|The Adriatic Sea: The Closest I've Come to Croatia|
At the same time "America first" policies and slogans swept over my homeland, a slew of countries from my beloved Croatia to New Zealand are telling outsiders to stay home. "Tourist go home," the graffiti reads, reminding me of the "Yankee go home" slogans of post-colonial outposts like the Philippines. Forder's 2018 "No List," sometimes in the past focused on safety, emphasizes the "places that don't want you." A slew of popular liberal websites bewail the impact that "over-tourism" is having on places like Venice, Machu Pichu, and, yes, the Philippines. Stop raping the land and the culture, these opinion pieces complain, you bloated selfie-takers.
Hating "tourists" is nothing new, as the year-long residents of many American summer destination sites can attest, but is also complicated, as the year-long residents of many American summer destination sites can also attest. No one wants to be edged out by peroxide-nosed, Hawaiian t-shirt-wearing idiots who stumble around cluelessly, impervious to how they are impacting those who have to live here.
On the other hand, tourism is a relatively "clean" industry, and one that can revitalize a community. I took a long bike ride along the Great Allegheny Passage, part of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and was amazed at how this tourist attraction had revitalized a region with unstable industry. The guy who shuttled us back to DC told us how he had been a machinist before, but kept losing his job due to cutbacks. Now he works long hours in the summer and lives comfortably off the proceeds all winter long. In a cafe, a woman, noticing our embarrassing biker shorts, approached us and asked if her son could set up a cooler to sell drinks on the trail--would people buy them? They sure would, we said confidently, because we had eaten some of the most over-priced sub-par food of our lives with grateful abandon because it wasn't PowerBars and it was located just off the trail. Tourists are suckers. Hungry suckers.
No wonder The Islands of Puerto Rico so touchingly appeals for tourists to come back Post-Maria: "Thank you in advance for your interest in visiting Puerto Rico and supporting our recovery by simply vacationing on the island. A great vacation in Puerto Rico, helps thousands of families relying on tourism dollars to feed their families and hold on to what they have left. Tourism has helped the economy bounce back from such a devastating disaster. If you’re a repeat visitor, we appreciate your continued support. Puerto Rico is still as enchanting as ever…your visit is a gift to yourself and to the people on the island. Thank you!!" (Orange bold in the original). Even cruise ships, the most touristy of all tourism, can be welcomed and courted by eager locals, as we were when we visited Nanaimo on a cruise--the city chartered buses to pick us up and transport us in a loop with several shopping and tourism stops. And, at each of these stops, friendly high school or retired volunteers cheerily gave us advice. One nice young lady sympathized when I told her I had a wedding shower right after my visit and gave me several suggestions where I could buy some British Columbian lingerie.
And this is just the economic side of it. I genuinely believe in Rick Steve's "Travel as a Political Act" philosophy, which became ingrained through constant childhood exposure to those PBS specials that invariably end with Rick getting sloshed with some locals in a pub while attempting to speak a few phrases in their native tongue. Bless you, Rick Steves. Even without wetting the whistle, I've had literal perspective-changing travel experiences by hanging out with other high school kids in Taiwan (more on that below), or discussing politics with an Egyptian woman who participated in the Arab Spring, or watching a curator at the Hermitage museum tear up as he described planting tulips in a garden that had grown cabbages during the Siege of Leningrad. Actually being in a place, talking with people is the greatest anecdote to small-minded isolationism.
But definitely not all tourist experiences get at this ideal. So if you're looking for some lists, here are 7 suggestions to make your travel more meaningful, less exploitative, and kinder and two for if you decide to stay home.
- Go to Off-hype Destinations Remember when Iceland was quirky and cool? I do, partially because I love that Walter Mitty movie. I had a friend who spent New Years in Iceland, with an Icelandic family from a cheap Icelandic flight because Iceland was trying to get its tourism off the ground. But now Iceland has become hip and is flooded with people doing dumb things. Hyped up places always are. New Zealand, too, used to be a remote outpost for bird watchers and other nature nerds, but then became victim of its own popularity as it has tried to provide trails and accommodations for casual travelers. So why not try somewhere the herds (even the hipster herds) are Instagramming less frequently? Sub Vietnam or Laos for Thailand or Portugal for Spain or Italy.
- Go Off-season Locals don't hate you, but they may hate a TON of us. By traveling in off-peak times, not only are you not crowding up favorite summer beach restaurants, but you're providing some needed smoothing to the local economy. Remember that machinist who shuttled us home from Pittsburgh after our bike ride? I bet he would rather work into September and start in April than get all of his tourism money in one frantic summer period. Going off season makes tourists less annoying and decreases our impact on fragile environments, whether that comes in hiking a popular route (but, you know, be safe. Don't try to solo-hike a 14k mountain at the end of the season) or causing massive congestion from idling buses. Also, you know, usually flights and accommodations are cheaper off season, so...win-win.
- Visit big cities. Cities get a bad rap. But major destination cities like New York, London and Singapore can easily accommodate tourists without much impact. People living in Queens don't really notice or care if there's an elevator full of people going to the top of the Empire State building. Small or mid-sized cities, though, like Venice, can easily become overwhelmed by swarms of tourists and would appreciate you going off season, like April, or finding a substitute for at least part of your trip, like Verona or Padua/Padova.
- Stay put. I remember the flight home from my first international trip, three weeks in Kaohsiung Taiwan as part of a cultural enrichment program...for the Taiwanese kids. On the way back, my seat mate told me how he had just finished a whirlwind trip through Asia, checking off countries over the course of days. I told him how mostly I had stayed in Kaohsiung and the local areas, but I had been invited to a wedding for a friend of my host family, I had gotten to sit in on calligraphy lessons with the other high school kids, and how we had gone to a water park and the short-length women's swimsuits there that baffled me. I was a little jealous of his skimming trip, but as I've gotten older, I think I prefer the other kind of travel, one that is less intent on scratching countries off my map and more on spending time getting to know a place and its people.
- Pair high-low. In the fashion world, pairing, say, Burberry coat with Forever 21 boots (or, in my case, a Target swimsuit with some gas station flip flops) is a clever way to maximize fashion and minimize cost. You can do the same thing by combining Very High tourist attractions with Very Low accommodations and eating. Here's the thing about big tourist attractions: everyone knows that they're for tourists. That's why the tourists are there. There aren't going to be any Frenchmen and -women frowning disgruntled at the base of the Eiffel Tower grumbling, "Sacre bleu, this used to be such a quiet little meeting place." Big tourist sites know what they are and are built to accommodate the crowds. Adding a few more tourists to them doesn't make much of a difference. They're like the Big Cities of #3. Restaurants, local hotels and mid-sized attractions, however, can be easily overrun by tourists. The saddest place this mid-level crush happens, for me, is churches. I adore visiting the great religious sites of where ever I go, but I always feel a little uncomfortable when tourists squirm around the edges of worshipers, taking pictures and then stumbling out into the sunlight. But even churches can do the high-low pairing, having "visiting hours" and hours that are reserved for devotees only. When I lived in Austin, knowing that SXSW would happen let me know to either avoid downtown, get out of town or just join in with the crowds. I knew where and when the out-of-towners would be here and could plan for them the same way you would, say, the scorching weeks of August in Central Texas. Having designated places and times for tourism helps locals know what to expect and lets them plan accordingly.
What's the seating capacity?
- Respect and support necessary limits. Even though I've talked a good talk about how we shouldn't be pumping the breaks on tourism, I still believe that there can be meaningful limits and restrictions that will make everyone's experience better off. I'm from the American West, within a day's distance of six national parks, and from the Desert Solitaire days of my youth, I've been totally okay with the idea that some places can issue limited permits or set quotas or tell you to GET OFF THE CRYPTOBIOTIC SOIL! I'm okay with imposing these kinds of limits on environmentally sensitive areas to support the ecosystem and for cultural and social sites as well.The Scrovegni Chapel by Giotto is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen, so I'm okay with reserving a couple of months in advance, refraining from flash photography, and watching an informative video in a microclimate-stablization room. Which brings me to...
- Be Prepared. One of the hallmarks of an Ugly Tourist is bumbling. Again, because of my own outdoorsy tourist backyard, I'm used to seeing the terrible fallout of unprepared folks skylarking by themselves around the desert with no water and no communication. The same thing goes with all tourism--it pays dividends to do a little homework before traveling. I'm not saying you need to be fluent in Mayan dialects before going to Ecuador, but it wouldn't hurt to be able to understand a phrase or two in Spanish. Knowing what it meant when my classmate held my hand in Taiwan, or why Moroccans like their current king much more than the last guy helped me out of some sticky cultural situations. But sometimes the preparation is physical, too. Look, relying on the kindness of strangers (or just figuring out how to get tampons at a Czech drug store) is one of the charms of traveling, but don't make yourself a risk to yourself or others by getting airlifted off a mountain or arrested for drug charges abroad.
- Invite tourists to your home. Maybe you want to learn more about other cultures and experiences, but you don't want to travel. Welcoming study abroad students or renting an AirBNB room or even just welcoming friends of friends to stay for the weekend can be a tourism-in-reverse experience. I remember in junior high, my parents hosted an actual Italian opera student at our house (per my cousin's request). I have a vague memory that she ran up phone bills, but it was a remarkable experience for me. She made us real pizza and even visited my 7th grade choir class to teach us about singing from the diaphragm. It was remarkable experience for me, one that was repeated with Geraldine, my sister's foreign exchange partner, and the stream of international students my friend's family hosted. Even without formal programs, you could, as one of my friends always did, host Thanksgiving with Indian (the subcontinent) graduate students or invite a recent immigrant family for a potluck. And bringing someone into your home can be a great way to get to know their culture while revisiting your own with new eyes.
- Find the tourism around you. Okay, if you're really determined to stay home, don't let that discourage you from being a tourist. Fight the adage that people from the West Coast are more likely to see the Statue of Liberty than the Grand Canyon while people from the East Coast do the same thing in reverse. Many people can live years in their hometown without discovering the attractions and pleasure that tourists would catch on the first week. And because I'm a fan of prioritizing people over pictures, may I recommend especially engaging with cultures of your home? I live in Houston, which is extremely diverse, but Texas is, itself, a fascinating culture as well. So I am honored that I was invited to a Tet celebration lion dance (even though I didn't understand anything people around me were saying and I was seated right next to the cymbal section of the band), but I'm also awed by the experience of attending the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and visiting the world of dairy cow competitions and sheepdog trials and drugstore cowboy apparel. In an increasingly divided country, this kind of tourism, too, can be a political act.
|Yeah. You culturally and environmentally sensitive badass.|