In defence of the 'tourist trail'

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We’ve all met them on the road: the travel snobs who insist they’re not tourists and label major monuments as tourist traps. They wouldn’t be caught dead following the herd.

In a Cairo hostel, I met a girl who announced that she’d been in the city for three months and had yet to see the Pyramids. Her tone suggested she was waiting to be awarded a medal for most subversive traveller. Chatting away that evening, I told her I was off to explore some old mosques the next day. ‘You're such a tourist,’ she sniffed.

For travellers of this mindset, the journey is all about getting off the beaten path. But does purposely steering clear of a country’s most famous places, just because other people want to see them, somehow make you a better traveller?

Tourists at souvenir stalls near the Pyramids of Giza, Egypt. Image by Richard I'Anson  / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images .Tourists at souvenir stalls near the Pyramids of Giza, Egypt. Image by Richard I'Anson  / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images .

Travel snobbery in the age of tick-box tourism

I bumped into Paul on a rather well-known beach in Goa. Just before I left to head to the ancient Vijayanagara Empire ruins of Hampi, he spent a morning lecturing me on his travel philosophy. He had yet to visit anything labelled a ‘sight’ because he was here to unearth the ‘real India’. That's why he was travelling without a guidebook. When I pointed out that – sans guidebook or not – he’d managed to end up on a beach very popular with backpackers, he became slightly annoyed.

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I used to have a problem with tourists who seem to mentally tick off the sights as they arrive, the ones travelling just to say they’ve been somewhere. These days though, I’m just as likely to get irritated by people at the other end of the spectrum –  people like Paul, and the girl I met in Cairo, who think travel is a game of one-upmanship in which only the different, crazy, or extreme counts for a point. Since when did ‘seeing the sights’ become passé?

What’s so wrong with wanting to see the Taj Mahal?

The school of travel devoted to ditching the guidebook can lead to wonderful adventures and some of the best memories of your trip. I’ve experienced incredible hospitality in tiny villages which are hard enough to pinpoint on a normal map, let alone be featured in a guidebook. And I’ve walked through haunting ruins, and strung my hammock up on empty beaches, which see only a handful of visitors each year. The trouble is some students of this school seem to have emerged with a hipster attitude that brands any major sight, or landmark, and the people who then visit them, as dull and inauthentic.

Imagine going to Paris and not going up the Eiffel Tower, or choosing to visit Agra without including a sunrise visit to the Taj Mahal to watch it slowly loom out of the early-morning mist. And how is a visit to Bangkok complete without the gold overload at the Grand Palace complex? These popular monuments and sights are very much a part of their nations’ tourist trails, but that doesn’t make them less worthy. Their very popularity with visitors rests on the unique cultural and historical identity they hold. In most cases, the busloads of tourists are there for a good reason.

Tourists at the Bayon, Angkor Thom, Siem Reap, Cambodia. Image by Andrew Stewart  / Robert Harding World Imagery / Getty Images .Tourists at the Bayon, Angkor Thom, Siem Reap, Cambodia. Image by Andrew Stewart  / Robert Harding World Imagery / Getty Images .

How to get off the beaten path while staying on the tourist trail

The concept of getting off the beaten path shouldn’t be solely about reaching the wildest and most remote places possible. It should involve taking the time and effort to dig deeper into your destination. You can do this easily even at heavily crowded tourist attractions such as Angkor Wat by choosing to spend an extra couple of days there exploring the lesser-visited temples. Opting for simple changes such as saying yes to that offer of sitting down to a cup of tea with a market vendor and taking your camera away from your face for a few minutes to savour the moment (rather than thinking about your next photo opportunity) all adds richer layers to your experience.

Why getting off the beaten path is a misnomer in itself

Unless you’re planning on traversing the Darien Gap or Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter (and yes, these places have all been visited by someone else) you’re probably going to bump into other travellers. Places become popular because they’re interesting, historically or culturally important, or simply beautiful, so it’s no surprise to find yourself among other visitors.

Remember Paul in Goa, who was too much of a travel snob to visit Hampi because it was overrun with tourists? I bumped into him again in Kerala. He was boasting about his visit to the ancient Jain pilgrimage site of Sravanabelagola, which he considered ‘real India’. He was crestfallen when I said I’d also been there and, like him, climbed the steps barefoot up to the statue of the Jain saint Gommateshwara.

One traveller’s off-the-beaten path experience is another traveller’s must-see sight.

Jess Lee specialises in writing about the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey. She has co-authored Lonely Planet's travel guides to Egypt, Turkey and Israel. And she harbours a major obsession for hummus. Follow Jess's adventures at @jessofarabia.