It was a pretty straightforward question from the middle-aged Burmese man we met at a small pagoda in Bagan. He was just curious why we asked which temple wouldn’t have a lot of ‘foreigners’ on it for sunset. To him our desire to avoid other people seemed crazy. I tried to think of a way to describe to him our particular mindset, yet I struggled to come up with a logical answer for his simple query.
Is it because tourists ruin culture?
Because tourists don’t show respect? Tourism drives up prices?
They wear Hawaiian shirts?
It can be all of these things (but there’s nothing wrong with Hawaiian shirts). However it seems kind of hypocritical to say I want to avoid tourists when I am actually a tourist myself.
Unfortunately in the backpacker world, there seems to be a huge egocentric movement going on. Where one person’s method of traveling is considered to be less worthwhile compared to someone else’s. Thinking that if your pack is bigger than 20 litres you’ve got it all wrong or if you stayed in a hotel you missed out on seeing the ‘real’ country. Let’s call it the backpacker’s paradox – being a traveller or a tourist.
A traveler a person who is traveling or who often travels. A tourist is a person who is traveling or visiting a place for pleasure.
Is there really a difference? Ask a ‘proper traveler’ and they will tell you they are different because they immerse themselves in the culture, eat the local food, catch public transport. Is a tourist someone who doesn’t do these things? A packaged holiday-maker? Is that what the differentiation comes down to – where you eat?
If you ask me (and you have, by reading this far), the whole ‘traveler vs tourist” argument is bullshit. What makes someone a better traveler than someone else? Do experiences not count if you didn’t hitchhike through a war zone to get to them? Is your Vietnamese noodle dish less delicious because you paid $10 for it instead of the $0.50 I paid? Does sleeping on the dirt floor of a Namibian family’s mud shack make you more extreme than the humble traveller who paid for a comfortable private room? Or is being a better traveller simply about listening to the locals and the environment?
Travel means different things to different people. For some the idea of a 10 day all-inclusive vacation is a dream come true. For others, travel is their life. I belong to the second group, but that doesn’t mean I am doing things the right or wrong way. I know plenty of people who go on short vacations in ecologically sustainable places and do more for a community in two weeks than someone achieves on a two year round-the-world journey.
The only thing I believe is that people need to learn respect and courtesy when they travel, and think about the consequences of their actions. It doesn’t matter which street food vendor you eat at or which mode of transport you took to get there. If you have a proper understanding of these basic things, it doesn’t matter how long you travel for, how and to where. You are already a good traveler.
Of course when many of us travel there is a desire to get off the beaten path. To explore places that not many have seen before. Perhaps it’s a deeply-ingrained exploration trait that is present in most people, myself included. It’s why we take detours down little-known back roads. One reason we go trekking to isolated regions. To see what is out there, away from the masses.
But when we visit an attraction or destination that is known for being a tourist hotspot, we cannot become jaded about it. Tourist attractions are popular for a reason. If you decided to avoid the Pyramids of Egypt because you don’t like stones piled on top of each other, that is your own personal inclination. If you skipped them because there were too many people there, you may be looking too far into the situation. If you thought Angkor Wat was not worth visiting because other people were visiting it too, you need to spend more time admiring the temples themselves.
To me it is ironic that someone would travel to a tourist destination and then complains that there are tourists there.
Tourism infrastructure has been built to make it easier for us to get around. If you want to avoid tourists, don’t visit anywhere that has got infrastructure for them: transport, restaurants, hotels, etc. It is quite simple. If you’ve made the choice to visit somewhere that has all these things setup to make your traveling life easier, you cannot complain that other people are taking advantage of this as well.
Want to avoid tourists? Go to Central Africa. Ride a bicycle across Siberia. Go camping in the Darien Gap. If these places are not your cup of tea, and instead you want to visit London, you’re going to have to accept that there will be tourists.
I met someone who hated the Taj Mahal because it was so packed with people. Did they really think it wouldn’t be? Did they believe that they deserved to have one of the wonders of the world all to themselves?
But who cares if there are tourists there? We are all sharing this beautiful world together. Exploring incredible locations. As a good friend reminded me the other day, we need to keep in mind the ‘one love’ policy. One world, one people, one love. We are lucky enough to be able to travel, so we should not be upset when other people have that opportunity as well.
Christopher McCandless penned, “Happiness only real when shared” on one of his final days alive. How true this is.