There seems to be a debate brewing among travelers on the topic of tourism. Nowadays, the word “tourist” has somehow developed a negative connotation. In fact, in many circles, particularly among those who write about travel, if you call someone a tourist, it’s perceived as an insult. “Tourist” has almost become a dirty word. Personally, I am so over the traveler or tourist debate! I almost always roll my eyes now when I read articles bashing a place for being “touristy”.
Traveler or Tourist Debate
If you haven’t yet honed in on this debate, just spend a little time perusing travel websites and blogs. You will find no shortage of articles encouraging travelers to get away from the touristy places and truly experience a city or a culture. I’ve even made this argument a time or two myself, so what I am about to say may sound a bit hypocritical. I think you should be a tourist from time to time. In fact, be a tourist every time you travel… at least for a day or two. As I wrote that last sentence, I could almost hear the collective gasp from my fellow travel writers reading this article.
Here is the thing. You wouldn’t go to Rome and not visit the Colosseum. You wouldn’t visit Paris and skip the Eiffel Tower. That would just be ridiculous. Those iconic places are woven into the tapestry of their respective cities. They’re beautiful. They’re historical. And they’re often the very heartbeat of their communities. Oh, and you know what else they are? They’re touristy. Just about every major landmark or place of historic significance in the world has, to some degree, become a tourist trap. And while some might deem that unfortunate, it’s simply reality.
Why you shouldn’t avoid tourist attractions
If you were to avoid all of the tourist attractions, you would also be avoiding so much of what gave a place it’s name, it’s history, its charm. What annoys me the most is that those same travel writers who are knocking “touristy” places have actually been to them all! The people who are indignantly telling you to go experience a culture “off the beaten path” once stood in a long line for hours just to stare at a statue of a giant naked dude in Florence… Those same people chastising “tourists” once fought their way through swarms of people themselves to get a glimpse of (and a selfie with) the Mona Lisa. Those exact same people telling you to avoid New York City’s Time Square, have been fortunate enough to see the bustling commercial district with their own eyes.
Why travel writers recommend avoiding tourist traps
In defense of those seemingly hypocritical travel writers, they probably aren’t trying to sound so pretentious. In some aspects, I agree with them in the traveler or tourist debate. There are so many wonderful things that you will miss if you never leave the tourist district. It’s great to stop off in a no-name town just because something cool caught your eye. I’ve found the back roads are often more scenic. The food is better and way less expensive just a few blocks outside of the city center. There definitely aren’t as many crowds and way fewer pushy sales people in smaller villages and more remote areas. And you will get a better feel for a country and everyday life there if you step away from the main attractions.
BUT… being a traveler instead of a tourist doesn’t always make sense
Here’s where the problem lies. Being a traveler instead of a tourist takes time… time that most people, at least those in the United States, don’t have. Most of us have a very limited amount of paid time off from our jobs. And if you only have a few days in a place, realistically, you will only be able to sample the highlights.
That probably makes you (and me) a tourist in the eyes of those judgey travel writers. But you know what? At one point they were just like you… and just like me. Average working people who spent their 2-3 weeks vacation each year taking in as much of the world as they could. Many travel writers have pushed passed that stage of life and now travel and write for a living. Many might spend months at a time traveling, and can therefore experience more of a country or region. They can (and should) live like a local while traveling. I think some travel writers often forget though what it’s like to have just a few days to spend in a place.
So when you read articles or come across quotes like the one above… ignore them and go kiss the dang Blarney stone!
Ride in a gondola in Venice. Take that double-Decker bus tour in London. Pretend to hold up the Tower of Pisa. Be a tourist – unashamedly.
Traveler or tourist?
It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Be both a traveler and a tourist. You should visit the amazing tourist sites in the world. But travel to learn, not just to see. Learn about the history of the places you visit, and take time to understand the culture (research it before you go). And one final piece of advice: definitely, definitely eat the food!