I often need to repress the urge to get into a discussion when I’m talking to someone about traveling and they go: “I don’t want to go there, it’s too touristy.” or
“Man, you should have been there ten years ago.”
To which I reply (in my head of course – I don’t want to alienate myself from 97% of the people I speak with):
“Well, Susan, maybe there’s a goddamn reason people go there!” and
“Really, Barry? I’ll just hop into my fucking time machine and go back to whenever destination X was still ‘undiscovered’ and ‘cool’… you asshat.”
(See, I told you there was a good reason I use my inner voice.)
I get responses like the ones I just mentioned pretty often when I’m talking shop. So I started thinking to myself “Why do people react like that? Is there some truth to it? What do they really mean when saying ‘tourist’?”. Fast forward four hours and two stiff shoulders, and I wrote down some thoughts on why being a tourist isn’t all that bad, and why you shouldn’t feel guilty about being one every now and again.
1. TOURIST SPOTS ARE TOURIST SPOTS FOR A REASON
Let’s take Thailand for example. Thailand is the top destination for people who are going to South East Asia for the first time. And rightfully so. Thailand has beautiful landscapes (in the north around Chiang Mai but also the southern islands are gorgeous), great climate, awesome food (pad thai or red chicken curry, anyone?), it’s affordable, getting around isn’t too much of a daunting task for a first time traveler, accommodations range from budget backpacker to high roller and there are so many beautiful temples it’ll max out the memory card on your camera in no time. Oh, and people are super-friendly and it’s relatively safe. So we can all agree: there’s something for everyone in Thailand, OK? Good.
Now, let’s take world famous Maya Beach on Koh Phi Phi island (where they filmed the movie ‘The Beach’ with Leo DiCaprio. I can call him Leo, I know him). An island which beauty is only matched by its outrageous party-til-you-drop mindset. When you go to Koh Phi Phi, there are going to be other tourists. And if you are to take a boat tour to Maya Beach, there are going to be other people on that boat. And when you get to Maya Beach on your tour, guess what, there are going to be A LOT more boats carrying A LOT more people. You won’t be alone. And here’s where a lot of people’s reasoning goes awry: many tourists on a spot does NOT take away the intricate beauty of a that spot. (Sidenote: if a certain amount of tourists are destroying the environment, like we are seeing with delicate corals, that’s obviously not alright.)
Maya Beach is still a beautiful beach with flour-like sand. Koh Phi Phi’s crescent-shaped beach flanked by limestones or its two-colored ocean is still an amazing sight to see. Would it be better without the abundance of other people around? Sure. I also don’t want to spend five hours Photoshopping a German guy named Hans out of my perfectly framed shots of a Buddhist temple. Nor do I want to stare at a bunch of fit, tanned, blue-eyed blonde-haired Swedes on my tour boat making me feel kind of unattractive in my XS lifevest with my pale backrolls rolling out like the Autobots are about to assemble. (OK – maybe a bunch of sexy Swedes isn’t that bad). But there’s a REASON why certain destinations are popular. There’s a REASON why people are spending hard-earned cash to get somewhere. Get your mind right, get prepared that you won’t be alone and maybe, just maybe, you’ll love the place for what it is and appreciate it despite the crowds. And who knows, if you’re lucky you might even hook up with a guy named Hans. Anything goes if you keep an open mind.
2. THE PRIORITY PARADOX
Everyone’s doing it (and I don’t mean watching ‘Ex on the Beach’ – although that’s also something we all do and don’t openly admit). You’re thinking about your next trip, someone’s told you that Cambodia is – and I quote – ‘da bomb’, you open your laptop and before you know it you’ve googled those magical words: ‘top sights Cambodia’. You’re jumping from travelblog to travelblog, kicking ass and taking names: ‘Angkor Wat’, ‘Battambang’, ‘Phnom Pehn’ and ‘Koh Rong’ quickly make it onto your shortlist. You draft an itinerary and rather quickly, you have yourself a pretty full two week schedule. “But wait, am I now not doing what everyone else is doing? Shouldn’t I be getting more ‘off the beaten path’, connect more with locals, do my own thing?” Doubt grips you like it’s your birthday and your grandma’s coming in for some good ‘ol cheek-pinching. What’s at the core of this is the following: you want the best of both worlds. You want to see those ‘top 10 sights’ AND authenticity. You want Angkor Wat AND get lost in the backwaters around Siem Reap. You want to eat at the best rated Tripadvisor restaurant AND stumble upon a local eatery where they’re eating something you can’t really identify (it’s chicken…I think?).
Some people immediately discard those ‘must see’ destinations just because they have that label. It’s closely related to point 1, except here it’s not so much about the ‘logistical’ side of things (crowds, higher prices,…) but more the ‘spiritual’ side. We want to disconnect and experience new things when we travel and that’s why we are sometimes (too) quick to judge that what is popular will not provide that intimacy, that disconnect.
I’ll give you an example: Angkor Wat is by far the number one sight in Cambodia. To skip it, in my not so humble opinion, would be foolish. Angkor Wat is, for lack of a better word (or my limited vocabulary): awesome. (It’s about to get a bit poetic now, so bear with me here) I remember standing outside its gates, in front of a small pond that perfectly mirrored the spires, hearing the buzzing of tuk-tuks in the distance, and even though I was surrounded by other tourists, I remember thinking to myself “This is pretty fucking spectacular. Look at where we are. We are so far from home. This is another part of the world. This. Is. Crazy.” And despite it was a ‘must see, number one, don’t miss this’ sight, it still gave me that “wow” moment we tell our friends about when we get back home. So yeah, being a tourist sometimes pays off.
3. CHANGE ISN’T ALWAYS A BAD THING
(This actually happened about a year ago)
Me: “By the way, we just booked our flights to Cuba!”
She-who-shall-not-be-named: “Cuba isn’t the same anymore. You should’ve gone there BEFORE they opened up the borders. Bla bla bla”
I’ve gotta say Voldemary, you’re kinda being a dick right now. Consequence of your dickishness: it takes away the joy of traveling for those who are about to go there, have been there, are thinking about going there,… And even Tom Riddle wouldn’t wish that on anyone. But I digress, as I so often do.
Think about what change for a destination or country means. It can be change in politics (like the Cuban embargo), a rise and fall in tourist popularity, economic boost and decline,… It goes without saying that all of this has an impact on how a country ‘feels’ to a visitor. As is the case with Cuba (Havana is phenomenal, by the way), the country has gone through fundamental changes the past decade. It has become increasingly easier to get from A to B, it’s easier to find a ‘casa particular’ to stay at, there are more private businesses opening up (fun fact: in Trinidad the number of private restaurants went from 3 to more than twentyfold that in the last couple of years), access to international news and the internet is growing,… And this is where it gets tricky: some will say that “Cuba is losing its authenticity” and others will claim “it’s a good for the country and its people from an economic and social standpoint”. Who’s right? A bit of both I guess. But I’ll admit: the discussion of ‘tourism vs authenticity’ is a delicate balance at times.
I look at it this way: a country’s ‘spirit’, if you will, is comprised of decades upon decades of history, the good and the bad things. That is not wiped out by the rise of tourism with one fell swoop. Sure: it changes how you experience a country, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing either. In Habana Vieja, Havana’s old town, there still were bands playing on the corners, rum is still the cheapest drink on the menu, there are still old men smoking huge cigars in doorways. And yes – there are still A LOT of old timers in Cuba. And no – I bet they won’t be replaced with Kia’s in the next couple of years. So for the moment, I’d hold off on calling Marty McFly to whisk you back to 1950’s Cuba in his suped-up DeLorean.
4. EVERYONE’S DIFFERENT
That’s right kids: we are all a bunch of unique fucking snowflakes. (Except Frank – that dude’s vanilla as fuck.) The point I’m so unelegantly trying to make is this: if Sally visited Vietnam with a focus on leisure with a budget the size of Trump’s SuperPAC, and Eric went there on a shoestring budget to mingle with the locals and loves hiking, their answers to the question “How was Vietnam?” are going to be vastly different. More specifically, when asked “Did you like Hanoi?” neither answer will be right nor wrong. Those differences in how you experience a country are what make traveling so much fun. Sally might have hated Hanoi with “all of those damn scooters. I nearly died twice crossing the street. I just stayed in my hotel and lounged at the rooftop pool.” Eric on the other hand loved getting into the mix: he rented a scooter himself, grabbed some food on the side of the street and had a fresh ‘bia hoi’ beer with some locals on the curb of the sidewalk.
What you feel is ‘touristy’, or more importantly ‘worth traveling to’, totally depends on your goals, expectations and mindset. I myself am totally fine ticking off all the major sights without getting off the beaten path. You might not. And that’s fine too.
insert: DRAMATIC LAST PARAGRAPH WITH MONUMENTAL INSIGHTS
Let’s wrap this up by saying: it’s alright to stay on the beaten path. Not all the time, but sometimes. And next time someone talks to you all happy and excited about where they’re going on holiday, don’t be like Susan and Barry. Be that special snowflake you know you are and repeat after me: “it’s okay to be ‘tourist-ay’”.
PS: when you overhear someone saying “I’ve heard that…”, “Isn’t that supposed to be…” or “I’ve read somewhere that…”, that just means nothing more than that they haven’t been there, they don’t know shit, and you can titpunch ‘em with my compliments.
Ah, isn’t life grand!