What’s Wrong With Tourists? | Why It’s Time to Stop Trying So Hard on Holiday

Explorer. Adventurer. Traveller. Whatever. Can we all just get over ourselves now please?

by Tabi Jackson Gee
Jul 19 2018, 10:44am

I like being a tourist. I like trying to explain something to someone who doesn’t speak the same language as me, or spending a day driving – frustrated at a co-pilot’s substandard navigational skills, or stumbling across a random restaurant and deciding to try it out, despite having no idea of it will give me food poisoning or not.

For me that’s the best thing about being a tourist: you’re always at the mercy of other people. I don’t even mind being ripped off every now and again. It’s part of the package. You’re an idiot abroad and no matter how much you practice your Italian on Duo Lingo, there ain’t nothing you can do about it.

But I’m a dying breed. Being a tourist isn’t cool anymore. Be an explorer. Be an adventurer. Be anything but a tourist. There are even apps for it – Trippin, for instance, hopes to help you get over your fear of being a tourist and ‘get lost’ instead, billing themselves as the anti-trend travel collective.

“You’re an idiot abroad and no matter how much you practice your Italian on Duo Lingo, there ain’t nothing you can do about it”

I like their spirit. But I also think there’s something ridiculous about pretending an app can help you really get to know a place during a seven day holiday. Want to live like a local? Talk to people. Better yet, move there. Don’t spend yet more time on your phone trying to pretend you know the place like the back of your hand.

A crowded beach full of the dreaded ‘tourists’. Photo: Fancycrave

It was the Romans who invented holidays. During periods of peace they’d up sticks and head off not just for a few weeks, but for years at a time. Now that’s how you get to know another place. That’s how you lose the tag of ‘tourist’.

More recently the Victorians found great pleasure if venturing to far flung lands and coming back armed with new ideas – and lots of new ferns – you can thank them for our current house plant obsession.

But the difference between the Romans, the Victorians and us is simple: they viewed travel as a luxury. Now, we’re so accustomed to being able to get on a plane whenever we want that we don’t. Instead its a status symbol. And we expect so, so much from it.

The global travel industry was valued at an immodest $7.6 trillion in 2016 alone – and admittedly when we do travel, it’s for very different reasons. Some of us travel to learn, or to adventure, or to hang out in foreign places. Others travel for sun, sex and sand. And it’s this difference which has begun to be exploited by these millennial-focused travel businesses trying to capture our young, impressionable hearts and minds.

By definition a tourist is “a person who is travelling or visiting a place for pleasure.” Now, the only kind of travel I know that isn’t exclusively ‘for pleasure’ is for business. And maybe visiting family, depending on whether you like yours or not.

A brilliant JRR Tolkein quote – that’s been entirely misappropriated.

But why has the word ‘tourist’ itself become such a dirty word? Is it because it implies standing out, being lost, taking up too much of the pavement with your mini entourage of iPhone wielding friends and large wheelie suitcases? Is it because it means you don’t belong, that you’re off your usual turf, that you don’t look like one of the locals, like a little fish out of water?

But this just shows how quickly we can get used to something. Even twenty years ago travel was more dangerous and more exclusive. And for lots of people the freedom to travel at all is a hard won right. It takes money, independence and a confidence in other countries’ hospitality to hop on a plane and see the world. Being able to be a tourist is a luxury in itself.

Now we take this for granted – and there’s an element of snobbery around being a ‘tourist.’ If you’re a Brit it conjures up images of lobster-red lads on the beach with a pint of Stella in one hand and a burger in the other. Intrepid millennial travellers don’t get on a two hour flight to an all-inclusive resort. They fly further, they experience things.

The fact that we’re damaging the planet beyond repair every time we get on a plane is brushed over with the glamour and kudos of going to an destination we can brag about when we get home. Listen, I’m sure it was great and you learnt a lot about yourself. But just because you went to Indonesia instead of the Costa del Sol, it doesn’t make you a better person.

Classic instagram fodder in Bali. Photo: Artem

It’s easy to see how we got here. There are too many of us travelling too much of the time; at some point, something had to give. The world has been broken open in the hands of people wanting more, and different, experiences to what is available in the obvious, easy places. ‘Authentic’ experiences are hard – if not impossible – to come by.

So companies have started to offer you the chance not just to go on holiday, but to ‘get lost.’ One budget airline is currently offering competition winners the chance to win two seats on a flight, with no idea where they’re going. The trip includes two nights free stay in this unknown destination. Includes being the operative word; this is a package holiday, wrapped up in a new way by a clever marketing team to suit today’s experience-led (if you believe the hype) millennial traveller.

And we’re falling for it. In a desperate bid to forget that we spend the other 300 days of the year sat behind a screen we buy into the idea that we can improve ourselves and better our lives by spending £3,000 on a holiday with a jam-packed itinerary. Our increasingly connected world has made us obsessed with getting the most out of everything, just because we can. Our trips are over-planned and over-priced because we think if we don’t do it all we’re missing out.

What we’re forgetting is that “experiences” don’t always come with a price tag and a label on them. So go travel, go explore, go have an adventure. Take photos. Get lost (the right way: by accident). Have misadventures too. But remember, at the end of the day, you are just another tourist. And there’s nothing wrong with that.