The travel community can be snobby about what defines travel, and in turn, travellers. Often, being described as a tourist seems derogatory. Of course it all comes down to perspective. Perhaps you get jealous when friends book a cruise or, if you’re a busy Londoner nipping to Oxford Street, getting stuck behind a group of tourists marvelling at everything may be frustrating. Tourists are regularly blamed when towns are busy and locals slightly inconvenienced, but how did you feel last time you were somewhere new?
It was a conversation with a stranger in the supermarket last week that prompted me to write this post. Living in the most remote town on earth (I think) on the southern coast of Western Australia, some 750 kilometres from Perth, I am surprised each summer when town fills with tourists and, inevitably, the supermarket (which is already understaffed and subject to unreliable deliveries, presumably due to the isolation) is pushed to the brink.
There were about four trolleys queued at each of the five checkouts that were open, and after a long day at work, I admit it was not a situation that filled me with joy. However, when the woman ahead of me in line caught my eye and said, “You must hate tourists,” I was surprised. I smiled and told her I didn’t at all. She gave me a look that said ‘Oh, you’re being polite,’ and I explained,
“We are all tourists somewhere.”
It is true. Even the most experienced traveller must have started somewhere. In fact the more you have travelled the more often you will have experienced being out of your depth in a new location, so it is for this reason I flinch a bit when I hear negativity about tourists.
Travellers and tourists come in many forms and with a variety of objectives. While, personally, I prefer to travel slowly, enjoying a place for a few weeks at a time or moving there and living as an expat, I also make the most of opportunities I get to visit places quickly. In these circumstances I am clearly a tourist; I want to see certain things that are special to that location, I need accommodation and I am more than likely going to get lost.
In stark contrast to the view that tourists are somehow lesser travellers than long-term travellers or backpackers, I prefer to encourage people to be tourists. There is nothing more mind-opening than having your perspective radically altered by an experience you could never have predicted you would have. While I believe it is when you step away from tour buses that you have personal experiences while travelling, visiting somewhere as a tourist is definitely the first step. Travelling will teach you about different norms and beliefs, how kind strangers can be, you may pick up some words in another language or cookery tips. I really think you would struggle not to learn something through travel, even if it is only about how you cope when outside your comfort zone (for many, a bigger lesson than it sounds!)
It’s more than ok to be a tourist. It’s brilliant.
How do you feel about tourists?