I was recently on a flight back to the UK and was sat next to a girl who was busy tapping away on her laptop. Now, “nosey” is probably a bit strong, but I’m always curious as to what fellow passengers are reading or writing. It may be the product of several years spent commuting back and forth along the same train line, but that paper the chap next to me is skimming through, or the book being read by the lady in front, always seem more interesting than whatever I’m doing. And if someone is writing then that’s even more intriguing. I once sat across the aisle from a man who was hard at work on what looked like a novel, and I’ve also read draft album reviews, meeting agendas, students’ essay notes… For some reason, even the most mundane pieces of text catch my eye.
So, when I realised the girl next to me was writing some kind of travel article or blog post, this piqued my interest more than normal (this was way better than a meeting agenda). I didn’t read much, as that would start to get weird, but every now and again I allowed myself a quick glance as she looked out the window – and I was intrigued by what I saw.
The general gist of it was a discussion of tourists’ use of guide books or online sources such as Tripadvisor to plan their visits, and whether people visiting a new country or city should work a little bit harder to scratch the surface and find hidden gems, as opposed to flocking en masse to all the best tourist attractions/bars/restaurants etc. I was particularly struck by a description of a place that the writer had been to recently which, apparently, had “too many gringos”.
Now, without wanting to sound judgmental, the author herself was pretty much what I imagine a “gringo” to be (a term used largely in Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries to denote a foreigner, usually white, and often from the U.S. or Britain). But in all fairness I can’t comment on this without having properly read the article; it may have been ironic, or tongue-in-cheek, or serving a different purpose that I didn’t pick up on. However, I think it does pose some interesting questions about tourism, as well as raising a few points that I’ve touched on elsewhere in terms of judging other people’s travelling choices.
It is undoubtedly true that tourism can often have unwanted side effects and, in an increasingly digitalised age, the ease of snapping a quick selfie and trampling your way to the next historic monument/famous viewpoint/sacred temple must only exacerbate the brevity with which tourists seem to engage with the sights that they are seeing. (Coincidentally, “Photos or it didn’t happen” is one of my least favourite phrases). I’m increasingly appalled by the number of people I see viewing their travels through their phone camera lens or – even worse – looking at the image of it reflected back to them as they take said selfie, back firmly turned on the setting that they have come to “see”. But there is also a limit to how much you can absorb (I too reached a point where I couldn’t take in any more ancient Thai temples) and yes, quite often when you are travelling in a tight time frame, you can feel as though you lapse into ticking things off a touristy list of highlights.
Travelling with time constraints also by definition gives you far less opportunity to do what our friendly author above suggests – foregoing the guide books and Tripadvisor forums to unearth your own hidden gems, far away from the gringos (unless, of course, you are one yourself – quelle horreur). And yes, hidden gems are great, as is asking the locals for recommendations, following your nose or sometimes just taking a risk. But these things aren’t always possible, or indeed practical. As I wrote in a recent piece about Marrakech, you might find it difficult getting good advice whilst out and about that doesn’t somehow involve an unexpected (and unwanted) detour to someone’s shop. Even if you can ask a local (which also often assumes some kind of language proficiency on someone’s part, again not always straightforward) you are also obviously reliant on them giving you a good recommendation. When in Thailand recently we asked a couple of the girls at our hotel reception desk where we could find a good coffee shop nearby. Their answer was “no-where – all closed now”, only for us to walk past the Starbucks several doors down and find it very much open. (In their defence, they may not have associated Starbucks with the phrase “good coffee”, but you get my drift).
In short – what I’m trying to say is that for many of us, relying on Tripadvisor, guide books and hopefully the odd smattering of local knowledge is often the fastest, easiest and most effective way of having the best trip possible, particularly if you are short on time. If you only have four nights in New York, why bother taking a chance on a randomly selected pizza restaurant only to find it had terrible reviews on Tripadvisor with the odd mention of rats, when that neighbourhood burrito place you walked past had 5/5 and glowing reviews? And if I’ve only got a week in Tokyo, of course I’m going to head to the Imperial Palace, Shibuya crossing, and everywhere else my guidebook highlights as a ‘must see’. Maybe for a few, there is something corporate or ‘sell-out’ about using these tools when travelling, but if you’re going to complain that Tripadvisor brings all the gringos to the bar, you’re backing yourself into a bit of a tricky corner: presumably you’re allowed to frequent that cool local hangout that you ‘discovered’, but no-one else is? I usually try to strike a balance when I visit anywhere, mixing some of the touristy sites (hey, I’m only human) with a few activities that have a more laid-back, local feel – as well as factoring in some time for general hidden-gem hunting and wandering. What’s important to me is that I try to get a ‘feel’ for somewhere, seeing it not just as a tourist and – if I have time – scratching the surface a little. How exactly I go about that matters (to me at least) much less.