If there’s one thing I know about traveling, it’s that tourists are a blight upon the land. With their tendency to stand still on crowded streets, their fanny packs, and ubiquitous selfie sticks, the tourist is a common breed of human that everyone loves to hate. Alongside “rubberneckers” in traffic and politicians of all kinds, the tourist is perhaps one of the most dreaded human subsects. Trust me: I’m a New Yorker.
The tourist is so despised that even when we are tourists, we pretend we’re not. In Paris, we pretend not to be impressed by the beauty and heck—sheer presence—of the Eiffel Tower. We eschew the museums and the big bus tours and ask locals for their favorite restaurants, determined to have the “authentic” experience of the city/town/country. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to immerse yourself in a different culture and allow yourself to be changed by it.
But that doesn’t mean that tourism is bad. It doesn’t mean that tourism is worse. Sure, tourism is different. But here’s why you shouldn’t knock it, shouldn’t act like it’s below you, and why you should, absolutely, be an unapologetic tourist.
There’s a new trend in our hipster-dominated culture to hate things that a lot of people like, simply on principle. So if you see a lot of people getting really excited to pretend they’re trying to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, or to look like they’re touching the tippy-top of the Louvre, then the anti-tourist obviously hates those things and all the people who do it. They’re basic. They’re uneducated, and embarrassing. You’re better than that.
But here’s the thing: It’s fun to be silly, to do things while you’re in a different country that you can’t do at home. It’s fun to do the things that a lot of other people have done, if only to say you did it. You don’t have to do it, and if you don’t want to, that’s fine. But to pretend like it’s not fun is to deny the inner child in you, and the inner child wants to lean on Big Ben with a nonchalant expression, and to share that photo with friends and family.
Forced perspective is fun, guys. Embrace it.
You get to see the big things
Speaking as someone who kind of hates hop on/hop off tours and tour guides in general, I have to admit that these things are sort of necessary if you want to see what makes a city or country iconic. Can you imagine visiting San Francisco and not wanting to see the Golden Gate Bridge? Ride a cable car? Hang out in Haight-Ashbury? If you give up these things just because you don’t want to seem like a tourist, you miss out on getting the “big picture” of a place, the things that define it to an outsider.
If, like me, being a part of a guided tour gives you the heebie-jeebies, do it on your own by buying books and reading up on the history of places before you get there, or during. One of the things you miss by not having a tour guide is getting to learn history and ask questions. If you do your own research, you’ll be able to be your own tour guide, and that’s invaluable.
Stop taking yourself so seriously
Sure, touring isn’t all you should do, and simply shuffling from one place to another, camera perfectly poised, definitely isn’t the best way to immerse yourself in the culture, but touring a place is an essential part of the equation, and you have to be willing to give up your own perception of coolness.
Tourism is embarrassing. Being “that person” who is in awe of the monuments and food and architecture, and who willingly stops on street corners to take photos, isn’t cool. But in order to have a new experience, you can’t be preoccupied with what the locals will think of you. You can’t be preoccupied with trying to fit in, or trying to blend in.
You have to let yourself be amazed, awed, out of your comfort zone. You have to be okay with asking people to take photos of you and your friends in front of the Statue of Liberty, because you’re going to want those later. You have to be okay with people hating you for taking selfies with the Freedom Tower, because it’s there and you see it and it’s wonderful. You have to own the embarrassing status of being an unapologetic tourist, because you are. And that’s okay.
Get the full experience
Being a tourist also means learning when to slow down. Don’t shunt from one place to the next and take photos just for the ‘gram, because the easiest trap to fall into as a tourist is forgetting when to turn off that mode and immerse yourself.
There’s a time to be a tourist, cell phone in hand, and a time to turn off social media and learn to experience the new country/city you’re in. That means talking to local people, trying the food, trying the customs, looking foolish, making terrible mistakes with the language, and letting yourself change because of all of those things.
The best ways to travel often combine a mix of tourism and immersion. Immersion is perhaps more of a transformative experience, but there’s nothing wrong with adding in a healthy level of tourism, and learning to forgive yourself for sacrificing some of your cool points.