One of the travel world’s more annoying debates is backpacker vs. rolling suitcase. Those with backpacks scoff at travelers wheeling suitcases along cobblestones, while the roll-aboard lovers might want to avoid the connotation that “backpacker” implies. Even backpackers are being criticized now for taking too much. In the end, it’s just a place for one’s stuff. We can all agree that seeing pilgrims walking for many miles with very little stuff at all is pretty impressive. Today’s Photo of the Day is from Tibet, where some pilgrims are returning from a trip. Flickr user abhishakey photographed the travelers coming from Lhasa, where thousands travel each year to visit the Jokhang Temple with little more than a prayer wheel.
Ah, the good old tourist vs. traveler debate. Every travel blog has inevitably touched on this non-issue of which is more “authentic” or “real.” Can’t we all just get along? Whether you hit the road to check the big tourist attractions off your list or do as the locals do, you’re traveling and you’re not really local, so who cares which way is better? This photo from Mumbai by Flickr user Chris Hoare captures a small market heavy on the advertising from Indian TV channel Fox History & Traveller and the world’s favorite drink, Coca Cola. While a trip to India should definitely include a sampling of local foods and beverages, you could hardly be called a tourist for drinking the same soda the native population enjoys.
After three months living in Istanbul, I’ve gained a stable of a few dozen Turkish words to string into awkward sentences; learned some local intel on what soccer teams to root for, where to get the best mantı, and the best Turkish insults (maganda is the local equivalent of guido); and have come to avoid Sultanahmet with the same disdain I used to reserve for Times Square when I lived in New York. Then a funny thing happened while wandering the Asian side or the city with some visiting friends: I stopped worrying and learned to love being a tourist. Letting your guard down and realizing you will ultimately always be a tourist no matter how “local” and “authentic” you can live, no matter how long you explore a place, is remarkably liberating, even fun. The old traveler vs. tourist debate is one of the most pernicious and tiresome in the travel world, and while there’s a lot of truth and value in being an independent traveler, tourists are a good thing, and being a tourist can be a lot less annoying and worthwhile than the travel snobs would have you believe.
- Get unabashedly lost – When I make a wrong turn in Istanbul, I’m so self-conscious about being “caught” as someone who doesn’t belong here, I find myself hiding in alleys furtively studying maps, seeking out street signs from the corners of my eyes, and acting as if that wrong turn was entirely planned for and intentional. Yet on a recent trip to Prague, I was on the hunt for a cafe recommended to me by David Farley, and after giving up on the hopes of finding a wifi connection, I started going into bars and shops and asking directions. Eventually I found the (excellent) Meduza Cafe, saw some interesting dive bars/casinos along the way, and got over my shame of toting a map around.
- Do something you could do at home – Sure, you came to Paris to see the Louvre and absorb the cafe atmosphere, not to sit in your hotel room and watch pay-per-view movies, but seeing the everyday abroad can be a great window into another culture. I’ve wandered malls in Buenos Aires, gone to the movies in Turkey, and had coffee at a Chilean McDonald’s (I’m also a big fan of zoos). Each place I have been surrounded by locals and experienced a surreal clash of the foreign familiar.
- Eat foreign foreign food – Sushi is great in Tokyo, but so is Korean, Chinese, Indian, and Italian; pretty much everything other than Mexican, which for some reason is a total fail in Japan. Just because something isn’t a “native” dish doesn’t mean it isn’t widely enjoyed by locals or “authentic” to the region. If you are insistent on only eating the national foods, you could miss out on great pizza in Colombia or cheap French food in Lebanon.
- Speak English – Learning please and thank you in a foreign language will get you a long way and it’s always a good idea to know a few key words, but English has become the lingua franca of the world and using it abroad is often easier and can lead to good conversations. My fractured Turkish is often met with English responses and I’ve met shopkeepers, bartenders, and taxi drivers eager to practice their English, discuss politics (apparently many Turks would like Bill Clinton to be president of their country, who knew?), or ask if the cafe they frequented while studying abroad in Raleigh is still around.
- Stop, gawk, and take pictures of stupid things – Another thing New York instills in you is to not look up, watch street performers, or act as if even the most ludicrous spectacle is anything other than commonplace. Remember when virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell played in the D.C. Metro? I’d bet that more tourists than locals stopped to listen. Or what if I’d let my embarrassment prevent Mike Barish from taking a picture of this sign in my neighborhood subway station? Could have been tragic. Soak up as much of the sublime and the ridiculous as you can.
Maybe one day we can eschew the traveler and tourist labels, shed our fanny packs and backpacks, realize we’re all a little obnoxious, and embrace the wonder and fun of exploring a new place in whatever way we want.
A tremendous amount of space on the internet has been wasted on the Tourists versus Travelers debate. We’ve been known to touch on it here at Gadling from time-to-time. But, at the end of the day, it’s all wasted breath and pissing contests. To the people who stand on soapboxes of “authenticity,” have you ever stopped to think that tourists are a good thing? That tourism is beneficial to local people and culture? That there’s room in the travel landscape for differing approaches, ideologies and perspectives? At the end of the day, tourists are a good thing.
Shocked to read that statement? You shouldn’t be. Putting the pithy debate aside, there are simple positive facts about tourists that are undeniable. You don’t have to like them. You don’t have to travel like they do. Heck, you can keep blogging with an elitist tone against them for all we care. But their existence makes life better for everyone.Those fanny packs carry wallets
Tourists spend money. They pay sales tax and hotel taxes. They pay for admission to museums, purchase meals at restaurants and tip cab drivers. That money goes back to local governments where it is spent on programs that benefit locals. It funds the upkeep of those museums, allows the owners and staff at those restaurants to put food on their own tables and helps the cabbies make a decent living to support their families.
Appreciating the unappreciated
Quick, name the last museum or major attraction that you visited in your hometown. Do you even remember when you went there? We tend to overlook the places that make our hometowns special. Ask a New Yorker when he last went to the Statue of Liberty or the American Museum of Natural History and you are likely to hear tales of elementary school field trips. The places that people list when asked why their city is worthy of respect are the same places that locals tend to neglect. You know who doesn’t neglect them? Tourists. While locals are busy either living their day-to-day lives or feeling too smug to go to the “touristy parts of town,” visitors are enjoying fantastic views, brilliants works of art and creating memories that will last a lifetime.
Everyone deserves a break
Sure, you enjoy exploring lost civilizations, eating unusual foods and collecting stamps in your passport. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Heck, we love that stuff, too. But, some people just want to escape their lives for a week, unplug and relax. Don’t those people deserve to take a week off of work, go on a cruise or hang out on South Beach without being judged? No one is making you travel in any way other than how you enjoy it. Let others do the same. If someone’s definition of a good time is skipping out of work for a week to take their kids to Disney World, more power to them!
You know how New Yorkers act as if we live in the center of the universe? You know where that attitude comes from? When we travel to other places, people are always eager to ask us about New York. Or they tell us about the time they visited New York. Or they speak enthusiastically about how badly they want to go to New York. It’s an ego boost. Having people adore your hometown is wonderful. This phenomenon is by no means unique to to New York. The people of Chicago wanted to host the 2016 Summer Olympics so badly because they wanted to show off their city for the whole world to see. South Africa is bursting at the seams with pride as they ready to welcome the world for the 2010 World Cup. Every town, city and country holds its proverbial head up hight when they see visitors enjoying themselves. It’s why tourism boards exist. It’s why towns host festivals. We’re all proud of where we live and we want other people to know why. Tourists are those other people.
It’s all travel
My childhood trips were to all-inclusive Caribbean resorts, Disney World, visits to my grandparents and other good old-fashioned family vacations. And you know something – I loved those trips. I remember them fondly. I wish I could go on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride again. It was way more fun than some of the things I’ve experienced as a “traveler” in far away lands. Those touristy trips helped shape who I am and, perhaps more importantly, gave me quality time with my family. I may travel differently now than I did as a child, but I enjoy and appreciate those differences and what I’ve experienced because of them.
You have to start somewhere
If you still think that travelers are better than tourists, consider this: were you savvy, worldly and cultured when you took your first trip? Or did you carry a large map in your backpack, get frustrated by cultural differences and scope out the top five things listed in your guidebook? Not everyone is born ready for an immersion experience when they travel. For some, simply getting on a plane or spending time away from home is a huge step that is not taken lightly. Being a tourist comes more naturally to people. Being a “citizen of the world” takes experience, confidence and trust. Not everyone gets there. Not everyone wants to.
It’s so crowded, no one goes there anymore
Yogi Berra summed it up as only he can. No one likes crowds when they’re traveling. The “travelers” of the world often eschew the hot spots listed in guidebooks and tourist areas because of the crowds. They avoid tours, ignore landmarks and stick to the fringe while judging those who wait in lines with the masses. But what if those masses suddenly all became “travelers?” The fringe would get awfully crowded. The fact that people have varying interests keeps everyone dispersed. If we all did the same thing – be it the touristy activities or the “authentic” adventures – we’d all be stuck in the very crowds that we loathe.
There’s a gray area
Why can people only be a traveler or a tourist? Can’t you go off on wild adventures, eat bizarre foods and then also climb the Eiffel Tower or gawk at Times Square? Who among us hasn’t purchased a kitschy souvenir that we’ve gone on to cherish? Or taken a picture with our waiter at some campy restaurant? The traveler-tourist debate isn’t about some linear spectrum of authenticity. If anything, it’s a Venn diagram. There’s overlap. Because, at the end of the day, both groups are going places and experiencing new things. There is a common ground and it’s a pretty fertile ground if you asked me.
Tourism is a good thing. It feeds city coffers, puts money in locals’ pockets and allows people to escape their troubles and simply relax.
Rather than judging others and assigning gravitas to various types of travel, it’s time that we embraced everyone under one tent. Tourists aren’t bad. They’re people living their lives and having a lot of fun doing it. Besides, we’re all tourists at some point. Usually it’s when we’re walking slowly and taking a picture of a street sign. That’s when we’re annoying. But the pictures are fun.
This week saw the vitriol of travelers (and travel writers) directed at the TSA. The new TSA regulations that were imposed in light of the terrorist attempt on a Northwest Airlines flight led many to unleash the proverbial hounds and attack both the TSA and Department of Homeland Security with great fervor. It became quite fashionable (and deservedly so) to use blogs and Twitter to mock the TSA’s plans for keeping us safe.
However, this hysteria is not new in the travel community. Travelers have a long history of finding a target for their angst and attacking it like cat on a Roomba. The TSA is just the latest object of travelers’ derision. There were others before it and there will be others after it.
Let’s take a look back at travel complaints through history.God – The Garden of Eden was the original all-inclusive resort. Despite the absence of a “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” policy, the Almighty actually had pretty stringent rules. While there was a veritable buffet for Adam and Eve, apples were off limits. The first guests to violate this policy were removed from the property and led management to blacklist all human visitors. Is that species profiling? Sure seems like it.
Christianity vs. Islam – Europeans have always enjoyed traveling. However, their motives for getting out and about during the Crusades were pretty shady.
India – Christopher Columbus never forgave India for not being in the Americas. Annual parades have yet to appease him.
Lack of produce – Scurvy was no joke back in the day. Now it’s a pretty good joke anytime someone offers you an orange.
Babies – They cry. They kick the back of your seat. They have little comprehension of the expletives that you’re shouting at their mothers.
People who recline their seats – I am one of these people. I make no apologies to anyone.
Airline food – Did you hear that airline food is gross? Yeah, so did every comedian in the 1990s.
Travelers vs. Tourists – The travelers vs. tourists debate is an epic one pitting blowhards against windbags. It has, however, kept the soapbox industry in business.
Cruises – When you’re the cause of a Twitter hashtag getting hijacked, you’ve officially made it as a preeminent target for travel complaints.
TSA – They’ve been accused of racial profiling, enforcing their policies arbitrarily and reacting to incidents with asinine updates to their rules. This latest episode is practically old hat for them. A hat that must be removed during the screening process, of course.
So, what’s my point here? At the end of the day, travelers will always find something about which to complain. Sometimes it will be justified while other times it will simply be a matter of opinion. People will always enjoy pointing fingers, making judgments and mounting their high horses.
But I think we can all agree that people who wear socks with sandals are just plain wrong.