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You’re Not Too Good for Tourism

Admit that you’re an outsider—and give people an opportunity to practice the virtue of hospitality.
July 29, 2022
You’re Not Too Good for Tourism

I was, predictably, en la cantina. Men sat on plastic chairs playing dominoes, women shared limonadas out of enormous fishbowl glasses at the bar, and Vicente Fernández’s tragicomic grito was blasting over the airwaves. I was sitting as inconspicuously as possible, congratulating myself on the impeccable Spanish with which I had conducted my order, when one of the dominoes players came up to the bar and ordered two shots of tequila. He handed one to me. “De mi corazón,” he said, “Te invito a México.”

The worst had happened. He had pegged me for a tourist.

It may seem odd to fear being taken for a tourist when your visa is literally marked “turismo,” but warnings against looking like a tourist, and advice on how to avoid this shameful fate, abound on the internet. Many of them are related to safety: Pickpocketing is the least of the horrors that await the visible tourist staring up at church spires in wide-eyed wonder. But even here, the causality seems a bit muddled. Petty scams are to be avoided not because getting charged a few extra American dollars for a taxi is such a catastrophe, but because of what getting ripped off says about you. What kind of a person would fall for such a ruse? You. You clown. You rube. You tourist.

Nuh Ha Mim Keller wrote something to the effect that in Islam, there are three legitimate reasons to travel: invitation, business, or pilgrimage. On the face of it, it is difficult to see where tourism fits in. The tourist as a figure of ill repute stands somewhere between skittish Edwardian spinster and red-faced used-boat dealership owner. The tourist is grimly trudging around with her guidebook, cramming in as many sites of historical interest per day as possible, and warning you about the cleanliness of street food. Alternatively, the tourist is sweating in an ugly pair of gym shorts while locals swan around in tailored trousers; he is talking too loudly in restaurants, repeating his demands to locals in English at increasing volume, and throwing plastic bottles into the ocean.

Carl Hiaasen, who has explored the venality of the tourist more energetically and at greater length than perhaps any other living writer, finds even domestic tourists suspect at best:

Florida needs a special prison for tourists. Not all tourists—just the ones who trash the place, rob, shoplift, vandalize, drive drunk, assault the cops, puke in the alleys, pee in the medians, and so on.

And sure, nobody wants to be this. Nobody in their right mind wants to be a spineless bore or a rude hog. But there are many ways to be a rude hog, and none of them exists in a perfect one-to-one relationship with tourism.

If E.M. Forster’s Edwardian spinster worried about maintaining the standards of the English gentry wherever she went, today’s upper-middle-class traveler is driven by an anxious need to extract a certain quality of authentically local experience, by which process they might maintain their standing as a well-traveled, richly experienced cosmopolitan. The highest way to guarantee a sufficient quantity and quality of experience is to reject the tourist framework altogether: to instead become a temporary resident, to experience the place as its locals do. In a post advising readers on how to travel as a “temporary local,” Rick Steves writes, “Of course, an outsider-looking-in perspective keeps travelers apart from a more meaningful, and more interesting—and memorable—connection to the culture and contradictions that lie beneath the surface and beyond the stereotypes.”

The imperative not to be a tourist has spawned its own body of skittish, optimization-oriented protocols. There is an enormous sea of content dedicated to the best places to find a taco, which neighborhoods are criminally underrated, the authentic way to experience a tea ceremony or steam bath. Perhaps most valuable to the aspiring “temporary local” are the attractions still allegedly undiscovered by tourists, or the bars that locals love.

In fact, one of Airbnb’s key marketing promises was the ability to “Live like a local.” In a hotel, you’re a tourist. In an Airbnb, you’re just another neighbor in a neighborhood.

But, of course, you are nobody’s neighbor. You are not, in fact, a local; you are a tourist. Locals do no not spend their time hitting all the best local spots. They spend their time going to work, caring for their children, feuding with their landlord, having dinner with their friends, crushing on their bus driver, living and reproducing and dying in a tangled web, such that their life is the life of their home and vice versa.

To travel is to momentarily cut a tiny tear in this web, to get outside of life and look in. It is an illuminating pleasure and a privilege. It is also an unstable position, possibly exploitative and always fraught with the potential for humiliation. It carries the risk of committing some barbarous solecism through lack of understanding or inability to adapt, of being suddenly bereft of the status you enjoy at home, of finding yourself without the material or mental resources to cope with the exigencies of even leisure travel. In fact, leisure travel is perhaps the most vulnerable to humiliation of all types: You are spending your own money, your own time, to come to a strange place purely to taste the sweetness of somewhere else, to see it and understand it and love it the best you can. It is motivated, undeniably, by desire, and therefore subject to rejection in a way travel for business or necessity is not.

Committing to the reviled, arrogant, narrow-minded way of being a tourist is one way of insulating oneself from these possibilities. But so is embracing the anti-tourist aspiration. And in both cases, rejecting the vulnerability means rejecting the occasion of its reciprocal mode: xenia, guest friendship, love of the foreigner. Admit that you are an outsider, a stranger, and people will open themselves to you in unforeseen ways. The degree varies from place to place. (In Georgia, you are at risk of sustaining permanent liver damage from everyone’s competing eagerness to fill your glass; in Sweden, you apparently may not be fed at all.) But more often than not, here’s what you will find: your faltering Spanish corrected, directions given, indiscretions tolerated with amusement, advice offered, coins spilled out of a purse on the subway picked up and returned, drinks bought, homes opened.

All this is preempted by the self-sufficiency of the determined non-tourist, who interacts with locals on the pretense of an equal footing: She already knows the right bars, the right neighborhoods, the right prices to pay, the right way to order, the right protocols to follow in every interaction, the right markets from which to buy vegetables to cook in her Airbnb. But for all the fear of looking visibly American that enterprises like Airbnb capitalize on, there is something distinctly American about the company’s promise of living like a local: preferring to negotiate a cultural exchange through the narrow independence of a market relation rather than remaining open—exposed—to the prospect of hospitality, characterized as it is by an asymmetrical reciprocity.

And there is an ouroboros effect in the desire to escape tourism. As early as 2016, the Airbnb aesthetic was distinct and common enough to be identifiable as such. All that desire for seamless integration with local cultures only produced a thousand miniature Brooklyn coffee shops, an aesthetic as provincial and redolent of class as that of any hotel of the nineteenth-century grand tour:

“It might be London.” She looked at the two rows of English people who were sitting at the table; at the row of white bottles of water and red bottles of wine that ran between the English people; at the portraits of the late Queen and the late Poet Laureate that hung behind the English people, heavily framed; at the notice of the English church (Rev. Cuthbert Eager, M. A. Oxon.), that was the only other decoration of the wall. “Charlotte, don’t you feel, too, that we might be in London?”

Try desperately to get away from yourself and your world, and you will find you carry it with you; purchasing power has the thermodynamic effect of constantly creating your world all around you. And this makes the desire not to be a tourist sympathetic. The poignancy at its heart—the longing to get away from yourself, even as you remain yourself—is surely related to the urge to visit strange places.

And what gives the latter its special savor is the nontransferability of subjective experience: the haunting feeling, like a phantom limb, that while you are seamlessly embedded in and experiencing your context, so are Beatriz in Cádiz and Nino in Tbilisi and, for that matter, Myrtle at the Elks Lodge. The agony of particularity is also its enchantment. It is bewitching to think that by going somewhere, we could possess it—that we might live the beauty and struggle of a thousand lives in one.

This is, I think, what gives rise to the freneticism that both tourism and anti-tourism are apt to fall into. The desire to possess a place, to possess all the possible places one might possess, inevitably breaks down into infinite fractals of time, of location, of points of view. To rely on an authority to tell you which of these possible experiences are the most important—whether that authority is a cultural guidebook or travel magazine or a more esoteric source—makes the task of ruthlessly racking them up appear just manageable for one lifetime. It is a futile attempt, of course. But there are compensations.

The day after my benefactor’s act of generosity stripped me of my non-tourist pretensions, I was strolling around the San Juan market area, hot and thirsty and lost. A little awning café whose faded plastic sign promised Comidas Aztecas Exóticas beckoned me across the street. I sat down at a sidewalk table. I ordered roasted goat. The owner directed me to a better beer for the same price, and brought a taco de chapulines for free to try. Was it a tourist trap? Was it an off-the-beaten-path authentic local watering hole? Was there better cabrito around the corner? I have no idea. But I found this place, it welcomed me when I needed it, and it showered me with good things. Now the Restaurante San Juan belongs to me, and I to it, forever. This is the promise of tourism: not possessing everything indifferently, but of creating a thousand little homes in your heart. You carry your world with you; you cannot fully escape it or possess another; you can only expand and populate it. The confines of particularity cannot be dissolved, but they can be made porous by humbly accepting what is offered you. There are only three good reasons to travel, but “de mi corazón, te invito a México.” You were always already invited.

Clare Coffey

Clare Coffey is a writer living in Idaho. Twitter: @ClareCoffey.