Be real for a second
I get it. You’ve started travelling more often, and most importantly independently. You no longer travel with your parents or in big groups, now you buy your own tickets and make your own itineraries. And an overwhelming sense of enlightenment fills you up, opens up your chakras. You are not a mere tourist anymore, you’re a “traveller” now. And you’re overly excited to share your newly found status and point out why you’re not a tourist as often as you can. (#theantitourist)
The hard to accept reality is, however, that if you are a leisure traveller and do not travel for work, you are probably just another tourist in denial. So before reading this I’m asking you to put aside your ego (I know it’s hard) and be critical about yourself for a second. FreeBorn Aiden, for example, has a great personal travel reflection article on his blog I would highly encourage you to read.
Anti-tourists or tourists in denial
Be a traveller, not a tourist is probably the most over-used phrase amongst people that travel nowadays. First, it does not make much sense since tourists are types of travellers (traveller – someone who travels) and second, it is not commonly used as a genuine piece of advice but rather as a form of asserting one’s superiority. Hence, the traveller (#feelingblessed), in this instance, becomes the “hero,” morally and intellectually superior while the tourist is vilified for its ignorant and superficial means of travel. However, both categories fuel the exact same tourism industry making them no different.
Anti-tourists claim to explorers, more sensible to the local culture and always willing to “beat new paths” as opposed to tourists, who already know where they are going. So instead of going to touristy destinations advertised by travel agencies they choose destinations advertised by LonelyPlanet or TripAdvisor. (#intotheunknown) Instead of going on guided tours, they opt in for the hostel’s pub crawl experience. (#drinklikealocal) While tourists stay confined within their “tourist groups,” anti-tourists are more open and communicate more with other fellow travellers, who stay in the same hostel as they do. Sometimes they might interact with locals too, as long as those locals speak their language. (#nohablaanythingelseexceptenglish) While tourists go on safari tours or hunting, anti-tourists go volunteering taking care of animals.
While the tourist’s trophies are the poor hunted animals, the anti-tourist ones are the selfies with the cubs they are taking care of.
The sad reality is that those same cubs will end up getting shot in hunting safaris when they grow up or tortured for entertainment purposes. (read one of the many examples here) In this case, while the tourist hunter knows exactly what they are doing, the anti-tourist is completely ignorant to the tragic reality behind their actions.
Why you’re most probably not an explorer
The original reason of travel was initially discovering the unknown, unraveling the Earth’s surface. Travelers embarking on journeys to discover the unknown were discoverers and explorers. Not only did they contribute to the progress of humanity but in order to do that they genuinely put their lives in danger, and many of them did not live to tell what they saw. The more someone gets closer to a genuine explorer, the more risks one takes. A well known case in the UK is the unfortunate case of British woman who decided to take up solo exploring and was murdered in the Amazon by a pirate gang last year. (read article here).
While the entire surface of the Earth has been discovered and chartered, not all of it has been explored. (read more here) And limited number of the ones have not been thoroughly explored are because they imply major risks. Personal exploration of something personally unknown aka visiting a country you might have never seen is completely different than exploring something no-one has ever explored. When we travel nowadays to a country we don’t know much about, we still actually know quite a bit or we can easily find information about it: where it is located, what we can expect etc.
As opposed to the explorer who barely knows anything about the place he is about to enter, the tourist already has all the information required. The tourist knows exactly where he is going, the routes he will take, the accommodation available etc. Moreover, the tourist basks in the assurance of their security throughout the travel period. They have been assured they will be safe wherever they are travelling, even though there might be some avoidable risks.
Tourism basically eliminates most if not all the risks associated with genuine discovery and exploration. It is because of tourism that people get to travel around so easily by only using English. Many signs are in English because of tourism and many locals in many parts of the world are happy to receive tourists since they improve their local economy. Obviously, as long as they do not destroy their environments. The problem with tourism arises when the industry starts exploiting the locals for extra profit.
A traveller making use of tourism’s means to travel and then declaring oneself an anti-tourist is a hypocrite. There is nothing wrong with being a tourist as long one is respectful of the local environment and culture and conscious of the extent of their own ignorance.
Why you’re most probably not a pilgrim either
Pilgrimage’s aims are not material gains but rather spiritual ones. Be it the Muslim who travels to Mecca, the Christian that travels to Jerusalem, the Zen Buddhist who wanders aimlessly in nature or the old granny that travels to the nearest shrine to pray for her grandson’s health, the same goal is pursued: receiving of a blessing from a higher entity, be it for oneself or for someone else. However, this is not to say that anyone that walks the Camino De Santiago or visits a temple is a pilgrim.
The act of pilgrimage is not in just completing the journey but rather in the reason and conviction behind embarking it on the first place. If there is no conviction there is no real pilgrimage. So, if you are a traveller who walks a famed pilgrimage path but you only do it for the views or experience you are still no different than a tourist. Pilgrims do not travel to see the world and bask in its beauty. They travel to connect with the divine. If you only travel to connect with yourself you are not a pilgrim.
In these respects, no, I don’t consider Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray and Love a depiction of any sort of pilgrimage at all, no matter how many quotes about spirituality and self-discovery she might have produced. If anything, her international best seller, so called ‘travel book’, is most illustrative of a path undertaken by a white privileged wannabe pilgrim tourist filled with travel myths and clichés. (read my previous blog post here)
Tourism – Worldly travel and selfies
Tourism can be said to be the exact opposite of pilgrimage and discovery. While pilgrims look for enlightenment, and explorers for the undiscovered tourists look for cultural differences. Such differences are measurable, visible, material, economic or social. Tourists don’t leave their home in search for a blessing but rather for a souvenir. They leave home in order to admire the beauty of the world, the picturesque and personalise the beautiful landscapes they observe through the multitude of selfies they post on their social media pages. This way the journey itself is not the main focus but rather the traveller. If you look at the selfie’s structure, the traveller becomes the centre of attention, and implicitly of the universe, which now revolves around them.
While the pilgrim’s most sacred space is the path itself, for the tourist the sacred space is the means of travel: the car, the bus, the train, the plane. While the pilgrim’s most sacred object is the sacred text, the tourist’s most sacred object is the camera. This holy object is the only means that the tourist can nowadays affirm its status, especially on social media platforms. The more the photos with famous landscapes or exotic abused animals the higher the social status and worldliness. A tourist dost not only enjoys basking in the world’s beauty but also receives gratification when observed basking in the world’s beauty. Hence the ultimate achievement a tourist can unlock is a photo of themselves taking a selfie or a biography about their “adventures.”
Be a better tourist
The phrase “Be a traveller, not a tourist” should be rewritten to say Stop being delusional and start being a better tourist as the fact is, most people who travel are tourists. Not only will this help travellers reflect on themselves and be truthful to who they really are and their reasons for travel but also make them more conscious of their actions. A change in how tourism affects travel destinations will not happen if a category of tourists start differentiating themselves from others by pointing out how much better they are and how bad the rest are.
Being a better tourist can be achieved on many levels starting with very small things such as getting informed and being considerate of local customs before travelling to a new location or with larger-scale ones such as boycotting tourism companies that promote unethical practices. (animal cruelty, environment destruction etc) The first step so solving any problem is recognizing there is one in the first place.