In Defense of Tourists

Tourists get a bad rap.


These are people regularly dismissed by the superior ‘travelers’ as gawping, wide-eyed cattle being ferried ignorantly from photo-op to photo-op.

Even the adjective form, touristy, is synonymous in many minds with overcrowded, overpriced, unauthentic and banal. No place wants to be called touristy.

But what, really, is the difference between the tourists and the ‘travelers’?

What people attack when they attack the idea of a tourist is often the most cartoonish straw-man; the nightmare tourist. The inconsiderate, vapid and lumbering oafs who spend most of their time complaining and moaning about minor discomforts and passively, or actively, damaging the places they attend. But this is the nightmare example. It’s what ‘tourist’ has come to mean, in the vocabulary of a ‘traveler’, rather than an accurate representation of typical tourists.

Consider another character; a person that exists (I’ve met one or two) and you probably have encountered one every now and then if you travel regularly. But we rarely mock this specimen, who is just as damaging to the idea of ‘travel’ as the nightmare tourist.

The nightmare ‘traveler’.

Snobbish and superior in manner, the nightmare traveler goes to astonishing lengths to distance themselves from the ‘tourists’ and takes every opportunity to inform anyone unfortunate enough to blithely walk into earshot of their ‘traveler’ credentials.

I met someone on a night out in Siem Reap who claimed to have no interest in Angkor Wat at all. They described it, with a look of sheer disgust, as a ‘tourist trap’. This is obviously a ridiculous statement but his intent was obvious. Distance himself from the ‘tourists’ and attempt to highlight his hard-core ‘Traveler Master Race’ credentials by disregarding a 1200 year old wonder of the ancient world as being touristy. Now, besides striking me as someone with astonishing insecurity issues, this person represented all that can go wrong when you begin to wish to not merely be someone who enjoys travelling, but be someone who is a ‘traveler’. It’s a slippery slope that leads, ultimately, into being a titanic prick

I mentioned in my ‘about me’ that I don’t consider myself a traveler, although I fit a lot of the criteria that people who are travelling often consider to be indicative of a ‘traveler’. I often travel alone, I usually stay in dormitories and I rarely use organised tours or tour groups. I travel pretty often and sometimes for longer than the average ‘tour’. Does this alone spare me the awful fate of being pronounced TOURIST!? If I stay one night in a hotel during my visit have I devolved disgustingly, shedding my master-race ‘traveler’ shell to reveal the putrid, stinking tourist inside? How about if I split my stays half and half? How about if I take one tour to see a popular sight during a one month trip?

It seems strange to me that avoidance of certain methods of travelling allows one to take on the honourific title of ‘traveler’. When people call themselves a ‘traveler’ are they simply trying to tell us that they don’t often stay in hotels? I don’t think so.

So what’s the difference?

I stumbled across the little graphic on ‘Land of Travel’ website which claims to elucidate the difference for us. Turn off your bullshit detectors now or they may overload.

Smugfest '15

Smugfest ’15

I could go on and on about how self-congratulatory and vague this is but I’m going to try and avoid a rant.

I see what it is getting at. It’s trying to suggest that being respectful, open minded and conscientious are important parts of traveling. But why does it feel the need to split up people who ‘travel’ into groups like this? And why is an ‘experience’ superior to an ‘observation’?

Some things you just have to observe. The idea of experiencing a public landmark, for example, just conjures up bizarre imagery of someone rubbing themselves sensually the metal struts of the Eiffel Tower, desperately trying to have a deeper, more emotionally satisfying experience of the tower rather than just looking at it and, well, observing.

Likewise, I have never in my life seen a tourist sit down to a meal of local cuisine, stare at it creepily for an hour before packing up and leaving the food uneaten. Some things you experience, some things you observe. This counts for everyone, whether you travel by coach with 40 other people or whether you travel using the hand-crafted, wind-powered unicycle you bought in a remote part of Bangladesh.

The graphic also suggests that immersing yourself in the culture is something that is always good. To an extent, I agree. But there’s nothing wrong with standing out. We all stand out. You might think you’re not standing out but if you’re in a suitably different cultural surrounding then you always will. It’s not even just about how you look, it’s how you behave. Subtle clues and ticks will always give you away as not being local. So what? It’s nothing to be ashamed of, in fact, it’s the whole damn point. You know where I don’t stick out? On my sofa at home. We should applaud the tourist who is taking that risk, leaving their comfort zone and sticking out unashamedly.

So here’s the problem I have with calling myself a traveler. Firstly, it sounds like an occupation. I already have an occupation and it’s not travelling. Unfortunately. Doubtless there are people out there who are, legitimately, travelers. That’s what they do, whether in employment or not. I’ve met some so, for sure, travelers exist.

Secondly, I like a bunch of stuff. I love music. I enjoy books and movies. I like playing sport. Travel is just another thing I enjoy and I feel no inclination to have that interest projected above all others by calling myself a traveler.

Thirdly, and I suppose this is the point of the article, I’m not comfortable with this splitting off of ‘tourists’ and ‘travelers’. It seems really condescending to ‘tourists’. Some people have no choice but to travel in the aforementioned, more controlled and directed, style. Maybe they have families, they have health issues. Not everyone is lucky enough to be capable, financially or physically, of travelling alone. For example, the amount of times I’ve heard people mocking the large groups of Chinese tourists you often see while completely ignorant of the fact that, for many Chinese people, this is the only way they can get a VISA to travel. Should they all just stay at home because it doesn’t fit with your ‘traveler’ archetype? Some people prefer it. Should we berate them for their choices? If they’re not hurting anyone I don’t see why they’re more apt for judgement than anyone else just because they decided to book their trip with Thomas Cook rather than hostelworld. After all, it’s not like lone travelers have a spotless record of respectfulness and . For sure, excessive tourism can be damaging. But anyone travelling is, usually, just as much a part of that as someone who has cultural integrity. Talk to anyone who has worked in a hostel (myself included). The ‘tourist’ – ‘traveler’ distinction is a spectrum, like so many things. We all fall somewhere upon it, maybe in a different place at different times. What links everyone on the spectrum is that they enjoy travelling.

So that’s what I am and, I feel, most of us are. We are people who, among other interests, enjoy travelling. Nothing wrong with that at all.


2 thoughts on “In Defense of Tourists

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