The Sphinx standing alongside its logical neighbour, Iron Man, in Shijiazhuang CREDIT: GETTY
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so they say. If this is the case the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty and Pyramids of Giza should be blushing right now, for between them they have hundreds of replicas around the world.
The weird world of facsimile landmarks made the news this week after Egypt vented fury at China when a full-size replica of the Great Sphinx of Giza reappeared at a theme park in the northern city of Shijiazhuang. This comes two years after pressure from Cairo forced the structure to be torn down.
Officials from Cairo complained that the structure is an insult to Egypt’s cultural heritage and a violation of the country’s intellectual property. They are now taking measures through Unesco to have the replica Sphinx taken down once and for all.
Paris, Las Vegas, is home to a half-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower CREDIT: GETTY
You don’t have to be a travel snob to find replica landmarks a bit tacky. What is the point, you might ask, in the Leaning Tower of Niles, Illinois? Why go to the Taj Mahal in Bangladesh when the real thing is just next door? And what exactly does the Venice in Las Vegas contribute to the rich tapestry of humanity's cultural heritage?
We increasingly value “authenticity” on our holidays, so you would have thought that the appeal of crafting a replica Stonehenge out of foam (yes, that really does exist in Virginia, USA) would be dying out. Quite the contrary. The fake landmark industry is not only booming, but it could well play a significant part in the future of travel.
But how did they get it here? Foamhenge in Natural Bridge, Virginia CREDIT: GETTY
One way in which fake landmarks serve the greater good is for preservation purposes. The Lascaux Cave in the Dordogne contains some of the most prized pieces of art ever unearthed from the Upper Paleolithic era. You can still visit it today, albeit in the form of an exact replica.
The real thing was closed to the public in 1963; after receiving over a thousand daily visitors for 15 years, the site was threatened to become ruined beyond repair. Archaeologists learnt from their mistakes and the Chauvet Cave, discovered in 1994 with artworks dating over 32,000 years old, was never opened to the public.
Instead, a replica of Chauvet was opened in April 2015. Responding to the cave, Telegraph Travel’s Anthony Peregrine wrote: “I stood and gaped. The whole is slightly less than half the size of a football pitch but is so packed with geo-detail that it seems, if not bigger, then infinitely more intense.” You can also see, he said, “a higher proportion of truly savage, killer beasts – bears, mammoths, rhinos, big cats – than is usual in cave paintings normally more concerned with horses, bulls and reindeer. They rock with vitality. They’re absolutely in action. Two rhinos fight. Others gallop.”
Replicas of the oldest known cave paintings at the Chauvet Cave reproduction CREDIT: GETTY
In 2013 a replica of King Tutankhamun’s tomb opened in Egypt, about a kilometre away from the real burial site which has long been damaged by the presence of tourists. The tomb was identical to the original “to around a tenth of a millimetre,” claimed preservation specialists Factum Arte. This prompted a dilemma for enthusiasts of Ancient Egypt: visit the fake at the expense of coming home without the bragging rights? Or go to the original, knowing that your presence will contribute to its demise.
The Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee CREDIT: GETTY
In some instances, fake landmarks have become beloved cultural institutions in themselves. The full-scale Parthenon that stands in Nashville, Tennessee was erected in 1897 as part of the city's Centennial Exposition. In the early twentieth century this was the scene of extravagant theatrical productions with casts of up to 500, featuring chariot races, thousands of live birds and advanced props that shot flames. The Parthenon is the centrepiece of Nashville’s proud alter-ego as the “Athens of the South”, and it’s stood here for over half of the city’s modern history.
Perhaps the motherland of replica landmarks is China. Here you have Thames Town, built to resemble a British market town. A replica of Stonehenge sits beside a new housing project in Hefei, Anhui Province. Billionaire Zhang Yue constructed his own version of Versailles in Changsha, Hunan Province. The Austrian city of Hallstat has been recreated in the town of Luoyang, while a fake Tower Bridge stands proud in the city of Suzhouse.
Recognise that bridge? Tower Bridge in Suzhouse, Jiangsu Province CREDIT: GETTY
An entire theme park in Shenzen called Window of the World has over 130 reproductions of some of the world’s most popular sights: this is one of the main tourist attractions in a city that attracted 13 million annual visitors in 2017.
The novelty tourism sector in China is clearly not to be sniffed at, and when you look at the forecasted growth of China’s population and what this might mean for international tourism (the country will account for a quarter of all tourists by 2030), there’s an argument that high quality copycat landmarks might help to relieve at least some of the strain at genuine landmarks that are under threat from overtourism.
There is one final benefit to the principle of fake or replica tourism. As technology improves and the global population ages, it’s not impossible to imagine a time in the next century, perhaps two, when we are travelling the world through an advanced form of virtual reality, in which global landmarks have been replicated in identical detail.
Whether you find them flattering or not, imitations of world landmarks are here to stay - and it might not be a bad thing.