I just read a brilliant article entitled "In Defense of Tourism" by Peter Jon Lindberg in the January '09 issue of Travel and Leisure. In it, he delves intelligently into a topic I've grumbled about several times in this blog: tourist is not a four-letter word.
"In the urge to legitimize, singularize, and privatize our travel experiences, we trade the proverbial hell of other people for the hell of trying in vain to avoid other people. That's a terribly cool way to travel, and when I say cool I mean chilly, and when I say chilly I mean obnoxious." The travel industry, millions of travel bloggers and people proud to live by the "Be a traveler, not a tourist" motto are so quick to point out how travel-naive Americans can be. Only 28% of us have passports, and that is a sad statistic. Yet, instead of encouraging the home-bound to venture beyond their own borders, this industry chooses instead to establish some sort of elitist caste system ruled by the most hardcore, multilingual, back-door, off-the-beaten-path travelers out there. And I just don't agree that anyone less than this isn't allowed to hold the title of a legitimate traveler. To steal a phrase from the article, "Doesn't every traveler start out as a tourist?"
Lindberg goes on to point out that as he slowly let go of this high and mighty belief and allowed himself to join a few groups with his fellow tourists, he began to realize that certain touristy spots became that way for a reason: they had something to offer. And there were indeed advantages as well as fabulous experiences to be had when allowing yourself to accept the amazing community that is made up of your fellow travelers. For example, tour guides frequently know more about the history of a place than the average local, which in turn gives more substance to your personal understanding of the place. Additionally, group travel is inclusive as opposed to exclusive. While traveling throughout Europe with someone from South Africa, you're gaining not only a friend for life, but a taste of a whole new part of the world through their eyes. When it comes down to it, tourists and travelers really are after the same thing in the long run.
Don't get me wrong; I completely understand the difference between experiencing the true identity of a location and "National Lampoon's European Vacation". I'm most certainly not condoning standing in a museum line for five hours at a time and asking way too loudly and in English why no one has hamburgers. Those people drive me crazy, too. But I am also easily fed up with someone that writes off an entire chapter of travel just because they consider it too touristy. Some of my most treasured travel memories were in the company of other tourists: feasting and dancing under the stars outside Rome with a group of fellow tourists and newly cherished friends from Australia; standing over the fogged-in city of Stirling while hearing the empassioned story of the Battle of Bannockburn from an incredibly proud and rather misty-eyed Scottish tour guide; running my fingers over some of the oldest prisoner graffiti inside a Venetian prison, that I most certainly would have missed if my guide hadn't pointed it out. These are experiences you simply can't put a price on.
As Lindberg offers, "Rather than resenting your compatriots for the audacity of choosing the same vacation spot as you, cynical travelers...can learn, or relearn, something from the wide-eyed 'tourist' - from the sense of wonder and unmitigated joy he brings to those...moments that all travelers, no matter how jaded, long for. This involves surrendering to the inherent awkwardness of being a stranger in a foreign land, yet somehow losing yourself - and your self consciousness - at the same time. It means letting go of the suspicion, letting down the defenses, and allowing for a genuine response, even if that response is simply, 'Wow.'"
I'm a 37-year old Seattle girl who was bitten by the travel bug on my first tour of Europe in 2004. This personal blog follows my attempts to visit as many countries as I can, as often as my budget will allow. Since starting this blog in 2007, I've also worked as a freelance copywriter for an online travel publication. This only served to add even more must-see locations to my already extended list.