03 April 2010

In defense of the beaten path

In the wake of my appearance on CBC Radio's Q, I've started to realize that some people have me pegged as "the guy who defends tourists." While there's some truth to that, and while I don't mind playing that role to a certain degree, I want to be clear that I don't think that tourism is inherently good. Or, for that matter, inherently bad. Read any random sample of this blog and you'll see that I have incredibly mixed feelings about tourism, tourists, and the effects thereof.

Having said that, allow me to now, yes, defend the beaten path in three ways. (Basically, these are the talking points I wish I'd raised, or elaborated upon, during my interview.)

1. You meet some interesting people in the Tourist Culture
As discussed previously, there's a distinct Tourist Culture, with its own dress code (khaki travel pants, sensible shoes), its own literature (guidebooks, obviously), its own cuisine (the Irish Pub), its own rituals ("Scusi, could you, por favor, mein camera ... take foto? Merci bonjour?").  The Tourist Culture includes people from all over the world, which means that you may well encounter a family from India while traveling in Finland (over 50,000 Indian tourists go there every year) or a few of the two million Chinese who visit Europe annually, or the diverse group Lee and I met on our beer tour in Munich, which included dedicated drinkers history buffs from Japan, South Africa, England, Argentina, and the US. In Berlin, also during a tour, we met a young guy from Malaysia who had been working in London and was heading back to Malaysia, by way of his own long-planned, much-saved-for Grand Tour.

These are the types of people you meet in the Tourist Culture: interesting people from all over the world.

Truth is, you're not going to just parachute into another culture and fit right in with the locals, no matter how hard you try, no matter how carefully you plan your attire or try to study the language. You're an outsider. That will be obvious to them. And no matter how eager you are to interact with them, they probably don't want to interact with you--they just want to go about their daily lives, danke, and not be bothered by this stranger who's come to stare at them and mangle their language and ask to see how the Authentic Local Thing is done. No, it's the other people like you, the other outsiders, who are most likely to strike up conversation with you. You're a kindred spirit. And, truly, you'll find that a lot of those people are--like you--actually pretty damn interesting and, gosh, not the clich├ęd shallow, tacky tourists of stereotype.

So, no, you probably won't meet a lot of hobbled, cloaked-in-oh-so-native-garb grandmotherly types if you stay on the beaten path. You won't encounter many of the eccentric characters who populate the year-in-a-remote-village memoirs that have become such a cliche of travel writing. And, sure, fine: it's a shame that you won't meet those Authentic Individuals™. But you will meet all kinds of other people who will be more than worth your while. And maybe, just maybe, you'll become friends and keep in touch, and they'll invite you to visit them in their homeland--allowing you to get off the beaten path and get a local's perspective, precisely because you didn't do that last time around.

2. Travel is not about bragging rights
There's a prominent travel blogger who says he's a "one-man National Geographic." There are lots of other travel bloggers and writers and just-plain-travelers who boast of how many countries they've visited, like there's some kind of lifetime merit badge that they're trying to earn.

What's the point of such boasts, though?  At their base, aren't they just statements of status and privilege and an admission of a myopic, self-absorbed worldview that mistakes accumulation of passport stamps for open-mindedness and intelligence? Is this not like the kids in high school who thought their entire self-worth was dependent on how many decals were on their letter jackets?

I don't know how many countries I've visited. Sure, I could figure it out. But I just don't care. I don't travel so that I can place-drop in conversation. Similarly, I don't seek out the lowest-price hostel--or, for that matter, the highest-price hotel. I look for--wait for it--the place that best fits my own personal needs in terms of budget, safety, and location (meaning, of course, proximity to a bakery). Which, by the way, might change on a day-to-day basis--some days, I want to save money and don't mind a bit of discomfort; others, I desperately need a hot shower and a good night's sleep on clean sheets.

Travel seems to have become a status marker of sorts, with specific travel attitudes and methodologies as carefully calibrated as attire worn on a first date. It's a chance to show the rest of the world--or at least blog readers and Facebook friends--what kind of person said traveler wants to be.  That, to me, is absurd. (Um, pay no attention to the fact that you're reading this on a blog by a person who would love for you to think of him as at least mildly witty and semi-intelligent. Pay. No. Attention.)

It's absurd when it means visiting only the most famous cities and landmarks, hewing only to the instructions of  the latest Fodor's. It's equally absurd when it means avoiding any cities or landmarks for the specific reason that they're popular. (Most absurd of all, though, is anyone who uses The 1,000 Places To Go Before You Die as dogma.) Seriously, I thought we all learned this by the time we were teenagers: sometimes the crowds are right, sometimes they're wrong--you have to find your own path, and that's going to be a mix of the popular and the unpopular.

Travel is not about bragging rights. It's about exploring, learning, and trying to understand the new. It's about enjoying the bounty of weirdness and wonderfulness of the planet--some of which just happens to be located on the beaten path.

3. The beaten path is already beaten. So don't go beating more paths. 
There's also the argument--which I made on Q--that following the tourist trail is the truest eco-tourism, the greenest and most ethical option, because those places already overrun and McDonaldized and otherwise ruined. You're staying on the sidewalk, not trampling the fragile flowers of the untouched, untouristed places. I'm not sure I'm convinced of my own argument here, actually (feel free to argue pro/con in the comments). I don't want it to be true--that would kind of break my heart. But I fear that it just might be absolutely correct.


  1. You make some good points, yet manage to create your own elite, snotty worldview. You assume the average traveler doesn't realize their mobility is possible due to power and privilege. You write with the arrogance of youth.

  2. Well, this is mostly a rebuttal to what I see as the worldview and tropes of *travel writing* and *travel blogging*--not "the average traveler" per se. And I think that people *do* understand their power and privilege. But that doesn't make them "citizens of the world" or wiser or more open-minded. That's my quibble: the idea that going (or NOT going) to Place X or having X number of stamps is something worth bragging about to the rest of the world. (And again: my criticism is aimed mostly at the people who have major platforms *for* such bragging.)

    If you've been to 982 different countries and three other planets, great. Good for you. You probably know more about the world than I do. Also, you must have a hell of a carbon footprint. And I can think of a gazillion other reasons why your far-flung ways are both wonderful and obnoxious, though I won't judge *you,* specifically, until I get to know you.

    If you've never ventured from your mountaintop village, well, that's fine, too. I can also think of a gazillion reasons to criticize or praise that decision (if indeed it is a decision).

    But really: travel is not about bragging rights.

    Is that making any more sense, or am I still an arrogant youngster?

    (And by the way, I'm fully aware that when I read all of this in 20 years, I'll shake my head in disbelief. Doesn't make me change anything. But yes, I'm aware of this.)

  3. I've been thinking about eco-tourism. Basically, unless your walking to where you're going, green tourism isn't. I'm not sure one's choice of path (beaten or not) makes a significant difference to one's carbon footprint.

    But that brings up the other aspect of green tourism; the effect on the location visited. Here I think that, sadly, your argument holds. We changed Berlin in no significant way when we visit, but when I used a rural taxi in Central Asia and, out of communication error paid with a twenty dollar bill, I seriously changed the man's local economy as well as his attitudes towards any future travelers.

  4. I'll stick up for you! I liked this post because it was fresh, a new way of looking at travel. I LIKE that you don't know how many countries you've been to, that you don't use travel solely for the sake of bragging. Because you're right, there are already plenty of those types of travelers out there!

  5. Anyone who does posts critiques anonymously rather than having the courtesy or courage to let you know who she/he is doesn't deserve to be taken with any seriousness.

  6. I like all these points and think that tourism was well overdue an advocate. I've actually seen a really great article, years ago, about how people trying to get "off the beaten path" were destroying national parks all over the world. Actually I vaguely recall that it was an article about how Japanese tour groups, with their willingness to stay on the marked path and do what their tour guide asks them to do, were much more friendly to natural environments than people who were determined to get away from the Department of Conservation built paths and view points and beat their own path. So I think there is something in that point I reckon you might be the man to make it!

    Great writing, Doug.

  7. @Marianne: Thanks! Your comment reminds me that I read some article arguing that UNESCO World Heritage Site designation can, in some cases, help destroy a place by putting it on the tourist radar. I'll have to track down the original story for details. ...

  8. the pics you’ve put are really nice mate

  9. I think being snarky about tourists is just a phase some of us go through and if we stay in the game long enough we outgrow it and come to judge all travel and travelers by other, better standards, such as asking if they left the world a better place for passing through it.

    I tend to settle in to one place and try to fit in, not to pass as a native, which I would not want to do, even if I could, but only to be considerate of my hosts and give as little offense as possible.

    I read a great deal beforehand and study the language and what I can find of their customs, but the more I know about a place the more I realize how impossible it will be for me to be anything other than what I am.

    So I wander awkwardly about, like Frankenstein’s monster, trying to be a considerate monster.

    It is true that tourists ruin places, but mass tourism is part of the modern world in which these people live as much as we, and much as we may love the Past we cannot save it, no more than we can save the world of our own childhood.


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