There’s no disputing that “tourist” is a dirty word these days. In fact, it seems that the connotation of the term has never been more negative. Travel sites (including Passion Passport) encourage readers to visit off-the-beaten-path destinations and immerse themselves in local life. Even when you’re on the ground or spending time in your home city, it’s common to hear scoffs relating to tourists and the way they travel. In this day and age, it appears that a “tourist,” or a less-than-serious traveler, is the last thing anyone wants to be.
I can understand this, to an extent. As an American who’s spent a lot of my life abroad, I have seen pretty much every example of the tourists you don’t want to be. If you close your eyes, I bet you can picture them: khaki cargo shorts, white socks with boat shoes, fanny packs, outdated sunglasses, and cameras slung around their necks (or, in the most clichéd cases, maybe even a Hawaiian shirt or two). Not only can you envision them, but I bet you can hear them, too — arguing about their vacuum-sealed itineraries of guided tours and photo-ops.
When you focus on these images, it’s easy to understand the travel community’s desire to distance itself from such stereotypes. But that’s the thing: they’re stereotypes, based on the assumption that people who travel in this way lack the capacity to understand or appreciate new, authentic experiences. Not only is that an extreme assumption, it’s an insult that I’m sure most of us wouldn’t be comfortable openly expressing. But the travel space openly implies it.
The term “tourist” is defined as “a person who is traveling or visiting a place for pleasure.” So, why has the word garnered such a negative connotation? Travel is something we should all enjoy and see as mutually beneficial for those involved: tourism sustains all sorts of industries, while tourists are exposed to new cultures and ways of thinking.
Maybe it’s the openly transactional nature of “tourist” travel that bothers us. Overtourism is a great example of this–when our desire to be impressed has become exploitative. However, it’s disingenuous to act like other types of travel aren’t predicated on transactions, too. Whether you’re launching a new photo project or circumnavigating the globe after finally leaving your desk job, you still travel based on the possibility that you’ll gain something: notoriety for taking a leap from the “norms” of society, or a reward for the years you spent working away.
For this reason, I believe it’s time that we take back the word “tourist” and realize just how honest and intentional of a role that can be.
First of all, playing tourist allows us to push back against the increasing commodification of travel as a status symbol. It’s not realistic for the average person to be traveling all the time, collecting more stamps in the passport with each passing year. If anything, because it’s trendier than ever to portray oneself as a global citizen, it’s more important than ever to have integrity about traveling when and how we can.
One way to do that is just to stay at home. The modern travel community is obsessed with getting out of the “comfort zone,” but comfort in this context is really just familiarity. If the old saying that it breeds contempt holds true, you don’t need to book a flight to a far-off location in order to disorient yourself. You can be a visitor to your own neighborhood, city, or state. If you can’t approach the world just outside your door with curiosity, you might be cheating yourself of the opportunity to appreciate what makes different places so special. Accepting the tourist in all of us means knowing that no matter how worldly, cosmopolitan, or well-traveled one might be, there’s always something new to learn.
Tourism is supposed to be about enjoying oneself, right? As great as travel is, it would be unfortunate if traveling for the sake of it was the only means we had of deriving pleasure from our lives. For example, if you find yourself wanting a break from the city, don’t feel the pressure to go somewhere entirely new and different. Recently, I’ve taken to doing more touristy things in the areas I visit most frequently in order to revive my sense of novelty in these places. What’s great about even the kitschiest attractions is that you can rely on them to tell you a story that will monopolize your attention for a little while. They’re like the guilty pleasure TV show or movie you watch not because you want a challenge, but because you just want to be entertained.
I’m not saying that we have to shun afternoon tea or igloo dining for wax museums and skyscraper observation decks. We should just remember that sometimes, there’s no need to travel for any other reason than to simply enjoy ourselves. As long as we do it responsibly, mindfully, and sustainably, we should travel however we like.
Finally, tourism is a way to celebrate the beauty of walking before we run. As a native Tennessean, if I’d never been shown the National Civil Rights Museum or our Native American burial mounds, and never have learned what it was like to have more questions than answers, I might have never left the country. I might never have chosen to live in Wales, or written a word for Passion Passport. Thinking that the world is your oyster, or a blank canvas waiting for you to make your mark, is presumptuous. Our luck lies in the chance that we all have to interpret it, each in our very own way.
I think a lot of travelers will agree with me when I say that the world is not getting smaller. It’s still as wide, weird, and wonderful as ever, and the constant stress on broadening our horizons as much as possible risks skipping over so much. You can still get that fish out of water feeling anywhere on Earth, if you search for it. There’s an honesty in the guided tours and the extensive lines outside museums that we should never let go.
What are some of your favorite experiences as just a “tourist?” Let us know in the comments below!