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Opinion: Why is ‘tourist’ a dirty word?

By Jane Atkin   1 August 2014 10:34am Europe/London

After wandering around the block twice to find a charming out-of-the-way restaurant on the promise of bistecca alla fiorentina, I was starting to get hangry. So when my travelling companion in Florence argued he didn’t want to consult a map to avoid looking like a tourist, I might have wailed, ‘We are tourists!’

 

Wield your maps and apps with pride, there's no shame in being a 'tourist'. Image courtesy of Jane Atkin
“The map says that ‘off the beaten track’ is 2km that way…'”Our writer’s travel companions demonstrate the art of being a tourist in Florence, Italy. Image courtesy of Jane Atkin 

 

The difference between a traveller and a tourist is a perennial debate in Lonely Planet’s online community. The usual distinction is that a tourist goes to see, while a traveller goes to experience. Plenty of travellers see immersion in new cultures and straying from the beaten track as markedly different from touring well-visited sights. But the idea that travel has to follow certain rules to be valid or meaningful reeks of snobbery.

Who decided there was anything wrong with being a tourist? In 2012, for the first time in history international tourist arrivals surpassed the 1 billion mark. Tourism is a major source of income for many countries. Like it or not, travel is very often a consumer experience – although it’s down to the traveller to explore the world responsibly, deciding how and where to spend time and money. (And I wouldn’t argue that it’s OK for some places and sights to be loved to death.)

 

Local advice: sometimes the best travel experiences happen by chance, like skating on Amsterdam's frozen canals. Image courtesy of Jane Atkin
Local advice: sometimes the best travel experiences happen by chance, like skating on Amsterdam’s frozen canals. Image courtesy of Jane Atkin

 

There’s no doubt that slavishly following an itinerary means you risk missing the most memorable travel experiences, the serendipitous moments and interaction with locals. Like the moment I was taking advantage of free wifi in Amsterdam and the bartender suggested I delay sights like the Van Gogh Museum to watch the Keizersrace, a speed skating event which hadn’t been held for 15 years, on the frozen canals.

But there’s no need to cringe at visiting well-known attractions. Yes, I became annoyed at iPad-wielding crowds when exploring the architecture and landscape of Sintra (a scene repeated across the planet at any World Heritage site). And we can all conjure up a memory of trying to photograph a classic sight while simultaneously keeping hundreds of other visitors outside the frame. While it’s easy to be cynical about travellers ticking off the top 10 sights, the simple truth is that I’m a visitor too. Giving in to that cynicism means losing touch with a sense of wonder about the world, and the reasons visitors flock to a destination in the first place.

 

Say it loud, say it proud, the tourist trail has plenty going for it - as this painted beach hut in Whitstable, England, hints. Image courtesy of Anita Isalska
Say it loud, say it proud, the tourist trail has plenty going for it – as this painted beach hut in Whitstable, England, hints. Image courtesy of Anita Isalska 

 

Travel isn’t a competition. Most of us travel to experience something new, and how we achieve that is up to each individual. Whether you’re on an all-inclusive tour or a year-long backpacking adventure with a $5 daily budget, they are both ‘real’.

And no matter how you travel, there will be times when you have to conspicuously pull out a map.

Jane Atkin, part of Lonely Planet’s Online Editorial team, has the worst sense of direction in LP HQ and spends a lot of time being lost. She also gets huffy at people that don’t have their Oyster cards ready for presenting at the gates. Follow Jane on Twitter @dulynoted.