The Eiffel Tower in Paris, Times Square in New York City, The Pyramids at Giza, The Great Wall of China, and The Merlion in Singapore all have one thing in common: They’re notorious tourist spots.
Every year, hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of people flock to these destinations to take almost the exact same picture and upload it to their social media accounts.
But as of late, there’s been a slight pushback on these tourist hotspots. There’s been a trend of walking the unbeaten path when traveling anywhere, which is a good thing. It gives underrated spots deserved attention, and it also helps out the community it belongs to economically with the influx of people.
But the obsession with the obscure and hidden gems have also led to people who look down on touristy spots.
I am not afraid to admit that I am not a traveler. I am a tourist.
Traveler versus tourist
By definition, a tourist is simply someone traveling to a different place for personal interest or pleasure. There’s a lot of negative stereotyping when it comes to the word “tourist.” Most people imagine an obnoxiously loud (and often disrespectful) person wearing a floral print shirt with a beige hat and a gigantic camera in hand.
While that may be true in some instances, that’s not a faithful portrayal of every single tourist. If we stay faithful to what the dictionary says, there’s no mention of floppy hats or being rude to servers. It’s simply a person going somewhere else for fun.
Another present-day definition of a tourist that deviates from the original meaning is someone who visits high-traffic areas of interest, much like the ones mentioned previously. In short, tourist traps.
“Travelers,” on the other hand, fully avoid those locations. Instead of seeing the most popular sights in a certain place, they opt to “live like the locals do” and try to find the most “authentic” representation of a specific locale.
These types of people think that tourist traps are soulless cash grabs that are a waste of time and effort. In line with this thinking, they also have the perception that people who flock to these destinations don’t know any better—and can even think that “tourists” are lesser than they are.
While neither being a “tourist” or a “traveler” are intrinsically negative, it’s the evolution in perception of these two concepts that have changed how we view them.
In popular culture, a tourist is someone who only scratches the surface of a certain place by simply being there and taking pictures, while a traveler is someone who looks for the most honest representation of where they’re traveling to.
But who are we to judge what’s authentic to someone?
In search of the “real” thing
The main criticism of touristy spots is that they’re unfaithful representations of a certain place. In some cases, they were built with the sole purpose of attracting people for money. In others, the popularity (or notoriety) of the place has eclipsed its original purpose and make it difficult for people who live or work there to function due to the influx of people.
Locals have every right to complain about tourists making life more difficult (believe me, I do it all the time), but they also understand that these people are simply visiting and spending their hard-earned money.
While there is a lot of truth in tourist spots being cash grabs, some visitors have been saving up their whole lives just to see it in person. To them, it’s as real as any experience can get. An authentic experience is what we make of it.
Sometimes, authenticity isn’t even much of a consideration. Some people are just traveling for fun, but even in these places where a shiny veneer sits on top of everything, the truth of the place can still be found in the people you interact with.
The joys of being a tourist
Beyond the big crowds, long lines, and brow-raising prices, visiting “tourist traps” can actually be quite a ride.
There’s something beautiful about sharing the feeling of awe and wonder with thousands of other people in Times Square on Thursday at 4 p.m. Or drunkenly traipsing through the stalls of Chinatown (whichever one it may be) and checking out the over-priced knickknacks and kitschy souvenirs.
We can sometimes forget that travel isn’t a right—it’s a privilege. It’s something we save up and work hard for. If people enjoy throwing their money at a double-decker evening tour of Seoul, so be it.
There’s authenticity in everything (yes, even when you’re taking corny pictures by the Merlion statue in Singapore). Instead of taking these tourist spots at face value, we can dig deeper by actually talking to the locals who work there or really learn about the place beyond what the shiny decorative plaques say.
We just have to look beyond the surface and truly be in the moment.
If you still hate tourist spots, that’s cool. Just don’t rain on my floral shirt, floppy hat, gigantic camera toting parade.