museum, Cleveland. Dec 2019

It's uniquely precious

We know what Europeans wanted when they arrived in the New World (which wasn't new to its inhabitants): to save the souls of the godless, naked savages who hadn't found Jesus. Of course I'm kidding. They came for wealth. Natural resources. Silver. Gold. Gemstones. They came to plunder and cash in. They killed children for that shit.

Calling a place a "gem" isn't troublesome in itself. It's the pairing that makes the word thorny. It implies these colonial treasures exist to be:

  • Coveted
  • Hoarded
  • Stolen

We can't steal a place, but we can destroy it, which is the same thing - and that is occasionally what ends up happening.

It's more valuable hidden, until it's not

Unfortunately, being a "hidden gem" won't shield places from overtourism. It just tees them up for the future travel consumption machine unless they stay well and truly "hidden."

They almost never do.

The crush of mostly Western tourists may, over time, obliterate the location. Then no one can enjoy it. I call this phenomenon the Bourdain Paradox.

If we manage to hoard the "hidden gem," we are Gollum as traveler, pickled in Western privilege. This place that isn't mine to possess in the first place? It's all mine! (Or, I wish it were mine!)

As is usually the case, however - because we just can't help ourselves - we expose the hidden gem as scarce and special. (Type "travel hidden gems" into a search engine and see how many articles appear.) Then the gem is in danger of being inundated with tourists.

Mother and child next to a memorial of slaves singing

Congo Square, New Orleans. Oct 2018

At that point, the gem begins to lose its value. Our Instagram feed will look like everyone else's. We won't be nearly as cool at book club. Or the crush of mostly Western tourists may, over time, obliterate the location (this was common pre-pandemic). Then no one can enjoy it. I call this latter phenomenon the Bourdain Paradox.

"Less crowded"?

COVID solved overtourism - at least temporarily.

Perhaps we can use this time to reflect on the intrinsically colonial mindset of "hidden gems."

We use the expression "hidden gem" to describe something which locals already know about, visit, and patronize. The real question, therefore, is: hidden from whom?

"Hidden gem" isn't just a lazy cliché. A great travel destination's qualities don't exist in relation to us, the place isn't hidden to locals, and it's not a precious object for us to hoard or steal.

Why not just call it "less crowded"?

 Postcard: Rockland, Maine Being Corporal Upham 

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