Paris Syndrome and Setting Travel Expectations

Recently on This Week In Travel, we came across a story about Japanese tourists who visit France and come down with something called “Paris Syndrome“. Paris Syndrome is a condition that strikes tourists who visit a place and find that it doesn’t live up to how they imagined it.

Some Japanese have a vision of Paris which comes from fashion magazines, television and movies. They assume everyone is thin and wears designer clothing all the time. When they arrive, they are shocked to see normal looking people wearing normal looking clothes. The added problems of cultural shocks, language differences and jet lag can result in some people becoming dizzy, depressed and having breakdowns.

This effects an average of one Japanese tourist to Paris each month.

I guess that none of you reading this have ever suffered something so severe from visiting a place. I’m also guessing that most of you, myself included, have been disappointed by some place you’ve visited.

When I began traveling in 2007 I started in the Pacific. I had vision in my head of what it would be like based on books I’ve read and photos I’ve seen online. When I arrived it wasn’t what I thought it would be. It wasn’t worse necessarily, but it was different. The fact that it didn’t match my expectations was in some respect a bit of letdown, but one which was soon overcome.

Whenever I hear people complain about a place they’ve visited, especially famous or popular places, it almost always seems to be a case of not having their expectations met, not so much about the place they visited actually being bad.

An unspoiled beach in the Solomon Islands
Later in 2007 I visited the island of Rennell in the Solomon Islands. Rennell is an island which gets very few visitors to begin with, and while I was there I asked if I could go down to the old beach where ships used to dock. The landing beach was replaced because the old one required a climb up 100m of steep, slippery stairs to get to the top of the cliff where everyone lived. I was told no one had been down to this beach in years. It was the closest thing to a pristine untouched beach that I’d probably ever find.

When we got down to the beach I was shocked at how messy the beach actually was. With no one to do any beach combing, the sand was littered with driftwood, shells and seaweed. That mess of ocean debris WAS the natural state of a beach. The vision I had in my head of a perfect white sand beach had nothing to do with reality. Those images I had in my head were taken by people trying to sell the concept of a beach, which is difficult to do if it is littered with seaweed and wood.

The best way to ensure you aren’t disappointed when you go on a trip is to keep your expectations in check. If you haven’t been somewhere before, it will be different from what you expect. The key is to know this before going and accepting the reality of what you experience.

Paris has people who are fat, manhole covers, cloudy days and graffiti. None of those things will be seen in the pages of a fashion or travel magazine, but they are just as much a part of Paris as the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre.

What place that you have visited differed the most from what you expected?

25 thoughts on “Paris Syndrome and Setting Travel Expectations”

  1. My experience has, oddly enough, been exactly the opposite. Whenever I’ve seen great world sites (The Alhambra, Yosemite, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall, the Grand Canyon. etc), they have almost always EXCEEDED my expectations. Photographs and descriptions could never really capture them as they really are. Maybe my expectations of the REGIONS these sites are in were more reasonable.

  2. I recently traveled to China, six different cities in 20 days. I was very nervous about this being a communist country. I imagined soldiers at the airport, tanks on the street. This was my perception based upon the news etc.. . Quite the opposite. We didn’t see any military presence. I’m sure the “begins the scene” picture is as Communist as any country with such a government. But the people were very friendly and always had a smile.

  3. I really get this, the places I have been the most disappointed with are the ones I had really hyped up in my head!

  4. Personally I have been very lucky to never truly experience this. On a cruise to Roatan we ended up in one of the most touristy decorated ports I have ever seen. Looked like the beach was sponsored by carnival cruise lines. It was clean, and so bombarded with souvenirs and photo opt spots that we ended up running in the other directions. We instead rented a scooter outside of the port and road all the way around the island and went to some local restaurants and beaches. When you feel trapped in disappointment actively seek out a better adventure.

  5. I ever visit a beach that different than my expectation but it just the beach already changed. My friend told me the beach like still virgin beach but when we were reached there the beach already crowded. Then my friend told me, sorry i ever visited here about 5 years ago, it was no beach shop or bungalows like today. But the scenery of this beach still amazing, white sand mix with rock climbing.

  6. The place that I have visited which differed the most from my expectation was Rarotonga Island. I imagined a fantastic snorkeling as the island is in the centre of the pacific but unfortunately I did not see the variety of fishes comparing to the ones we sow in the coral reef in Australia.

  7. I had a similar experience but in San Fran – although I had a wonderful time, I think my expectations were a bit too high. Everyone was going on and on about how lovely it was that I expected some sort of Palace. When I went to Paris I was actually more blown away than I expected.

  8. My example is also a beach, Gary. I’m from Australia, and we are kind of spoiled when it comes to natural, untouched, beaches. I won’t embarrass the country of my example, but lets just say after a long journey on car, and then on foot, when I saw this remote beach half way around the planet, I was overwhelmingly disappointed…. it didn’t look like the postcards ar all ;) …even worse, the beaches in my home city look better!

    The silver lining was the amount of amazing sea food that was easily caught at the beach – lobster, fish, sea urchin!, and more. In the end, the experience was great, the beach, not so great!

  9. It is interesting that people have physical symptoms from being disappointed. I have been places that didn’t live up to my expectation but never to that extent.

  10. We visited Paris this year and luckily loved it. I think my biggest disappointment this year were the Christmas markets in Bruges. We had ideas that there would be masses of stalls etc but were left with basically the same amount as in Edinburgh where we are currently based. Really hoping that Egypt doesn’t disappoint in a weeks time!

  11. I agree with Heather! When I travel I try to build up the actual trip (car ride/plane ride ect. . .) instead of the destination. That way when I’m exhausted the destination, no matter where it is, seems like a breath of fresh air!

  12. My yoga instructors taught me a valuable lesson: If you don’t set expectations, you’re rarely disappointed. This is conveyed in your post and I’m so happy to see it! I was pleasantly surprised when I traveled to Napa Valley last year because I thought that everyone was going to be a wine expert and therefore a bit snobby. I was glad to be wrong! The vast majority of the people my husband and I connected with were passionate about wine and food. All they wanted to do was share their enthusiasm with others and it made the experience so much richer.

  13. I heard about Paris Syndrome when I was over there this summer. It was amusing but I imagine people probably have unrealistic opinions of anywhere that is highly profiled in movies. I think for me, Toronto was a huge disappointment. I just could not get over how shitty the weather was for most of the year.

  14. We enjoyed reading your post. It reminds us of the 10 commandments of travel, ever heard of them?

    Nancy & Shawn

  15. This STILL happens to me, where nearly everywhere I go in Asia is 10,000x more developed than I expected. I think the picture I had in my head of Thailand was from when it was still Saigon…

  16. The best mindset to travel with is that you experience. We project, hope, expect what the media and people around us say, but I try to focus on feeling, experiencing, exploring other cultures and places. No place can disappoint, anywhere on this planet we can find beauty.

  17. Gary, I’m curious to know how often you feel any disappointment when a place fails to meet your expectations. I’ll take a shot and guess that it happens less and less as you travel. If so, it might strike some people as ironic that the more places one visits, the harder it is for a destination to disappoint.

    • You are right. It is not a coincidence that the places I mention in this post are from the start of my travels.

      Now I know how to keep my expectations in check. When I visited Istanbul earlier this year, it was different from what I thought, but I still quickly learned to love it for a whole other set of reasons.

  18. I’ve had the opposite reaction in many of the places I’ve been. New York City, San Fransisco, The Grand Canyon, Disney World, Alaska… I could go on. I could go on. Maybe it’s not the whole place but at least part of it feels right. It could be because I’m taking pictures and I’m looking for the postcard view that does exist if you stand in exactly the right spot looking in just the right direction.

  19. I have to say that on my recent trip to Madagascar and South Sudan I got the feeling big time. I never expected the culture in Madagascar to be so primitive and basic while the beaches as you described were very serene and untouched, except these looked like they came out of national geographic. I was surprised to learn that there are still places in Madagascar that haven’t even been explored yet.

    South Sudan was a whole diff situation since I expected it to see everyone so happy about having peace and being Independent. To my surprise it was just business as usual in the capital of Juba and when I asked how they felt about having their freedom they simply said feels good and we talked about something else.

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