In Defense of “Touristy”

And why the “local” experience is overrated

If I polled a handful of friends about their favorite activities, “traveling” would fall somewhere between breathing and bottomless brunch. Judging by the number of articles, blogs, and Instagram accounts dedicated to traveling, my friends aren’t alone in their wanderlust. The “millennial” generation travels far more than any other previous generation.[1] And why not? Seeing the world is easier than ever and traveling offers a chance to experience new cultures and broaden our worldview.

But I’ve noticed a developing trend among my friends: the search for the “local” experience. Although what that means seems to vary person by person, it generally appears to involve skipping popular tourist attractions in favor of aimless wandering and serendipitous encounters. It’s about relying less on mainstream resources and relying more on word-of-mouth recommendations for “non-touristy” activities. It means digging below the supposedly popular junk peddled to the typical sightseer in search of the “authentic” core of a destination.

I think the “local” experience is the wrong way to travel.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the ideal travel experience is a jam-packed agenda of one tourist attraction after another. Or that just because an activity isn’t on TripAdvisor means it’s a flop. But I do believe that our hunt for the mythical “local” experience is spoiling why we travel in the first place.

We travel to escape. We travel to find ourselves. We travel to have fun and to connect with others. And most commonly, we travel to gain new knowledge, perspectives, and experiences.

But too often, our fear of looking like a tourist usurps our actual travel goals. In today’s hyper-politically correct atmosphere, there’s still one group of people it’s okay to show outward contempt and disdain for: tourists. Nobody wants to be the guy getting lost in Times Square, or the girl elbowing people out of the way for a selfie with The Mona Lisa. We see tourists as bumbling outsiders who naively accept what the tourism industry serves them. And because we’re familiar with the typical behavior of tourists in the countries where we’re from, we do everything we can to avoid a similar label in the places we visit.

“[T]here’s still one group of people it’s okay to show outward contempt and disdain for: tourists.”

Hence the desire for the “local,” the “authentic,” the “underground.” We almost feel guilty going to anything well-known, as if we’re being unoriginal or cliché. Instead we try to reenact our version of Eat Pray Love, believing that wandering the backstreets of Rome or sipping an espresso at a tucked-away café reveals more about the real Italian experience than a guided tour of the Coliseum.

But the truth is, the real “local” experience is really boring.

As someone who lives in a tourist destination (NYC) my “local” experience involves eating out at restaurants, grabbing drinks with friends, and spending way too much time binge-watching Netflix in bed. And this is only when I’m free from my daily routines of buying groceries, doing laundry, and washing dishes.

The “local” experiences of my international friends are almost identical. At the end of the day, people are more similar around the world than different. Especially as the world continues to globalize, the typical Parisian weekend more likely involves getting sushi, watching a Hollywood movie, and going to an Irish pub, than a night of French cuisine, cinemas, and cafés. So seeking out “local” either means having experiences that are readily available anywhere, or pursuing activities to fit an idea of “local” we made up.[2]

Another common belief is that “local” experiences zoom in on the lives of local residents and offer profound cultural insights. That visiting a less popular hangout spot exposes you to a more unguarded portrait of a country’s people than the typical tourist-mobbed attraction. While I’m sure each country has distinct cultural norms, I don’t subscribe to this belief. I think it’s a little presumptuous to claim we can comprehend an entire culture through an afternoon of people watching and one buzzed conversation with some local residents at a bar. I believe the judgments we make are more reflective of our specific experiences than any overarching cultural truths.

So if the goal of our travels is to broaden our world view, we shouldn’t try to “travel like a local” because a “local” experience offers nothing new. We’re tourists and we should embrace it. Instead, we should look for experiences unique to the location we’re in.

“[W]e should look for experiences unique to the location we’re in.”

Oftentimes, those experiences are touristy. Tourist attractions are popular for a reason: they showcase an aspect of a country’s history or offer an experience available nowhere else. I think actively seeking out the stories behind a country’s tourist attractions provides a more genuine understanding of that country’s culture than passively trying to capture a country’s essence through “local” experiences. Yes, The Louvre is crowded, overwhelming, and overdone. But it’s also that way because it features a rich history and gallery of art unparalleled in the world.

In many ways, we should embrace being more touristy in our everyday lives. As much as we look down upon the typical tourist, tourists have a curiosity towards new experiences that is often lacking in our day-to-day. We look to exotic destinations for new adventures, ignoring the unique experiences close to home. (Confession: I’ve lived in NYC for over 3 years yet I’ve never seen the Statue of Liberty or been up the Empire State Building.) If we can bring a tourist’s wonder into our personal lives, maybe we’ll realize we don’t need a week-long trip to Madrid to try something new. Traveling is about the mindset, not the destination.

This isn’t to say “local” experiences have nothing to offer. Above all else, traveling is supposed to be fun. So if you enjoy “local” experiences, embrace it and ignore what anyone thinks (including this article). Relax at a Spanish cafe, get lost in the streets of Venice, stay at a Shanghai hostel, go on a food-tour with a local Turkish resident. But don’t do something just because you think it’s more authentic. And don’t avoid something just because you’re afraid of being labeled a tourist. Travel on your own terms. Go up the Eiffel Tower and shamelessly take a selfie before finding a tucked away-bookshop to spend an afternoon reading. We should be humble enough to try and capture a fleeting impression of a new destination, while confident enough to do what we enjoy without caring what other people think. And maybe that means trying to be a little less “local” and a little more “touristy.”

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[1] This will be my first and only use of “m-word.”

[2] Yes I realize I’m focusing on “developed” countries (using “developed” for convenience even though it’s not the most accurate word). I think even attempting to understand the “local” experience of a country from a different economic group is a little insulting. By even having the luxury of traveling to a different country, we’re already negating the possibility of ever having a truly “local” experience.