The summer travel season is in full swing, and many people are taking their long anticipated vacations to other countries, where they will be both welcomed by the locals and derisively referred to as “tourists” by some of their fellow travelers.
Given the fact that the UN says the worldwide tourism industry generates $3B per day and about 1 in 12 workers are associated with the industry, one would think that the reason for all this economic and cultural activity – the tourists themselves – would be celebrated. Yet how often have we heard a self-perceived travel sophisticate sniff about all the “tourists” he had to endure during his last trip?
“The Ugly American” was a term introduced a few decades ago to refer to the culturally-insensitive American traveler. Students in U.S. schools have since been introduced to the concept and made to feel a lurking embarrassment about rubes from our towns who go to bucolic European locales and break the cultural china.
In my travels, it feels like the word “tourist” has become the new code-word for the travel veteran to refer to novice travelers who either lack a certain level of expected sophistication, or who have the gall to try to see the same sights the travel veteran wishes to see, but they got in line first. This demonstrates an inviolable rule of the tourist label: he or she is always someone else. Ask an “anti-tourist” to describe a tourist, and he will generally describe someone who travels in packs, wears ridiculous clothing, sticks only to the famous sites, has little interest in the deeper cultural opportunities in a city, and expects the locals to bend to his will.
This ignores the fact that most “tourists” – or let’s call them visitors – are in fact visiting a country for the first – and perhaps the only time – in their lives. The fact of the matter is that if you go to Rome only once, you should see Vatican City. If you have only 2 days to spend in Paris, you probably want to see some portion of the Louvre and visit The Eiffel Tower.
When we visit someplace new, we naturally gravitate to what makes that place famous and unique. I have had the great privilege to travel to about two dozen foreign countries, and I can say I was a tourist in all of them. If I had the time and the ability, I would take a local tour – maybe even on a brightly-colored double-decker bus with no roof – and get the basics. When I’ve been lucky enough to have subsequent trips to the same city, I’ve been able to explore new areas and get off the beaten track.
It is the height of irony that those who most malign tourists are the people whose livelihoods depend upon them. Here I am referring to the Travel Writer. As I write this I am just returning from a short business trip to Paris and Amsterdam, so an article on Paris which was published in a recent edition of my newspaper’s Travel section caught my attention. It was a good article, until I got to this sentence: “…Rue des Martyrs closes to cars on Sunday mornings and transforms into a wonderful street market where you find few tourists fumbling with guidebooks.” Only in the travel industry do writers look down upon the paying customers who consume their product.
It is true that many of us who have traveled internationally have been around people from our own country who make us wince – usually due to some behavior or voice volume issues. Some of that is to be expected, however. After all, simple geography dictates that your exposure to other cultures and mass transit is different if you grow up in Brussels Wisconsin rather than Brussels Belgium. And herein lies the key to understanding the noble tourist – he or she is the exception to the general population. The tourist sacrifices, saves, cajoles family members, and makes a bold move to leave his comfort zone to experience something different and unknown. While he might loudly comment on how the toilet design in a country could be improved, or he might keep a sharp eye out for an American food chain, he has conquered a challenge that few have attempted.
A few years ago I returned home from a trip to China and was showing a picture taken of me on the Great Wall to a friend. His response was “you look like such a tourist”. In looking at the picture, I had to admit I did not look like someone who had spent a lifetime working the rice paddies in a communist country. I looked like a guy from the U.S. who was fortunate enough to see the Great Wall of China. For that, I was happy.
My name is Michael Diamond, and I am a tourist.
Published June, 2009