Tourists Aren’t The Problem, Jerks Are
I’m going to say something controversial: It’s time to embrace tourists. Stop expecting those who come to see where you live to know how to behave as you would like. Embrace anyone who has the gumption to get up and go and visit a new place. Let yourself be a tourist of your own homeland, see your neighborhood with new eyes. When you travel, don’t try to act like you belong, instead ask questions and learn about the place you are visiting.
I grew up in the countryside, first in the wild woods of Oregon, and then I spent those awkward teenage years growing up just outside Ludlow, Vermont. If you have ever lived in a resort town, you know that locals moan about tourists. Ludlow is no different, anyone visiting Okemo is automatically considered a flatlander. A foreigner who isn’t used to country life, intruding on our space and mucking up the normal ebb and flow of traffic. We think they bring the stress of the city with them to Vermont and take it out on those of us who carry out our normal lives in the place they consider a vacation destination. Such a negative perception of tourists has stayed with me ever since and it’s my constant struggle to not be afraid of being looked at as an out-of-towner.
I’ve been compulsively traveling the world for the past eight years, a journey over four continents that has seen me living in India, England, Scotland, and now Argentina. I clearly enjoy being a foreigner living in a distant land, but the disdain for the idea of “tourists” is the only luggage I can’t seem to travel without. Among my fellow long-term travelers, there are many divisions of travelers, and the one with the worst reputation is a tourist: someone who doesn’t care to understand the local people, culture, or environment and expects their vacation locale to provide the same amenities and comforts as they get at home.
That definition which has become married to the label ‘tourist’ is a misnomer, a failed attempt to create a set of classes amongst the traveling kind, a way to separate the locals from the newcomers and the expats from the day trippers. It isn’t tourists that show no respect for where they travel to, the word you are looking for to define such a set of characteristics is jerk.
Google anything related to “annoying tourists” and you’ll find an endless supply of advice on how not to look like a tourist. That, my friends, is a waste of time. There is no way you are going to travel to a foreign country and not be known as a tourist, as soon as you open your mouth you are clearly a foreigner. If people in Ludlow know when someone is from out of state, anywhere you go around the world will know you are not from there. Plus, you are a tourist, there is no way you can understand the nuances of where you are traveling so accept that and humbly accept travel as a learning experience.
You should eat like the locals because it’s awesome and delicious. Like this milanesa with caramelized onions, bacon, and egg. One word: YUM!
“Take whatever condiments they give you, because requesting US condiments is a dead giveaway for being an American tourist”
Some places you have to ask for any condiments, or else they bring you none. Plus, when you order your food your accent is the dead giveaway, not whether or not you prefer mayonnaise or ketchup. Eat like the locals not to avoid being seen as a tourist, but because you will discover amazingly delicious food you never knew about before. If you are getting fries though, go ahead and enjoy your ketchup.
“Don’t look at a map when you are out and about”
Don’t walk around staring at a huge map pulled out, because then you’ll miss the entire experience. It’s better to look at your map than to get lost, even locals need maps sometimes.
That’s me, in Delhi, India wearing Indian clothing. Fooled no one. Even that baby knows I’m not from there. I’m appropriating a culture that is not mine and look ignorant and ridiculous while doing it.
“Avoid wearing clothing that has anything to do with the USA.”
Just like people in the USA buy clothes and accessories with the British flag, people do the same thing in many countries with the US flag. Really you shouldn’t wear a big American flag because you are American and that’s ridiculous to use as your regular clothing any time other than Independence Day.
Camera? Check. Backpack? Check. American shoes? Check. Must be a tourist then. Actually, no, born and bred Argentine in his home city, just showing me around.
“Leave the backpack and water bottle at home, along with your athletic shoes.”
A backpack is way more comfortable and good for your back than lugging everything in an over the shoulder bag, trust me, I always use an over the shoulder bag. Plus, you are walking around all day seeing the sights, it’s a bad idea to not use comfortable shoes. And please, no water bottle? What, do people in other countries not drink water?
“Don’t tote your camera so people can see it. Having your camera at the ready will label you a tourist.”
Some people just love taking pictures, I carry my camera at the ready as much with my family in Vermont as I do when I travel. I use it just as much as an expat as I did when I was on vacation in France. Don’t carry your camera out in the open constantly because it was probably expensive and could get stolen, but that’s common sense, not travel advice. Be ok with taking pictures, a camera doesn’t mean tourist, it just means picture-taker.
Overall Real Advice
Be demure, extremely polite, and be grateful. Stay aware of your surroundings, be willing and excited to learn about where you are, and above all enjoy your travels.
Instead do a search for, “Safe traveling behavior” or look up the culture of where you want to go. Do your research before getting on the road. Learn how to behave respectfully where you are, and if you don’t know what to do follow this one simple rule: don’t be obnoxious. Rather than being afraid to not be a tourist, just stop being annoying and try to be extremely polite. I’ve heard an endless stream of complaints in Britain about “American tourists” talking entirely too loud and asking stupid questions. In Eastern Europe it’s “British lads” who are loud and drunk; in Edinburgh, Scotland it’s the influx of people who come for the yearly festival. Back in Vermont it’s the “flatlanders” who drive too aggressively and tip badly. Those complaints aren’t notes about culture, they are stereotypes based on negative experiences with rude people. They aren’t doing those things because they are American, British, or from New York. They’re doing those things because they are rude.
It’s time to embrace the tourists and give people the individual credit they deserve. If someone is outright rude, that’s because they are a rude person. No matter where you hail from, if you are as polite as possible in regards to your own cultural understanding, that politeness will translate. Recently one of my friends said a group of British cyclists came into her place of work and left zero tip for full-table service dining. She stopped them as they were leaving and explained that in the United States we tip for every meal. That group of cyclists were not ignorant to leaving tips, I can attest to the fact that in Britain you leave a tip for table-service, always 10%. Those guys were just taking advantage of being foreigners and being jerks.
It’s time to take back the “tourist” label and wear it with pride that you took a journey, whether to the beach near your home or halfway across the world. That you left the comfort of your home and armed with your camera and smile decided to travel. Maybe you’ve never traveled before so you feel safer taking an official tour, ok, then go for it. Go see the world, just don’t be a rude person, use your manners, don’t stay ignorant, and ask questions so you can learn about where you are going. Isn’t that the reason to travel? To enjoy and learn? I am a lifelong tourist, wherever I go, I’ve got camera in hand and questions at the ready.
October 21, 2013
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