How not to be a tourist
Tourism has always had a negative association when used outside of the industry: it’s cool to be in the tourism space, but never cool to be a tourist. Tourists are loud, gaudy, and disruptive. It’s important to participating in travel experiences instead of purchasing tour packages. There’s a difference between landmarks and tourist attractions, and the former is certainly superior. But aside from that, what separates a typical tourist from a serious sojourner? What are the hallmarks of a well-travelled person as opposed to an obnoxious tourist? Read on weary reader and enlighten yourself on how to not be mistaken as one.
One of the most important identifiers of a tourist is the mode of dress. When people think of tourists, images of balding middle-aged men wearing fanny packs and Hawaiian shirts come to mind. This image is outdated. Modern American tourists are usually dressed in over-sized Under Armor hoodies on top of PING golf shirts and brown khakis, topped off in wraparound Oakleys and Air Monarchs. Of course, styles and brands will differ across nationalities, but it’s the spirit of the clothes. Tourists wear what they want to wear; they dress for comfort and for the weather, not to fit in with the locals, so they stand out. Tourists tote cameras, comfortable shoes, and carry sunscreen in their oversized backpacks.
It’s important that travellers dress differently from tourists so the locals will respect them. Travelers all have a varied style that seamlessly blends into the local aesthetic. Some travellers will favour dark tones, down to the designer sneakers and jeans, perfect for a summer Roman holiday. Other travellers will wear airy white garments that flow with the wind, brown accented accessories, gold jewellery, and leather sandals, very practical for long walking tours. During the winter, a puffer jacket or a duffel coat work for both genders. Never have bags that are practical; it’s important to wear designer handbags or branded fanny packs like the locals do. These sartorial tips are valid whatever the destination, since basic American fashion is how people all around the world aspire to dress.
Tour groups are the hallmark of a tourist. A group of similarly dressed people following a guide who takes them to the same tired destinations. It screams a lack of imagination and creative spirit. It’s not so much that the tourists take an easy way out, going to a travel agency or booking a package, it’s the contents of that trip itself. Instead of unique accommodations, tour groups are put up in cookie cutter hotels. Instead of seeing the city for itself, tourists follow the tour leader’s flag and listen to their commentary. Instead of mingling with locals, tourists spend their days with people from their country, something they could do at home. Certainly, some destinations are inaccessible to some people without a tour group. If the tourists don’t speak the language, or if they don’t have the requisite skills to camp in the wilderness themselves, they are condemned to a group.
Instead, travellers pave their own path. Travellers don’t buy prepackaged tours, they do their own research. They find hole-in-the-wall restaurants, perfect photo locations, and unique cultural experiences from those they follow on Instagram and Twitter. Some might even post a Facebook status soliciting input from their similarly well-traveled friends. Travellers don’t stay at hotel chains, they find cute little residences rented out by individuals on websites such as Airbnb. They are sure to avoid restaurants with greeters shoving menus in their faces and welcoming them in eight different languages, instead going to eateries that have four-star TripAdvisor ratings.
Tourists fit a tour group because they have simple and standard interests. In Paris, they want to see the Louvre, and in the Louvre, they want to see the Mona Lisa. In New York, they want to see Broadway, and on Broadway, they want to watch The Phantom of the Opera. They will take pictures nonstop, of the Trevi fountain, of them and the Trevi fountain, of them tossing a coin into the Trevi fountain. They will be obnoxious, crowding to and from attractions in a taxi or tour bus, to see a statue of a little boy urinating or a little mermaid that isn’t worth more than a minute of their time. A group of tourists is easily heard a block away, noisily chittering amongst themselves in foreign languages.
Conversely, travellers have unique items on their itinerary. In Paris, they want to see the D’Orsay, and in the D’Orsay, they want to see some Monet paintings of sunrises they can’t even name. In New York, they want to go to the Orpheum, and at the Orpheum, they want to watch Stomp. Travellers wouldn’t be caught taking pictures with the Shinjuku crosswalk or the Tokyo Tower. Instead, find them taking pictures in an alleyway bar that is almost completely indistinguishable from the ones at home, save a block print on the walls. Travellers don’t engage the services of tour buses but take public transportation like the locals, en route to well-guarded secrets only locals know about such as Fabric in London, or Berghain in Berlin. Travellers aren’t obnoxiously loud about what they are doing, instead carrying themselves coolly and calmly.
There it is, the differences between tourists and travellers, clearly outlined. With these tips, anyone can avoid the common pitfalls of tourism and become well-travelled wanderers, voyaging across the world in search of new experiences. Oh the places you’ll go!
That was my first stab at satire. Admittedly a bit uninspired and a bit weak, so I felt it best to include this note here in case anyone took it seriously. I had wanted to write a piece about how millennials who referred to their trips as travel were no better than the older generation who called it sightseeing, but it turns out the internet is already full of them. So I felt that it might be interesting to write it as a satirical piece.
Most tourist attractions go through an innovation curve of sorts, but the later in the curve, the less attractive the site becomes to the early adopters, the hipsters, the influencers, and those who are too good for tourism. Eventually, all but the greatest of attractions become “ruined” by tourism, and these self-proclaimed travellers avoid becoming associated with them. I find this concept laughable. Do they really think locals won’t take one look at them and know they’re foreign?
Certain attractions appeal to tourists because they can act as a bridge between the two cultures. Does a tourist really want to have the authentic Szechaunese spice, or a toned-down, still barely tolerable version? Can a tourist really navigate a week in the Sahara by camel, or would they prefer to camp on the city outskirts for a night with a guide, and pose for a photo with a camel instead? I suggest that in both cases, the visitor would prefer the latter.
Further to that, travellers forcing themselves into the society they’re visiting can be more of a nuisance than their ignorance or noise. They’ll be much less of a nuisance visiting a market frequented by tourists instead of actual fishmongers and ranchers, where they will simply take up space and be unable to buy anything. Likewise, favela tours or the like are not only unsafe, but disrespectful to their inhabitants.
I think the non-distinction between traveller and tourist is slowly being recognized by members of my generation too: both are visitors, attempting to enjoy new experiences to the extent of their abilities. No one would insist that their ninety-year old grandparents backpack Europe alone, but when a middle-aged couple joins a tour of Central America, suddenly they’re inauthentic? Focus less on other people’s enjoyment, and more on your own. Happy touring.