Thursday, November 12, 2009

Is "Tourist" a Dirty Word?

I deal in a world of tourism. It started as an interest and hobby, grew into a project with my writing, and now is my profession. I work in travel and tourism, yet I hate the word tourist. I hate the word because it conjures up so many negative images and stereotypes. The out of place dad with knee-high white socks and sandals, a camera around the neck, map sticking out of the back pocket, and guidebook in one hand while another points up at some landmark, holding up pedestrian traffic. No one really wears those I ♥ NY shirts anymore, but the same sentiment is felt in wearing the jersey of the national team or the local beer company.

The more that I’ve traveled, the less and less I’ve wanted to be associated as a tourist. Though it’s impossible for me to blend in as a local everywhere, I still try to at least make it less obvious that I am there on vacation, both for security and convenience reasons. Nothing is worse than walking down a busy pedestrian street with 30 vendors trying to get you into their restaurants or to see a “special tango show.” So I take a picture quickly and sneakily, and then I put the camera away. Or I act as if I know where I’m going or have a meeting to catch, even if I’m lost or just killing time. But that’s just me.

Yet as a part of my job, I write information for tourists. In one of the guides I was writing, I found myself replacing the word “tourist” with “guests” or “group members.” Maybe it’s because to me, the word “tourist” almost sounds like an insult. You can hear it being used in so many negative sentences. “Traveler” seems to have a much nicer ring to it. A traveler goes to a place to experience something or to open up cultural understanding. A tourist just shows up for a few days to drop some coin and pull away some souvenirs. I wrote about similar sentiments while still in Cuenca in July, noting the differences seen in the gringos that passed through the towns. A lot of expats feel the same way, and as my friend Amy put it, the reason we hate them is because we see a reflection of ourselves never truly being able to blend in. So really, we hate ourselves.

No matter where I am when I’m traveling, I hate the idea of being a tourist, even though it’s basically what I am. There’s no escaping from it, because even if you don’t feel like that stereotypical tourist, in the eyes of the local, that is exactly what you are. It’s kind of ironic then, that I should be writing about traveling, working at a travel agency, and love to travel. A love/hate relationship, in a way.

I can’t say for sure if at some point the word itself took on a new meaning, or if it’s always seemed kind of rotten. Anywhere in the world at any time period, I’m sure, locals have resented visitors for being able to just show up and leave freely, and visitors have resented locals for hiking up their prices and acting superior. There are examples all over the world where this is not the case, but the larger the city you go to, the more obvious it is. Yet go to a small town in the mountains in Ecuador, for example, and everyone will treat you like a friend. It just depends on the situation.

Some people like me though continue to bear the title of tourist as a mark of shame. We are seemingly always trying to run away from it, attempting to blend in more and learn as much about the culture as possible to demonstrate that we really are different. Sometimes the locals see that and appreciate it. Other times not so much. And if not, well then all we can do is wait until we are home and back to being a local. Then we can finally be the ones to mock those damn tourists.

Above: Being tourists

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