The Tourist Dilemma

The only universal trait of the travellers you meet in Southeast Asia is that they talk shit on all the other travellers.

‘Don’t go to Phuket, it’s full of tourists,’ a vacationing Italian street performer told me in a guesthouse lounge yesterday, as he smoked a self-rolled cigarette with one hand and refreshed Facebook with the other. ‘All the beaches in Thailand are ruined by all the resorts.’

He went on to recommend a dive course he took on Koh Samui, and proceeded to complain that there’s nothing to do in Cambodia, and that his 400 kilometer bus ride from Bangkok took 12 hours.

I’ve noticed that most conversations with travellers go like this. First you lament the abundance of tourists, then you lament the lack of tourist-centered amenities. I hate Place X because it has too many people like me. I hate Place Y because they don’t have enough services and infrastructure for people like me.

Western culture has decided that the only ‘right’ way to be a tourist is to engage with the local culture. Eat only local food, sleep at a guesthouse or homestay, make an effort to learn the language, take the local form of transportation.

These efforts may be rewarding on their own merits, but if you’re only in a country for a short period of time, they are utterly cosmetic. I can learn how to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in Thai and Khmer, but in a week I’m not going to be able to say much more than that. Ultimately, I have to rely on the locals to speak English.

Learning the history and culture of a place is valuable in itself, but I’m not convinced that travelling there is the best, or even a particularly good, way to do this. Aside from the language barrier, people have remarkably incomplete and biased knowledge about their own countries. If you’re starting from zero, you’ll get a better primer of a country’s history and culture from Wikipedia than from simply going there and hoping for osmosis.

And that’s beside the problem that there are a lot of countries in the world. You’re not able to have even basic knowledge of more than a handful of them.

I think it’s perfectly legitimate to visit, say, the pyramids without having a deep interest in or knowledge of contemporary Egyptian society. If people want to climb Mount Fuji without speaking a word of Japanese, so be it. Both the traveller and the host country take something away from it regardless.

What bugs me about backpacker culture is that seems somewhat disingenuous about this. Backpackers participate just as meagrely in the local culture as the resort-goers. Sitting in a wifi cafe in Bangkok is just as un-assimilating as sitting in a five-star resort on Phuket.

And that’s totally fine. People who like wifi cafes should travel in places that have them, just like people who like beaches and jet-skiing should seek those out when they travel. It’s enjoyable for you, it feeds the local economy, everybody’s happy.

I don’t mean to pick on the Italian dude I met yesterday. I just think the ease, speed and low cost of modern travel require an update to the way we think about and talk about tourism.

We should accept that deep engagement with a culture in which one spends a short amount of time is not possible. All we can do when we travel is have fun, be respectful and let everyone else travel however they want.


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