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In Defense of Tourism

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Photo: © Britany Westphal

My mistake. Since being cajoled into what turned out to be a brilliant London Walks ramble through Hampstead Heath, I’ve gained some of my best travel memories from being herded around with a bunch of strangers—on a Big Onion Walking Tour of Irish New York; on a 20-person nature trek in the Malaysian jungle; on a National Park Service stroll through New Orleans’s French Quarter under the tutelage of an erudite ranger in a funny hat. It struck me that independent travelers, so adamant about seeing the world on their own terms, tend not to line up to listen to People Who Know Things, and therefore tend not to learn about, say, the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. Seriously, Google that. I lived in Boston for years, yet the first time I heard of this sticky and surreal episode was on a Boston Duck Tours boat with my nephew.

Being a tourist can give you access to experiences you wouldn’t have otherwise—experiences that aren’t so much exclusive as inclusive, drawing their appeal from the company of other people. Independent travel may offer the tantalizing possibility of disappearing into a place, name-tagless, and acting the part of the vaunted native, but that rarely pans out. Traveling solo through India, I always expected some local shopkeeper or templegoer to invite me home for chai and divulge all the secrets of the culture. Never happened. Last year a couple I know took a Road Scholar tour of Rajasthan with a dozen other Americans; every day they shared tea or a home-cooked meal with Rajasthanis, several of whom they still correspond with. If that’s “touristy,” somebody strap a Nikon around my neck.

Snooty travelers would instinctively dismiss a place like Bukhara as a feedlot for tourist cattle. Every New Delhi guidebook recommends this boisterous kebab restaurant, which is why it’s always packed to its exposed rafters. Whole planeloads of tour groups come through Bukhara each evening, and guess what: they’re having a way better meal than you are tonight. The chicken and lamb kebabs are easily the best I’ve tasted (and not a word to my Iranian mother-in-law). After one visit, Bukhara shot to the top of my Really Is list—as in, “No, no, it really is that good.” I laughed and thought of my old friend Alex as I scanned the house specialties: the “presidential” platter and the “Chelsea” platter, the former named after Alex’s North End cannoli nemesis, who dined here during a state visit to India in 2000. Judging from the proportions of their namesake dishes, Bill and Chelsea Clinton not only took a village, they devoured most of its livestock. Yet the crowd at Bukhara is so consumed with enjoying themselves that one can imagine the Clintons hardly making a stir. British honeymooners, Elderhostel groups from Sarasota, Kuwaiti businessmen, Indian clans with toddlers in tow—all are having a blast. And in the ultimate mark of a proud tourist haunt, every last patron is wearing a gingham bib.

The problem with the term touristy is that it broadly applies to—and condemns—a whole lot of things that are merely guilty of being popular with out-of-towners. The leather-bound guest directory at New Orleans’s Ritz-Carlton recommends a night at Vaughan’s Lounge with Kermit Ruffins & the Barbecue Swingers. If I were a hotel guest directory, I would too: Ruffins’s Thursday sets at Vaughan’s are incendiary, and a favorite even among (ahem) locals. Should it matter that a bunch of people from Minneapolis and Osaka are there too?When something inherently cool is adopted by tourists, does that render it uncool?In Reykjavík, Iceland, the Islandia shop is exactly what you’d expect of a state-sponsored tourist emporium, packed with souvenir puffin dolls, die-cast Viking figurines, and overpriced wool sweaters for your dad. They also sell the complete discographies of Björk, Sigur Rós, and the Sugarcubes. So: Is Björk “touristy”?Is Kermit Ruffins?No. The answer is no.

Considering that only 28 percent of Americans have passports, you sort of have to hand it to anyone who leaves home in the first place, no matter how often they show up in your photos of the Pont Neuf. Rather than resenting your compatriots for the audacity of choosing the same vacation spot as you, why not tip your hat to them for having found their way there at all?Would that more of us had the time and money to travel. As for cynical travelers, they can arguably learn, or relearn, something from the wide-eyed “tourist”—from the sense of wonder and unmitigated joy he brings to those top-of-the–Eiffel Tower, crest-of-the-Cyclone, edge-of-the–Grand Canyon moments that all travelers, no matter how jaded, long for. This involves surrendering to the inherent awkwardness of being a stranger in a foreign land, yet somehow losing yourself—and your self-consciousness—at the same time. It means letting go of the suspicion, letting down the defenses, and allowing for a genuine response, even if that response is simply “Wow.” It means enjoying a Central Park carriage ride or a London walking tour or a sunset cruise on San Francisco Bay without second-guessing whether you should be doing so. It means finally quieting—or ignoring—that nagging inner voice that asks, Do I dare to eat a peach?Or are peaches just a little too...touristy?

Peter Jon Lindberg is Travel + Leisure’s editor-at-large.

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