Originally published in Travel + Leisure, January 2009; finalist for National Magazine Award for Columns & Commentary; reprinted in "Best American Travel Writing 2010" and "Best American Magazine Writing 2010"
I ONCE GOT INTO A HEATED ARGUMENT with a friend over the hot-button issue of cannoli. The topic was Mike’s Pastry, a popular stop for bus tourists and presidential candidates in Boston’s North End. My friend’s problem was not so much with the cannoli (which he called “flaky” and “cheesy”) as with a prominently displayed photograph of Bill Clinton gobbling up the same. “How can you like this place?” Alex ranted. “It’s like a funnel siphoning the souls out of gullible tourists.”
“Really? And I thought they made the filling with ricotta.”
My own argument was also less about Mike’s cannoli (which I call “Proustian” and “delicious”) than with Alex’s senseless counterintuition: he refused to set foot in Mike’s Pastry because Bill Clinton and bus tours went there. When his own grandparents had come to town asking about “that bakery the president likes,” Alex Shanghai’ed them across Hanover Street to Modern Pastry—a no-frills shop serving an adequate cannoli, minus the celebrity head shots. God forbid they be suckered into the sublime, “touristy” rendition at Mike’s.
I admit I’m prone to thinking like Alex when I travel. Maybe you are, too. We’ll come upon this fabulous Japanese izakaya or Czech jazz club or Parisian zinc bar—some corner of the universe that seems to have been created to our own specifications—and then, suddenly, all these other people show up. And then more of them. And then still more. Ohhhhhh, this is all wrong, we think; this just won’t do. Our beloved discovery is exposed as a tourist trap.
Yet recently I got to wondering: maybe it was the worrying that was all wrong. What did I really care about the presence or absence of fellow travelers, or the character thereof? Was this precious zinc bar so fragile it couldn’t withstand the affections of a hundred other likeminded visitors? Perhaps it wasn’t the place that needed saving, but my outlook. I had become unhealthily obsessed with “tourists.”
You know how politicians are always saying this is no time to engage in politics? Well, what politics is to politics, tourist is to tourism. Even tourists use the term with derision. And what has touristy come to mean? Ignoble, tacky, cloying, ersatz; something that exists for the enjoyment of outsiders, bearing little relation to the local culture. For travel writers, touristy is the ultimate slander. Flea-ridden flophouse is less damning. We’re forever distinguishing between hip travelers and hapless, sheeplike tourists. We parse the world’s offerings into things tourists do versus things “locals” do (as if the mere act of residing somewhere confers a sense of style). The whole dichotomy has devolved into a culture war.
For all the times I’ve indulged that facile distinction, I offer my apologies. And I ask of my fellow travel writers: can we finally put this ridiculous term to rest? Because our fixation on what is and what isn’t “touristy”—and who is or isn’t a “tourist”—is frankly ruining our vacations. In the urge to legitimize, singularize, and privatize our travel experiences, we trade the proverbial hell of other people for the hell of trying in vain to avoid other people. When we’re perpetually on guard against other tourists and so-called touristy things, we wind up holding everything else at bay as well—including the people and places we ostensibly came to see. That’s a terribly cool way to travel, and when I say cool I mean chilly, and when I say chilly I mean obnoxious. You turn up your nose to spite your suitcase.
In this age of mass tourism, high-end travel has become all about exclusivity—seeking out isolated places and rarefied encounters that only a lucky few can enjoy. (It was easier back in the day: when Delacroix visited Tangier there were no bus tours to flee from.) By this equation, the merit of an experience corresponds inversely to the number of people we’re obliged to share it with—and, more importantly, what sort of people they are. Sure, certain places are so extraordinary we forgive them their teeming hordes. (No traveler could honestly dimiss the Terra Cotta Warriors at Xi’an, Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal, or the British Museum as “tourist traps.”) But when it comes to the second-tier sites, or choosing where to have dinner, or which show to see that evening, the old habits kick in, and we go out of our way to leave the hoi polloi behind. Exclusivity threatens to become an end in itself, wherein we base our itineraries not on what’s actually worth seeing but on where other Americans aren’t.
For most of my life I was a firm believer in independent travel, thinking it the only route to the real unfiltered stuff. I eschewed group experiences like the plague, running from cruises, luaus, dinner shows, and, most of all, anything incorporating the word “tour”: carriage tours, walking tours, eight-seat tandem-bike tours, gondola tours, Duck Boat tours, harbor tours, sunset harbor tours, ghost tours, foliage tours….To me they all sounded insufferable.
My mistake. Since being cajoled into what turned out to be a brilliant London Walks ramble through Hampstead Heath, I’ve fully come around. Some of my best travel moments have entailed being herded around with a bunch of strangers—on a Big Onion tour of Prohibition-Era New York; on a twenty-person nature trek in the Malaysian jungle; on a U.S. Park Service stroll through New Orleans’ French Quarter, under the tutelage of an erudite ranger in a funny hat. It struck me that independent travelers, so adamant about seeing the world on their own terms, tend not to interact with People Who Know Things, and therefore tend not to learn about, say, the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. (Seriously, Google that.) I lived in Boston for years, yet the first time I heard of this sticky and surreal episode was on—he said proudly—a Duck Boat tour with my nephew.
Being a tourist in the literal sense can give you access to experiences you wouldn’t have otherwise—experiences that aren’t so much exclusive as inclusive, drawing their appeal from the company of other people. While independent travel offers the tantalizing possibility of disappearing into a place, nametagless, and acting the part of the vaunted native, that usually goes only so far. Traveling solo through India I always hoped some local family might invite me home for chai and divulge all the secrets of their culture. Never happened. Last year a couple I know took a Road Scholar tour of Rajasthan with a dozen other Americans; every day they shared tea or a home-cooked meal with Rajasthanis, several of whom they still correspond with. If that’s “touristy,” somebody strap a Nikon around my neck.
The problem with the term “touristy” is that it applies to a whole lot of things that aren’t—things that are merely guilty of being popular with out-of-towners. The leatherbound guest directory at New Orleans’ stodgy Ritz-Carlton recommends a night at Vaughn’s bar with Kermit Ruffins & the BBQ Swingers. If I were a hotel guest directory, I would, too: Ruffins’ incendiary Thursday sets at Vaughn’s are a favorite even among (ahem) locals. Should it matter that a bunch of people from Minneapolis and Osaka have discovered this as well? When something inherently cool is adopted by tourists, does that render it uncool? In Reykjavik, Iceland, the Islandia shop is exactly what you’d expect of a state-sponsored tourist emporium, packed with souvenir puffin dolls, diecast Viking figurines, and overpriced wool sweaters for your dad. They also sell the complete discographies of Bjork, Sigur Ros, and the Sugarcubes. So: is Bjork “touristy”? Is Kermit Ruffins? No. The answer is no.
Hardcore travelers would instintively dismiss a place like Bukhara as a barnful of tourist cattle. Every New Delhi guidebook recommends this boisterous kebab restaurant, which is why it’s always packed to the exposed rafters. Whole planeloads of tour groups come through Bukhara each evening, and guess what: they’re having a way better meal than you are tonight. The chicken and lamb kebabs are easily the best I’ve tasted, not a word to my Iranian mother-in-law. After one visit Bukhara shot to the top of my “Really Is” List—as in, “No, no, it really is that good.” I laughed and thought of my old friend Alex when I spotted a laminated card touting the house specialties: The Presidential Platter and The Chelsea Platter, the former named after Alex’s North End cannoli nemesis, who dined here during a state visit to India in 2000. Judging from the proportions of their namesake platters, Bill and Chelsea Clinton not only took the village, they devoured all its livestock. Yet the crowd at Bukhara is so consumed with enjoying themselves that one can imagine the Clintons not causing a stir. British honeymooners, Elderhostel groups from Sarasota, Kuwaiti businessmen, Indian clans with toddlers in tow—all are having a blast. And in the ultimate mark of a proud tourist haunt, every last patron is wearing a gingham bib.
Considering that only 28% of Americans have passports, you have to hand it to anyone who has the wherewithal to travel in the first place, no matter what they’re wearing or how often they barge into your photo of the Pont Neuf. Rather than resenting your countrymen for the audacity of choosing the same vacation as you, why not tip your hat to them for getting here at all? Would that more of us had the time or money to do it.
Meanwhile, the cynical traveler can arguably learn, or re-learn, something from the wide-eyed “tourist”—from his sense of wonder, and the unmitigated joy he brings to those top-of-the-Eiffel-Tower, crest-of-the-Cyclone, edge-of-the-Grand-Canyon moments that all travelers, no matter how jaded, long to have. I don’t mean embracing your inner shorts-and–tube-socks or dining at TGI Fridays in Bangkok. I mean surrendering to the inherent awkwardness of being a stranger in a foreign land, yet still losing yourself in a place along with your self-consciousness. I mean letting go the suspicion and defensiveness and allowing for a genuine response, even if that response is as banal as “Wow.” I mean enjoying a Central Park carriage ride or a London walking tour or a sunset cruise on San Francisco Bay without second-guessing whether you should be doing so. I mean finally quieting that nagging inner voice that asks, Dare I eat a peach? Or are peaches just a little too….touristy? •