You’re sitting in a dirty alleyway, perched on a bright blue plastic stool eating the best bowl of noodles you’ve ever had.
A group of fanny-pack toting tourists shuffles by, following their guide’s umbrella and craning their necks to hear her narration. You let out a chuckle, happy to be on your own, free of the constraints of an organized tour and content in the knowledge that they have no idea what they’re missing.
You return to your hole-in-the-wall guesthouse, only to find that the tourists and their umbrella are staying on your floor.
The tour group mentality has always been an easy target for anyone who travels, making us feel better about our own adventures and providing a convenient Other to poke fun at.
It’s getting harder and harder though, with companies like Urbane Nomads billing themselves as “travel mixologists” and blurring the line between hardcore travel and hand-holding tours.
According to them, they’ve:
“turned the typical tourist itinerary on its head- taking the tourist through a city’s back alleys, revealing its seamier (and/or more interesting) side , continually testing the limits of accessibility in travel or using a local folkloric legend as a premise for an itinerary revealing current social and political problems.”
The Back Door Philosophy
Up until recently, almost all tour companies have presented their services with an image of ease and relaxation – you can’t open an issue of Conde Nast Traveller without seeing the words “style” or “luxury” – but what they’re selling is ultimately far more about leisure than travel.
Going it alone and spending as little money as possible provides a far richer experience, something everyone’s idol Rick Steves has always espoused with his “back door” philosophy.
It’s true that a lot of backpackers do it on the cheap purely because they’re broke, but most at least pay lip service to this idea of staying close to the ground.
Rightly or wrongly, travelers often feel like their journeys are constantly under siege by everyone else’s.
Think of the backpacker who laughs at you for paying 140 Baht for a guesthouse when he only paid 115 – we’ve all met that guy and a lot of us have been him. Examples like that come off as a little insane, but that sentiment is a common thread even among veteran travelers.
Much as we’d like to play the part of the hardened vagabond, we’re all afraid of everyone else cheapening our “authentic experience.”
From what I can tell, Urbane Nomads actually does threaten to do that.
Urbane Nomads is offering tours that guarantee life-changing experiences without having to exert yourself to get there. It’s presenting hardcore adventure – placing yourself in unfamiliar and unexpected situations for the purpose of discovery and personal development – as something that can be done free of worry and hardship.
This is totally antithetical to the things I’ve come to believe through traveling. Adventure isn’t just about the highlights; it’s the everyday misery and difficulty that produces the best stories and clearest insights.
Departure From The Urbane
If, in twenty years, this sort of thing becomes the norm, will anybody really value travel as a holistic experience anymore? If it’s acceptable to watch a Mongolian polo match on the steppes and go home to a perfect cosmo in your five-star hotel bar, have you learned anything about yourself, Mongolia or travel?
Sure, no one will stop you from riding a bicycle down the Karakoram Highway, but as writers, artists and photographers we all know that it’s never just about us. If the image of adventurous travel as a series of dizzying highs and backbreaking lows is watered down to a flattened, five-star package tour, where will you and I fit?
Of course, there are two sides to everything. As dire as I’ve made it sound, there seem to be some great things about Urbane Nomads.
It’s run by one person, not a huge corporation, which makes me believe that their commitment to sustainable, ethical and personally enriching tourism is sincere. Their owner says that, “Under her guidance, the itineraries and destinations offered by Urbane Nomads reflect a concern for the social, cultural and historical nuances of the destinations visited.”
It’s also probable that, before this company existed, their clients would have spent ten thousand dollars on a luxury tour of Western Europe instead of hot air ballooning in Burma.
As a concept, I think Urbane Nomads is the sort of tour company we’d all like to run. It’s the “urbane” part that bothers me.
Adventure has always been a departure from the urbane, and if we begin to blur the lines between everyday comfort and eye-opening experiences we stand to lose the most important aspect of travel: to transform ourselves.
Check out F. Daniel Harbecke’s classic The Last Article On the Tourist/Traveler Distinction You’ll Ever Read. Also don’t miss From Tourist To Travel In 5 Easy Steps.
What do you think? Am I being too hard on companies like Urbane Nomads? Share your thoughts in the comments!