My friend Amber forwarded me an interesting article the other day. It was about “tourist traps” and how we, as travelers, have gotten a little hung up on avoiding them. It seems like there’s been this movement toward “blending in with the locals” when traveling to a new place, and anything else is a less-than-optimal experience. We’re made to feel that if we’re herded around on a bus with 50 other tourists, we’re not seeing the “real” (insert name of exotic destination here). And the author of the article had to ask – why? Why can’t a “tourist trap” also be a great vacation experience? Why can’t an organized, planned foray into a city with dozens of other tourists be a memorable, amazing part of your vacation? Why can’t the most popular restaurant in town have better food than where the “locals” eat?
Now, I definitely have a few great “off the beaten path” memories from my travels. Like Crazy Estonian Tour Guide Guy and our unique walking tour of Tallinn. Or Alex and Carlos, the two little kids who accosted us in Costa Rica and convinced us they knew of all the cool places to see (they DID show us some very “local” neighborhoods…) Or like the time we were in Gdansk, Poland and got into a taxi with a driver who only spoke Polish and German. My dad and I used our limited knowledge of German to effectively communicate with him. It was so interesting to see how we were all able to laugh and talk and have fun and understand each other – even though we were from different parts of the world and barely spoke a dozen comprehensible sentences between us. Then there was the time when Rick and I were very “local” and took the train into Yankee Stadium, crushed up against all the other “locals.” Fun? Maybe that isn’t the right word. A worthy experience? Definitely.
But for all those “local” experiences I’ve had, there’ve been many more “touristy” experiences. And who’s to say that acting like a tourist isn’t just as much fun as blending in with the locals? If I hadn’t been acting like a “tourist,” I never would’ve seen luaus in Hawaii… I never would’ve learned all kinds of interesting things about Pompeii… I never would’ve seen HALF the amazing churches and cathedrals I’ve seen in Europe… I wouldn’t have seen the Eiffel Tower or the Brandenburg Gate or the Panama Canal… And Dad never would’ve discovered that there IS, in fact, cheese so tasteless even HE can eat it – in Sardinia.
Being a tourist can be fun closer to home, too. I LIVE in Austin, but I had a great time the night we went on the bat bridge boat tour with Jen and Jason and the kids. When Rick and I were in San Francisco a few years ago, we spent a day at Fisherman’s Wharf – you can’t get much more touristy than food, shopping and sea lions… but so what? We had fun, and that’s all that matters. And every time we’re in Chicago we make it a point to head over to Ghirardelli’s for hot fudge sundaes. And just about every tourist in the city has the same idea – but when you have sundaes as good as what they serve at Ghirardelli’s, you’ll brave hoards of tourists and sub-zero temperatures to get to them.
So why should it matter what a few pretentious travel writers say about “tourist traps”? Why should we avoid getting on a bus with 50 other tourists and allowing ourselves to be delivered to places we wouldn’t see otherwise? Sure, it’s fun to wander off the well-worn paths now and then… but usually there’s a REASON those paths are so well-worn. So as long as your travels bring you happiness, joy, a sense of wonder, or a bit of enlightenment about something new, there’s really no need to worry about falling into a “tourist trap.” Returning from a trip with fond memories is a great way to break the fall... :)