The Death of the Cool

Is it just me, or is it not cool to be a tourist anymore?

Sure, it’s cool to travel.  Travel book sales might be low compared to a decade ago, but travel blogs and apps are exploding, and Facebook seems like a highlight reel of everyone’s exotic vacation photos.  (To which I say, keep ’em coming.)  But it’s a particular kind of travel, it seems.  I’ve been on vacation with more than one person who shuddered at the thought of visiting Big Ben or setting foot in the Louvre.  Too touristy.

The travel book trade seems to bear this out, declining though it may be.  Traditional books like Fodor’s are being passed over in favor of Lonely Planet and Rough Guides.  (Travel publishing consultant Stephen Mesquita’s report on this phenomenon is available here.)  Frommer’s has gone the way of the dinosaurs.  Apps like Indie Guide and Localeur specialize in the kind of out-of-the-way, locals-only travel that people like Anthony Bourdain (whom I love) have made so popular.  Localeur in particular can be positively apologetic when a contributor mentions a museum or landmark that tourists might know.

And hey, I get it.  Iconic landmarks can lose their sense of place when they become so revered as to be essentially decontextualized.  If the tourists have discovered something – food, art, shopping – its quality usually dips as its price goes up.  Been to the Rialto Bridge in Venice?  Then you’ve dodged the waiters-cum-carnival-barkers beckoning throngs of tourists, who always seem to wear those weird money bags and Tevas, which I thought had been cast back into the ’90s where they belong (along with these monstrosities).  Not a Venetian in sight.  It feels a lot like Epcot and not a lot like Italy.  When there’s so little of the local around the iconic monuments, they seem less local too, and some of their luster dims.

Iconic landmarks can lose their sense of place when they become so revered as to be essentially decontextualized.

But it is possible to be tragically hip, too cool for your own good, as a tourist.  It’s a matter of proportion and balance.  Do you really see Paris if all you do is visit the top ten tourist attractions, eat in your hotel or a tourist-trap restaurant, and call it a day?  Surely not.  But do you understand it any better if you spend your day boutique-hopping and studiously avoiding the L’Orangerie, Ste-Chapelle, Nôtre Dame and Montmartre? (Henri IV, one of the great builders in the history of the French monarchy, would be pissed.)

My beef with the tragically hip approach to travel and tourism is that it’s so pessimistic.  It’s more about what you wouldn’t be caught dead doing and how you don’t want to be perceived – touristy, clichéd – than celebrating cultural exchange.

So if you’re planning to travel, let me break it to you.  You ARE a tourist.

And that’s okay!  It’s good thing!  I once met a London cabbie who was from Edinburgh but had never been to Edinburgh Castle.  He’d traveled the world and contemplated the sky from atop Uluru, but he never did make it across town.  I have a similar relationship with my hometown of Richmond, Virginia, a place I intend to rediscover by being a tourist.  I’ve never visited the Valentine Museum, never walked the slave trail (which more people should do, but that’s another post for another time).  I look forward to doing all these things.  To be a tourist is to encounter significant elements of a city’s past and present that residents typically overlook everyday.  Are blending in and being a local necessarily the ultimate goals of cultural exploration?  Are you doing yourself any favors if you treat your holiday destination like you treat your hometown?  If you’re too cool or too embarrassed to be a tourist?

Don’t get me wrong.  I have no problem with Lonely Planet, Rough Guides or travelers who just cannot deal with Fifth Avenue.  (Dear God, neither could I, although this nearly brought me to tears.)  I’d rather dance on hot coals than walk down Oxford Street in summer or bother with any part of Harrods other than the Food Halls and the toilet. One of my favorite destinations on earth is Albania, one of the few remaining undiscovered corners of Europe, and it will provide a significant amount of material for this blog.  Places like Albania, which has more beautiful coastline and mountainous scenery and ancient history than it knows what to do with (to paraphrase Churchill), need tourists who are comfortable fitting all their worldly belongings in a backpack and living without air conditioning.

There’s a kind of gratitude that comes with the novelty of being an outsider, of not being a local.

Proportion and balance.  Moderation.  I’ve been told these are the keys to life, but that’s still a work in progress, so I wouldn’t know.  I do think they might be the keys to travel, and that’s one of the themes of this blog.  Bernard Berenson definitely got a thrill out of straying from the beaten path and finding an obscure church with gems of Renaissance paintings.  And he certainly hated crowded museums too, but not nearly as much as he loved what was in them.  Whether his destination was obvious or undiscovered, the point was the same.  It was all part of his search for something uplifting, positive and empathetic, something he found in beauty.  And the beauty of tourists is their appreciation for elements of a city or town that jaded locals might ignore.  There’s a kind of gratitude that comes with the novelty of being an outsider, of not being a local.  To experience a place like a local is, to a certain extent, to take travel for granted.  So it’s not the worst thing in the world to be a tourist. (Just maybe leave the money bag and unnecessarily rugged footwear at home.)

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