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Why It’s Okay to Only Visit Tourist Attractions on Vacation

by Elisabeth Sherman Aug 14, 2020

This is the Travel Take, where Matador’s writers and editors make the case for their favorite travel hacks, tips, and personal tics.

They’re the most conspicuous people on the street from New York City to Rome to Tokyo: A tightly knit group of tourists in khaki shorts, their passports and camera hanging from their necks, hustling to keep up with a tour guide holding a flag above their head to make sure no one gets lost. They are clutching maps or asking for directions, their necks craned up at the historical sites in the middle of rush hour. And they are among the most derided, teased, and reviled type of traveler: The tourist who only visits the locations officially sanctioned by a guidebook.

It’s true that self-guided vacations offer the most freedom, and they certainly have been trendier in the past decade. Travel shows and media outlets boast stories about how to eat and drink like a local, track down that bar that isn’t overrun by out of towners, or escape to the hidden getaway/villa/spa/restaurant that doesn’t appear on any top ten lists. Often the goal is for some travelers to appear in the know while everyone who doesn’t have this insider information is an amateur.

Aside from the inherent contradiction in this mode of travel (won’t these unknown or supposed local favorites soon become overrun with outsiders once they start popping up on blog posts?), not everyone is comfortable traveling this way. These bucket-list experiences — like seeing the Eiffel Tower up close at least once — are actually very much worth your time even though “everyone” does it. Just because something is popular doesn’t make it inherently low-brow.

In fact, the prevailing attitude toward vacationers who prefer to stick to the well-trodden destinations can be nasty. This line of thinking posits not just that these tourists are inexperienced or sometimes get in the way of foot traffic, it’s that they are tacky or have cheap taste. It’s not a stretch to suggest that these criticisms are twinged with classism.

The supposedly secluded, exclusive vacation spots touted as more worthwhile than tourist attractions — whether it’s seventh generation family-owned restaurant where the specialty is handmade pasta in the heart of Italian wine country or a tiny house in Cornwall with an outdoor wooden tub attached — are often more expensive and harder to find. If you spent a year saving up enough money to take your family to Rome, it might make the most financial sense to book guided tours of the city’s greatest hits, from the Colosseum and Trevi Fountain to the Vatican, in order to get the most of your time abroad.

But even if you’re a well-traveled, globetrotting, multilingual certified couch surfer, there’s no shame in grabbing a map at the nearest visitor center and hitting up all the tourist attractions within walking distance. Whenever I overhear someone say, “Skip the lines and go find somewhere less crowded,” I always want to shake my head.

Moving experiences can be found at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC and the Taj Mahal in Agra and Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. These are places where you can experience the last vestiges of ancient history, witness political and architectural movements and the last remnants of empires, honor your ancestors, and touch the founding of a nation. Even though most people will be taking selfies at the entrance (which is also totally fine but that’s a rant for another day), these are places of learning and unmatched beauty. Dismiss them at your own peril.

Starting with the most well-known sites gives travelers a basic sense of the history of the place they are visiting that can and should be supplemented by taking a deeper look at the neighborhoods and institutions like museums and restaurants that define what is likely a diverse cultural landscape. No, you won’t understand New York City by taking a tour of the Statue of Liberty, but there is nonetheless a valuable history lesson embedded in the monument that is worth acknowledging.

To be fair, the Statue of Liberty is undoubtedly a New York City cliche. But just because you are sharing a profound experience with hundreds of other people at the same time — and that millions of people experienced before you — doesn’t lessen its impact. You might think you know what it feels like to see the Statue of Liberty up close for the first time because you’ve seen it on thousands of fridge magnets and postcards, but trust me, you don’t.

It’s important to keep in mind that overtourism can have severe consequences on the environment so no matter where you are traveling, actively minimizing those harms is crucial. If you are going to visit tourist attractions on vacation, you should ideally stick with guided tour companies that in some way benefit the local community that you are visiting, and you should tip your tour guide if permissible. Respect the local people who work to maintain these sites by researching local customs, basic greetings, and questions in their language. And pay them generously because they are helping you understand and enjoy their home. Don’t get in the way of local people who are going about their lives while you enjoy your vacation, and don’t litter or act entitled to their space — you are enjoying it as their guest.

With those guidelines in mind, go ahead and book that bike tour or that guided gondola excursion. You might just learn something — not just about the place you’re visiting, but what it actually means to be a responsible, respectful tourist and citizen of the world.

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