In an age when travel has become more affordable as the world becomes increasingly connected, "tourist" has become a dirty word. People who LOVE to travel will often find themselves avoiding that word at all costs. They call themselves names like, "Globetrotter", "world traveller", "explorer" or my most hated term, "digital nomad". The word "tourist" has seemingly become synonymous with that annoying, loudmouth person who will only eat at Americanized restaurants and prefers overpriced activities over local traditions.
I hear it all the time. “I can't go there! I don’t want people to think I’m a tourist!” Like that's the worst thing in the world? There are hundreds of blogs and articles on the internet titled Non-Touristy Things to Do in Such and Such City. And fair enough, there probably are some on this blog too. Travellers want more and more to stand out less and less, which is understandable. No one wants to stick out a like a sore thumb or be that obnoxious visitor with their selfie stick swinging wildly in peoples faces. But what happens when you blend in too much or avoid places which you might think are “too touristy”?
Remember, most places are touristy for a reason! Attractions that are special, unique and one of a kind draw people in from all over the world because it’s something they can't find at home. Sometimes the tourists visiting might just be from the town an hour down the road, but where they're going feels like a different world to them. If all you want to do is find a dive bar or coffee shop frequented by locals, you might have a great time but miss out on something extraordinary.
And the truth is, despite new low-cost airlines, not everyone gets to travel frequently. Those "digital nomads" have the luxury of time to explore every inch of a particular country AFTER they've seen all the iconic sites. But some people don't have the money to travel to the same destination every year or the vacation time to spend in one place for a month. Some people are lucky to get a week off all year, and they want to use it the best way they can. And if you're only going to be able to visit Australia ONCE, you darn tootin' should see the Sydney Opera House and go to a kangaroo zoo to pet one of those unique creatures! Yes, it's the picture everyone gets, but once again - why do you think that's the case?
I think we need to help redefine what it means to be a tourist instead of hiding from the term. Embrace it, but be a good one. Help make it less taboo. Be friendly and curious, yet respectful and trusting of the place you’re visiting. Find a balance between going to famous places and dipping your toe into a local hole in the wall where you can't speak the language. Locals will help you navigate your way through new culinary treats!
In the age of Airbnb, there is a sense that staying in a hotel has become a pedestrian way of travelling. That is, by staying in a hotel, you aren't embracing the city in the same way. Like you're copping out. There are some fantastic rental apps out there where you can find some incredible homes or apartments to stay in while visiting, but more and more, these services are creating huge issues for the locals you're trying to blend in with. Rent is skyrocketing in places like New York and San Francisco partially due to Airbnb. Hotels have never caused such issues. So while it might feel more authentic, you need to be aware that your "authentic, non-touristy" experience might be causing huge problems for the people you're trying to engage with.
Culture shock is real. If the comfort of a hotel with familiar amenities and a concierge who speaks English makes you more at ease, why pass that up just for the sake of looking cool? If you don't want to stay at a chain hotel, there are hundreds of boutique or independent apartment-style hotels you can reserve instead. Often the draw of an Airbnb is that they're located outside the dense tourist areas, but these days you can find incredible luxury accommodations in parts of the city you'd never expect (and usually for half the price of staying at a chain hotel in the centre of town).
If you want to avoid the feeling of being overwhelmed by other visitors, don't just skip it all together. Try not to miss out on things that are meaningful to you just because you're worried about doing something everyone else is too. There's probably a good reason there are so many people there. What you can do is be strategic!
Tips on the best day/time to arrive to avoid the crowds or secrets to skipping the line altogether are all over the internet (a few of them right here on this very blog!). Some busy attractions have lesser known entrances with shorter lines. When I visited the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, we walked right past a queue of hundreds of people standing in the hot sun waiting to buy a ticket. All I had to do was buy my ticket in advance a month before we left for our trip. When we walked in, the crowds from outside were nowhere to be seen. Sure, there were tourists inside, but since they control the number of people who enter at any given time, it still felt peaceful and it was one of, if not THE, most incredible pieces of architecture I've ever seen.
Another great tip to be an engaged tourist is to hire a local guide! They will take you to all those iconic sites you don't want to miss out on and tell you all about them based on their own experiences. Yes, you'll be walking down the same Charles Bridge in Prague frequented by thousands of tourists every day, but no one gets to hear the same story you'll be listening to as you walk down it. One of the most memorable guided tours I took was in Budapest with a very passionate guide who told us story upon story, including his family’s history and how all the political uprisings affected the people of Hungary over the years. You can't get that kind of stuff in the guidebooks. Larger, organized guided tours are fantastic too, but having a 1-on-1 relationship with your guide for the day will allow you to ask more questions and learn more about the place you’re visiting.
So go ahead, be a TOURIST. Embrace the word. Fill it with all your own meanings and interpretation. Be inquisitive, fill that bucket list, don't be afraid to ask questions or make mistakes. Engage with the city, the people and the culture. Take your photo holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, smooch under the Eiffel Tower and cross the street with friends on Abbey Road. Do it your way, for yourself and don't worry about anyone else.
...Just don't eat at the Hard Rock Cafe.