Although travelling can be exciting and interesting, there are inevitably boring patches when it is necessary to find ways to entertain oneself. Books, puzzles and card games are terrific options. And of course there is that old favourite - mocking other tourists. My husband and I have whiled away many happy hours quietly chuckling at our regular targets:
The Cattle Tourists These are the package deal tourists, who descend in hordes and trot like cattle behind their guide, who is usually carrying a flag on a stick. The herd mentality makes them oblivious to those around them, as they monopolise walkways, converse loudly and block the view. Most of them will be wearing chunky joggers and bumbags, and many will be carrying enormous cameras.
The Bingo Tourist These are the tourists whose sole purpose is to tick off as many sights as possible, pausing only long enough to take a photo as proof of their visit. This practice has been immeasurably worsened by the invention of the selfie stick, which means that the first thing they do on arriving at an amazing sight is to turn their back on it! and grin gormlessly at their phone, before scuttling swiftly on the next item on their list. They could have stayed home and photo-shopped their face onto a Google image.
The Inappropriately-Attired Tourist I’m sure you’ve seen them. Stilletto heels on cobbled streets. Full make-up on a beach. High heels and miniskirts on a nature walk. Designer clothes and expensive jewellery in a poverty-stricken area (not only insensitive but stupid – you may as well put a ‘rob me’ sign on your back).
The Trying Too Hard Tourist These come in two forms. The Cultural Appropriator overdoes their attempt to dress and behave like the locals in a way that looks pretentious and frankly ridiculous. The Hardcore Traveler is decked out with every conceivable specialist travel garment and gadget...even though they are walking the streets of Singapore.
The Obnoxious Tourist It is for these that we reserve our fiercest scorn. These are the Moaners who complain about everything, the Patriots who declare that everything is better at home and the Demanders who thump the table insisting on immediate service. They are the Culturally Insensitive who snigger at differences, turn up their noses at local offerings and demand to know ‘why these idiots can’t speak English!’ They are the Louts that get pathetically drunk, strip to their underwear and sing their national anthem at the top of their voice. We loathe them with a passion.
By this point you have probably spotted the glaring hypocrisy in our behaviour – that is, mocking tourists when we are…well…um…tourists. In fact, you would not be blamed for labelling us Smug Tourists, that irritating breed who refer to themselves as travellers and bask in the warmth of their moral superiority and infinite wisdom.
But we actually aim to be Humble Tourists, thinking of ourselves as visitors and applying the same standards to international travel as we would for making an extended visit in someone’s home. For what are the qualities of a good visitor?
Essentially, we are profoundly grateful that we have the means and opportunities to visit amazing places and people, and try to express that gratitude through our behaviour. I like to think that this differentiates us from some of the tourist types described above, who arrogantly barge in expecting to be entertained and pandered to (and who wants a visitor like that!?)
We try hard to get off the obvious tourist trail and immerse ourselves in the local culture whenever we can. Services such as AirBnB have made it easier to stay in authentic local accommodation instead of sterile hotel rooms that are the same from Bangkok to London to Dubai. By going even one block back from the typical tourist strip we often find terrific local restaurants where ordering a meal becomes pot-luck because no one speaks English and you are not entirely sure that the waiter understood your elaborate charade of ordering chicken. Local markets and supermarkets are a never-ending source of fascination for me, seeing the many differences in everyday products that we take for granted.
Taking public transport is an intriguing way to glimpse local life - I’ll never forget the peak-hour trains in Tokyo, the London Underground during a heat wave, the blaring music on Fiji buses, haggling with tuk tuk drivers in Cambodia, or sharing a bus with chickens in Vietnam. We generally opt for backpacks over suitcases, as these make it far easier to jump on and off transport, as well as tackling the steps on a fifth-floor Parisian walk-up or the sandy path to a beach hut. Clothes-wise we aim for unobtrusive and appropriate to the setting, without Trying Too Hard (see above).
In addition to brushing up on local customs to avoid inadvertently giving offence (or in some places, risking arrest), we generally try to learn at least a few words in the local language; it’s amazing how well you can connect with people with just the translations of hello, goodbye, how much, good/beautiful and thank-you.
When we do want to check out the major tourist attractions we conspire to avoid the crowds - early morning at Notre Dame, late afternoon at the Tower of London, evening at the Louvre, 7am at Angkor Wat (between the dawn rush and the 9am rush). In all cases we walked straight in (no queues!) and were able to roam freely, often having whole areas to ourselves. Bliss! If we can choose between a famous spot riddled with tourists and a near-deserted almost-as-good spot, we generally opt for the latter.
Occasionally we have to admit defeat and join an organised tour, either because of safety concerns, language barriers or the practical logistics of accessing a site. But even then we seek out smaller tours, preferably ones that support the local community instead of a big business.
My experience has been that the Humble Tourist is more welcome than the others. The locals seem to sense the difference and generally respond with kindness and generosity to our fumbled attempts to speak the language, navigate baffling transport systems and distinguish washing powder from dye at the supermarket. People seem to respond to a respectful and genuine curiosity with a willingness to open up and share their stories. And I'm sure we have more fun too.
What is your travel style?