I‘m so over the whole traveler vs. tourist debate. By definition, a traveler is “someone who is traveling or who travels often,” and a tourist is “a person who travels to a place for pleasure.” Both of those sound nice to me, but if you’d like to expand on those terms, give Merriam-Webster a call.
Every traveler has done something “touristy” in their lifetime, so maybe we can all quit ragging on the term. Besides, there are plenty of times when I’m not at all ashamed of being a tourist.
1. When you’ve been dying to see / eat / buy something.
When I’m in Brussels, I’m going to have chocolate. And I’m not going to pass up a chance to visit Machu Picchu just because it’s the #1 attraction in Peru. We travel for a reason, and these reasons are usually inspired by things we’ve read about, seen photos of, or have watched on television.
So if you’ve always wanted to go on a gondola ride in Venice because you equated it with this idea of romance, even though some hardcore “traveler” said they wouldn’t be caught dead doing so, fuck it. You’re doing yourself a disservice if you limit your travel experiences based on what other people deem overrated.
2. When it will help impact the community in a positive way.
Kente cloth is expensive, and usually saved for special ceremonies in Ghana, so buying it is a pretty touristy thing to do. But my Ghanaian friend’s uncle was a kente weaver, and he created beautiful, custom fabrics for my friends and me. We later went to the Arts Centre Market of Accra, where they had cheaper, factory-made kente cloth. My friends felt ripped off, but I felt good knowing all of the profits had gone back to Addae’s family directly (and that the fabric was actually made in Ghana, not imported from China).
If the attraction has a positive impact on the environment and community where you’re traveling, don’t worry about being a tourist.
3. When it will educate you.
Auschwitz comes to mind. I don’t think many people would call a concentration camp “overrated” and “touristy,” no matter how crowded it feels, how expensive the entry ticket may be, or how quickly the tour guides zip you through the grounds.
Museums, heritage sites, and guided tours are all ways to experience the history and culture of a place that you won’t necessarily get by sitting in a coffee shop and “people watching.” You could read a book about it, but listening to someone talk about how Stirling Castle was built, and seeing the structure and the artifacts themselves, is much more interesting.
4. When it’s something you enjoy, wherever you are.
I’m a zipline fanatic. If I could set up a zipline in my backyard, I would. So when I hear there’s a place to zipline in whatever city I’m stationed in, I do it. Ziplining isn’t “authentic” to any culture really, and you won’t find any locals partaking in the adrenaline rush beyond the folks who work there. But ziplining through Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains was different than ziplining through the rainforest in Costa Rica, and very different from the ropes course I explored in western Connecticut.
It’s important to choose these activities responsibly, though — everybody likes having sex, but if the only way you can get some action is by contributing to the local sex-traffic ring, you probably need to reevaluate the reason you’re traveling to begin with.
5. When your curiosity is piqued.
If I want to know what McDonald’s tastes like in a foreign country, I don’t give a crap how “touristy” I look while devouring Le Big Mac in France. If something makes you wonder, “What if?” just go for it.
“What if I meet the man of my dreams at the top of the Empire State Building?” “What if I snap an awesome photo of the Prague Castle from a cruise on the Vltava River?” “What will happen if I drop some extra change into the guitar case of this street busker in Buenos Aires?” Some of the most exciting and fun experiences I’ve had abroad came from going through these exact motions.
6. When the locals are cool with it too.
The Nathan’s hot dog stand at Coney Island is not the only place to get hot meat on the boardwalk, but I stand in the long line in the broiling sun with travelers from around the world because Nathan’s hot dogs are the bomb. If you’re in Rio for Carnival, you’re definitely doing something touristy. It’s okay, because there are people coming from other parts of Brazil to experience it as well.
7. When you have a hunch you won’t be back.
There are definitely countries I have no desire to visit again. It doesn’t mean I had a horrible experience, or that “I’m over it,” but there are other places I’d rather see before deciding to return.
Costa Rica is one of them. It’s a beautiful country and I had a great time, but I want to check out Panama, Nicaragua, and some other neighboring countries before heading back. So I did the rainforest tours, and the canopy walks, took surfing lessons and cooking lessons at Coco Beach, knowing I wouldn’t get to do it again for quite some time.