Wear the “tourist” badge with pride

Francis Tapon being a tourist - observing everything in Latvia with a map in handIt’s a pity that the word tourist has a negative connotation. It should be a compliment and something to aspire to. Instead, people make statements like: “I hate going there, it’s so touristy,” or “Tourists are so annoying,” or “I’m not a tourist, I’m a traveler.”

It’s time we transform the negative tourist connotation into a positive one.

First, things are touristy for good reason—they’re often amazing in some way. There’s a reason why the Louvre is so touristy and the museum in Lyon is not. It’s because the Louvre is better. The Golden Gate Bridge is touristy because it’s more breathtaking than the bridge in Harrisburg. Similarly, the Grand Canyon attracts more tourists than the Great Divide Basin because the Grand Canyon is far more spectacular. We can have pedantic debates about beauty being in the eye of the beholder, but I hope you will understand the point. Tourists are smart and well-informed and so they spend their time, money, and energy going to extraordinary places. They would be stupid to do otherwise, so let’s stop saying that tourists are stupid and that touristy places are lame.

Second, tourists are more alive than a local resident. When a tourist visits Prague, she walks around like a child, observing every building, every sign, and every scent. The local, on the other hand, walks with tunnel vision, oblivious to the world around him. He’s a zombie in his own city. Ask the local about a building, a statue, or the city’s history, and you often get a shrug and “I dunno.” Ask the tourist, and she has the answer because she read it in her guidebook. Or at least, she’ll be curious to know the answer.

Most locals know surprisingly little about their towns. They know how to get to their job, their three favorite restaurants, a few major streets and stores. That’s it.

Meanwhile, the tourist fastidiously explores every nook and cranny of a foreign city, absorbing it like a sponge. Tourists study maps while the local often doesn’t even own one because he knows enough to get around and isn’t curious to explore unknown parts of his city.

Ask a local about his town, and it’s amazing how ignorant they are. One day, for example, I asked a guy in San Mateo, California if he knew where the Kinko’s store was. He didn’t. I asked where he lived. He was a local. Before he left, I told him that he was standing right underneath the sign for Kinko’s.

I didn’t realize how little I knew about the things to do in San Francisco until I began traveling. When I returned to my hometown, I looked at it with brand new eyes, with the eyes of a tourist. Suddenly I noticed and appreciated its Victorian architecture. I understood why Haight Street is special, why our steep hills are outrageous, and why our gay neighborhoods are unusual.

Third, locals who live in a “touristy” town should love tourists, because without tourists the locals might not be able to live there. Every year tourists pour billions of dollars in regions throughout the world. Without tourists, Venice would already have sunk into its lagoon. Without tourists, San Francisco’s cable cars would have stopped long ago, its Golden Gate Bridge would not be so golden, and Alcatraz would be a crumbling ruin. Even if your job doesn’t directly depend on tourism, many of the services you enjoy exist because tourists contribute billions into the local economy through the taxes they pay. Furthermore, you wouldn’t have such a great selection of restaurants, stores, and events if tourists weren’t there to use them.

So why do tourists have such a bad reputation? They sometimes do stupid things like walk into the middle of street to take a photo of a cable car in San Francisco, they drive on the wrong side of the road in England, and they enter a mosque in shorts.

However, locals do plenty of stupid things too, like jaywalking across a busy street, running stop signs, and defacing a mosque.

In short, humans do stupid things. And it’s easier to forgive a tourist for making mistakes than forgiving a local. Instead of getting angry at a tourist who does something stupid, give her credit for getting out of the house and exploring. Remind yourself that we’re all locals on this planet.

Finally, before you claim that you’re not a tourist, think of whatever city you traveled to. When you went to Paris, did you not gaze at the Eiffel Tower? In conclusion, next time someone bitches about tourists, defend the tourist. Educate others that tourists are noble creatures that we should all aspire to be.

This is an excerpt from the Czech Republic chapter of The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us. The book is available at my shop! And if you're like me, someone who was born and raised in San Francisco, 

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