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Photo: Andrew Ciscel

Who, a travel anthropologist might ask, are these people calling themselves travelers, and what do they think? What are their beliefs, customs, rituals, myths?

Stepping into an anthropological frame of mind, I’d like to take a crack at debunking a few of the myths that seem to cling to traveler consciousness, in the hope of getting beyond the same tired givens and conversations.

Before travelers become too easy to pin down, maybe we can create new variations on the myths that often form the center of the traveler worldview.

Myth #1: Cheaper is Better: Sleeping On a Filthy Mattress in a Hotel that Smells Like Urine Makes You A Better Traveler

Photo: Morrow Less

To a certain extent, this is true. The further towards comfort, familiarity, and privacy one moves, the closer to a globalized and sanitized version of culture one gets:

  • Take a private taxi in China vs. a local minibus and save yourself the experience of peeing on the side of the road in the rain with 15 other people.
  • Eat at a McDo in Mexico City and spare yourself the havoc the chilaquiles might wreck on your stomach, and the hectic experience of securing a table, flagging down the waitress, and briefly being the confused gringo at the center of attention.
  • Stay at the luxury hotel in Malaysia and save yourself the buckets of sweat under a lethargic ceiling fan and the view of massive red underwear hanging on the balcony.

But then again, the McDo might turn out to be the chosen make out joint for Chinese teenagers. The luxury hotel might serve the most amazing Malay lahksa you’ve ever tasted, and give you the energy to go on a five-day trekking expedition through the jungle.

The private taxi might let you relax enough to notice the hills of pines wrapped in fog, the factories and the barefoot children outside of them, the soot that coats the walls of every town you pass.

Perhaps cost shouldn’t be the defining factor here-perhaps it should be contact and awareness.

Does a traveler having beers with other travelers every night on a hostel roof necessarily learn more than a tourist having a conversation with a Malay businessman over a plate of satay?

Does splashing out from time to time mean one is betraying some sort of inherent travel pact to suffer in the name of understanding? I don’t think I could travel standing on a Chinese train for 20 hours, but I don’t think that means it’s impossible to comprehend the fact that the majority of migrant workers do just that.

The key, I believe, is balance – not self-righteous, self-flagellation, or dependence on luxury and comfort that one grows immune to daily life in a place.

Myth #2: More is Less: Places Are Ruined by Tourism

I remember reading an article by a very well-known travel writer, who bemoaned the arrival of “the tourists” in Laos and reminisced about the “penniless” woman serving him, the sole traveler, a cup of juice in the street so many years ago.

He went on to rant, in typical fashion, about how places had been colonized by tourists on the banana pancake circuit.


Now, I’m not going to slip so far into relativism as to say that eating banana pancakes with a mishmash of Americans and Australians is just as “authentic” and eye-opening a travel experience as, say, sipping noodle soup in a dimly lit local joint with a Lao family.

When tourism begins to colonize a place to the point where local culture is nearly replaced by travel culture (hostels, internet cafes, banana pancakes), I find that troubling.

And yet, isn’t there a paradox for travelers here? In the idea that, while travel is a magically transformative experience that should be undertaken by (almost) everyone, and undertaken cheaply and independently and “off-the-beaten-track”, only they, the select few, truly have the right to experience and understand the off-the-beaten-track places?

There is an egotistical assumption here, that an elite group is privileged in its appreciation and understanding of travel and therefore should be uniquely allowed to experience it and decide its reach and limits.

They avoid being tourists; they avoid polluting an area with their culturally different presence and their gaze and needs as outsiders, because…because they suffered more on longer bus rides to get to more distant villages? Because they, and only they, appreciate the real, the authentic, the down and dirty of travel? Because they’ve never held 9-5 jobs?

A host of factors seem to select someone to be part of this group who bemoans the arrival of the other, the tourist.

And once a traveler of this way of thinking identifies with a place and starts the ranting about the arrival of tourism, a particular imperialist tone creeps into the discourse: the traveler somehow takes ownership of the place, waxing poetic about the need to protect it, to keep it poor, isolated, exotic.

A Fruitless Debate

This tendency of travelers to berate tourism as some sort of tragic, corrupting presence, is blatantly ironic and, in my opinion, fairly useless.

It encourages an irresponsible and selfish way of thinking that says, “Get there now, before they spoil it!” It is the rhetoric of a club of wealthy explorers who are in a race to be more exclusive, more exotic, the first; to control, intellectually if not physically, an area by determining what it should and should not be and who should or should not be allowed in.

Instead of focusing uniquely on the traveler vs. tourist dichotomy-a well-worn debate dealt with eloquently in this article- why not emphasize the way places can retain the culture that makes them unique and attractive to travelers in the first place? And the ways in which locals can have the maximum say possible in how tourism affects their communities?

This expands the dialogue from vain bitching among travelers to constructive conversation between the people who are actually being visited-the “hosts,” as anthropologists call them, and the visitors, or “guests.”

Myth #3: The More, the Better: The Longer, Farther, and Harder You Travel, the More You Learn

A travel conscript, as Claire Moss called it in her excellent article on the subject, is that hostel-goer with a weary look, who spends hours wistfully writing e-mails back home, who keeps going, boarding another tour bus, eating another plateful of something strange and spicy, sleeping in another strange bed, and counting the days, accumulating…what?

Notches on a stick? Anecdotes? Factoid after factoid? Bits and pieces of language, a “thank you” in Indonesian here, a “cheers” in Hungarian there?

Photo: Karen Sheets

There is a fine line between the thrill of creating new routines in new places – the walk with a cup of coffee through the strange half-familiar streets each morning, the hello to the same juice vendor, the mini-life in a foreign land-and the monotony of going through the routine of traveling, backpack, bus, bed, backpack, bus, bed, beer, backpack, bus, bed.

One can easily give way to the other.

I have felt that weariness several times and known, okay, enough. After awhile, traveling can become a 9-5 affair, just like sticking in the old punch card at the office.

It becomes a routine that blinds just like any other, carried out with a vague sense of boredom and repetition and obligation. The days pass more as sun-filled, distant films than as actual, fully realized experiences. There will always be another exotic destination, another bed in another dorm, another beer in another bar, another cultural event, tour, park, museum.

And when they turn into one spectacle, one forced journal entry after another, they are just as rote as tedious lessons recited in a lecture in which you’re half-asleep and hung over.

Sometimes, stopping in one place for awhile, or turning one’s travel eyes upon home, can be more rewarding than going through the motions for months, years on end.

As sites like Matador and the vastly growing array of travel literature can testify, the travel movement which has grown up in the past several decades has its own priorities, belief systems, and myths, just like the more static communities that have been the traditional focus of anthropologists.

Can we dissect ourselves anthropologically from the inside out? And, when we need to, remake our own myths?


Got strong opinions on the “Banana Pancake” trail? Join this discussion in the Matador forums: Is the “Lonely Planet Trail” really so bad? For more on Myth #3, check out Hal Amen’s article, Sounding Retreat: Why Seasoned Travelers Aren’t Afraid to Call it Quits. And for one Matador member’s perspective on the traveler/tourist debate, read Jay Martin’s blog post, The Travel Spectrum.



About The Author

Sarah Menkedick

Matador Contributing Editor Sarah Menkedick has traveled, lived, and taught on five continents, and is constantly in pursuit of spicy food, dark beer, and new places to run. She is an MFA student at the University of Pittsburgh.

  • Tim Patterson

    I LOVE this article. Favorite line:

    "This tendency of travelers to berate tourism as some sort of tragic, corrupting presence, is blatantly ironic and, in my opinion, fairly useless."

  • Carolina

    Like the discussions this opens up. For myth number 2, I'd like to add that it is selfish to say a place is more authentic, when its citizens are penniless. I was born in South America, and my family had to migrate to the U.S. to not be penniless. I want my family in my home country, to lead more financially stable, self-sufficient lives. They are not going to necessarily do this by being photo ops.

    • Kirsten

      Oh god, I TOTALLY agree with this point! I always thought that! Why does an “authentic” experience for you mean that an entire area has to remain poor, starving, or unable to access quality education? How come you as a traveler cannot feel fulfilled unless you’re in some tiny village in the middle of the Andes or Nepal, looking out at all the suffering people living on less than a dollar a day, thinking “Wow, I’m the only traveler here. What a cool experience to go tell my friends about.”

      Of course we all want to experience solitude and unique things in life and in travel but to hope for an area to remain poor and “untouched” is a selfish thing. I’m sad that in places like Playa del Carmen, Mexico, half the population in town seems to work in the tourist trade but you know what? I’m happy they have the opportunity to have jobs, to meet people from all over the world, to learn new languages and to maybe send their kids to school and have food on the table every night. It’s egotistical to want the locals to remain in hopeless situations just so you can experience being the only tourist in town :/

  • Eva

    Thanks for this, Sarah! You've clearly articulated some thoughts that have been banging around in my head (in a more muddled state) for a long time.

  • Chris

    Thank you for this fantastic article. As a fellow traveler, I think you've hit upon a number of common myths of traveling. The first section on the cheaper the better especially resonated with me. Your point of the experience being something that is made up by contact and awareness of the local situation I think is something that many traveler overlook when falling for this myth and something that I was able to overcome through a work abroad experience. It truly is the connection, awareness, and conversations you have with the locals that make traveling the rewarding experience that is can and I think should be.

  • James

    Thanks Sarah, great article! I wince when I meet these "I'm a traveler not a tourist" type. You summed it up beautifully with:

    "only they, the select few, truly have the right to experience and understand the off-the-beaten-track places".

  • Motherofalltrip

    Excellent article. As someone who travels with children, I'm especially sensitive to the issues you raise here, especially the first and last. When you have kids, you don't necessarily need to stay in luxury resorts, but you aren't going to be backpacking and staying in fleabag joints either. And with regards to the last issue, I say that travel is in the eye of the beholder. If you define travel as only long trips to places far away, then you will of course get tired of doing it all the time. For me travel is also smaller adventures to places closer to home that either surprise me or take me out of my routine context.

    Thanks for reminding us so eloquently that there are as many different ways to travel as there are travelers.

  • Hal

    Terrific article, Sarah. I agree that for those of us who define ourselves as travelers, it's worthwhile to analyze what that means, what it should, and what it shouldn't. Also, as one of the brightest up-and-coming stars in the online travel world, Matador has made a great decision to play host to the debate.

  • soulglider

    “There is an egotistical assumption here, that an elite group is privileged in its appreciation and understanding of travel and therefore should be uniquely allowed to experience it and decide its reach and limits.”

    This has a profound meaning for me, as I have experienced these feelings myself. This is a very well written article, thank you. I just caught myself thinking this way about new travelers / students in China.

    I wrote a blog post a little while ago about money and culture experience, although from a different perspective.

  • VagabonderZ

    Excellent post Sarah…I would say that this mindset is directly proportional to maturity, which is generally related to age and also attached to awareness. As we pile on the years and experience we are opened up to new and different ideas all the time and usually (hopefully) tend to become more well-rounded human beings and travelers.

  • jessie voigts

    brilliant article – i have worked with students studying abroad for years, as well as have traveled widely myself. it seems to be a phase people go through, before becoming more interculturally aware and expanding our world view. brava!

  • April

    Thanks for the article–I feel better now. Many people believe those myths (even me) and because I won't stay in crappy hotels, usually end up around tourists, and don't have the option currently to travel for long periods of time, I didn't feel like a "real" traveler. After reading your article, I feel closer to being a "real" traveler. Gracias!

  • kinjal

    a really genuine article !

  • Nikolas Tjhin

    Great article! Very genuine, and one that truly rings a bell. :)

  • Manumitany

    You put great points out there, Sarah. The romantic notions of travel that some people have can be arrogant and belittling of others at times, and I think it's an expression of each person's own world view on traveling. There are, for each of us, ways of traveling or touring that we don't appreciate as much as another. It doesn't mean that the other mode of traveling is wrong, or bad. It just means that we prefer something else. To each their own, and let there be more joy for it!

  • brian

    Point 3 I absolutely agree with. If you've been moving locations frequently on a trip, it can become a blur of airports and hostels. I was at Heathrow and the Immigration Officer asked what country was I in last night. I COULD NOT REMEMBER! I was on the way home thankfully and he let me pass. He took pity on me.

  • Nick Rowlands

    Fantastic article! I would add a myth #4: the myth that real travelers get ill on their travels, and that the only way to truly appreciate a place is to deposit the contents of your guts over a bathroom floor somewhere!

  • Colin Wright

    VERY well written article. I especially like Myth #2…oh the hypocrisy of some writers :)

  • Amanda is a traveling photographer

    Great article. This comment will also serve as my official Matador confession that I stay in hotels 90% of the time I travel.

  • Ekaterina

    Hi Sarah,

    very nice article! I like your idea of balance!
    It’s true that sleeping on a matrass with rats doesn’t make a very nice travel experience. Saying that, i am writing from Lanzarote from a four-star hotel, which i got at a ridiculous price:)

  • Kathy Noltze

    Agree absolutely–and this from a long-term travel industry professional who has sent my share of paupers and well-to-do abroad. It’s how well you do in getting what you want out of the travel experience that determines if the trip was a success. If you don’t live in a flophouse at home, why would you want to live in one abroad? We are not more authentic if we compromise our lifestyles.

    Thanks for the great article

  • NomadicTexan

    I’m a little late to the party, but this article is fantastic. It makes me think of this quote:

    “…no matter how you travel, how ‘successful’ your tour, or fore-shortened, you always learn something and learn to change your thoughts.”
    -Jack Kerouac

    And in the end, that’s really all that matters, I suppose. As long as that is your goal.

  • Jed Worthen

    Agree! One of the best articles i have ever read on the Matador Network family of sites/blogs.

  • Rebecca Yuska

    Interesting travel article…

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