AN OPINION PIECE
Around the world, from the dingiest village to the most bustling city, from the poorest African countries to the most well-off European principalities, one word strikes disgust and condescension into everyone’s hearts: tourists. Admittedly, in poorer areas that disgust is typically overwhelmed by greed for the potential wealth they bring, but it’s there all the same.
It’s easy to see why. Tourists have a reputation for bad behavior, for being obnoxious and inconsiderate, as if they were at some sort of playground instead of a place where people actually live. Residents of big, busy cities like New York hate tourists because they don’t know where they’re going and take up way too space on the sidewalk and in the subway stations and don’t know local customs like standing on this side of the escalator.
Certain nationalities have their own stereotypes and their own varieties of bad behavior. Americans are loud, boastful, arrogant, ignorant despite being arrogant, and picky. (The whole imperialism thing doesn’t help.) French are even more rude and arrogant but add a twist of condescension, expecting everyone to speak their language and disdaining foreigners, even on foreign turf. Japanese are obsessed with taking photos, travel exclusively in groups, and can’t speak any foreign languages. Chinese, the new major tourist sector, apparently combine all these stereotypes: loud, inconsiderate, rude, incomprehensible, ignorant, picky, and photo-obsessed. They also travel exclusively in groups and represent an imperialist country. They add the stigma of being fierce hagglers.
Tourists can be shockingly disrespectful of the places they visit. They climb on ancient monuments and sometimes try to appropriate parts of them as souvenirs. They laugh and joke around in holy sites. They take flash photos during performances. They refuse to learn even a few words of the local language (and when they do, they butcher it). They talk constantly about how great their country is and how bad yours is. The most egregious examples go all-out and break the law, either out of ignorance or a feeling that laws don’t apply on vacation. Young tourists are party animals who somehow never have enough money yet splash out on alcohol and drugs and sex and noisy techno dance parties.
Tourists can distort economies and cultures. As areas become more and more touristed, local businesses bend over for the tourist hordes, altering their products and services to cater to their tastes. Ancient performance arts are translated to English and simplified for the benefit of short attention spans. “Exotic” stereotypes are perpetuated and exaggerated because it’s what tourists expect. Outdated and impractical tools are favored over stuff that might actually help locals. Distinctive cuisine gets watered down and tweaked so foreigners will actually eat it. In certain cases even the narrative at historical sites gets altered so that tourists from certain countries won’t get offended by it.
Despite the Chinese and Japanese tourists, the majority of tourists internationally are white, which has led anthropologists to argue that tourism is a second form of colonialism. Tourists expect locals to serve them and do whatever it takes to put their minds at ease because they’re on vacation. Resort areas in places like the Caribbean have a permanent leisure class waited on by a permanent servant class. Deeply ingrained habits of deference to whites are perpetuated: in his autobiography Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama relates how a black waiter in a restaurant in Kenya was desultory when he and his sister came in, but rushed to serve a (picky, whiny) white tourist family.
Despite all the trouble locals can go to to make them feel at home, a lot of tourists are unappreciative and complain about their experiences. They realize that foreign countries aren’t exactly like where they came from. They complain about the humidity, the language barrier, the food, the touts, the long distances and boring bus rides, the monotonous succession of churches and temples and museums. Some of them (usually the kids) would rather lounge in air-conditioned hotel rooms and use their smartphones or handheld games or TVs. They have only a hazy idea of where they are and often limited interest in what they’re visiting. Sometimes they realize they don’t care about their destination in the middle of the trip.
These are all valid points, and it should be easy to see why people groan when they see a crowd of approaching tourists or hear about their impending onslaught. But I still think tourism has more benefits than drawbacks, and locals should be more considerate and understanding in tourist areas.
The main advantage to tourism, quite simply, is greater understanding. Yes, some tourists just barricade themselves in their hotels or resorts or cruise ships all vacation long, but most of them will go back home with a greater perspective on the world and their destination in particular. They will have met new people, experienced a new culture, and seen emotionally, spiritually, or intellectually enriching sights. Even if they stay within their own country or cultural sphere of influence, their horizons, knowledge, and perspective will have deepened. The experience of “culture shock” can be unsettling at first, but it usually makes for interesting stories later.
For the locals, tourism almost always delivers an economic windfall. Some places depend on tourist revenue and have people trained to show tourists around and cater to their needs. Only the proudest and snootiest businessmen would turn back tourist money. Yes, tourists’ tastes can be different from locals’, but that’s how market demands work. Without tourist interest, many traditional handicrafts and artistic techniques would be on life support. People who whine all the time about “authenticity” need to remember how culture works — it’s an evolving process shaped by different influences and tastes. Sometimes syncretism and creativity can lead to interesting new art forms or new contexts for old styles.
I sometimes get a whiff of xenophobia behind some complaints about tourists. Yes, the national stereotypes I wrote above have truth to them. But obnoxiousness and disrespect aren’t limited to certain nationalities. A lot of tourism comes from domestic sources — that is, tourists aren’t necessarily foreigners. As anyone who’s been on or around a school trip knows, it’s not just foreigners who can be rowdy or rude.
Also, I’d like to point something out — how many of you have gone on a trip before? Tourism is almost universal among people with decent incomes, to some extent; don’t be a hypocrite and complain about tourists in your own city but indulge in it elsewhere.
That being said, it’s true that the worst kinds of tourism don’t really help cultural understanding or intellectual advancement. While I get that some people just want to relax and take long naps on a sunny beach, I prefer tourism with a more active component. Do what you can to learn more about the place you’re visiting. Learn some of the language. Visit a history museum. (Even if it’s not entirely accurate, you’ll at least see how that place sees its own history.) Try to interact with some locals. Step outside of your comfort zone a bit — who knows, you might actually like it.
I personally enjoy going off the beaten track a bit. In many places it becomes predictable where tourists will go. Famous places and big cities are no-brainers. Places mentioned frequently in ads, on TV, or through word-of-mouth are probably big tourist destinations. If you’ve heard of it, chances are others have too. While there’s usually a good reason why certain places are popular — beautiful scenery, lots of stuff to do, a hospitable culture — sticking to the well-trod tourist route limits your horizons and increase the likelihood that you’ll be hanging out with other tourists and locals used to them. Try going somewhere unusual sometimes. It can be amazing how different countries can be if you visit someplace that’s not listed in the ubiquitous Lonely Planet guidebooks (or even has a brief listing).
Above all, show some respect and consideration for the place you’re visiting. Learn the local customs before you go, and try to pick up local behavior when you’re there. Remember that people live there too. Party if you want, but don’t trash the town for no reason. Do what you can to minimize your carbon footprint and waste. Avoid perpetuating negative stereotypes and there’s a greater chance locals will stop living up to theirs.
It’s hard to deny that tourism has its drawbacks. Sometimes tourism inevitably leaves you with a superficial understanding of your destination. (You can’t do much about that in North Korea.) Very fragile environments like Antarctica are hard to visit without straining the ecosystem. The touts that spring up in tourist destinations are a pain. You will never gain the kind of appreciation or understanding as a tourist that you would as a resident who deals with day-to-day issues. Although they can give you valuable perspective, save hassles, deal with language barriers, and offer unique and amazing experiences, group tours can also offer watered-down narratives and isolate tourists from interaction with locals, which I see as a crucial part of the experience (for good or ill!).
But travel is still a great thing, and with booming air travel, the spread of the Internet and new services like Couchsurfing and AirBnB, it’s easier and more tempting than ever before. As countries like Mexico, Turkey, Nigeria and India rise on the world stage, more and more tourists will head from the non-white world to the white world, reversing some old stereotypes and relationships. And at the end of the day, no matter how many books you read or movies you watch, you’ll never really get a feel for a foreign country unless you go for yourself. (That goes for this blog too — take my observations with a grain of salt because chances are I haven’t been to the place I’m describing!)