Why 'travelers' think they're better than 'tourists.' And why they're not
I grew up in Virginia Beach, Virginia, a town best characterized by a jeremiad emblazoned across upper backs and pickup trucks: "If it's tourist season, why can't we shoot 'em?"
While such an armed intervention might be unique to the American South, it also identifies one of the most bizarre global characteristics of the tourism industry: self-damnation.
From Pattaya to Paris, everyone hates the tourist.
And everyone -- tourists especially -- goes through great pains to separate themselves from the peripatetic leper caste.
The canny nomad stays off the beaten path, eats only where locals eat and, above all, refers to him- or herself as a "traveler."
To a non-native English speaker, the linguistic schism between “tourist” and “traveler” might seem quite silly, and for a reason.
This dichotomy is not only daft, but damaging.
Both models of visiting are latently aggressive; privileging "travelers" at the expense of "tourists" only excuses the negative actions of both.
Before the middle 19th century, tourism existed in the form of the Grand Tour, a trip through European capitals embarked upon by young aristocrats.
But with the rise of the Industrial Revolution, the freeing up of capital, and the invention of leisure time, ordinary people gained the opportunity to see the world.
For many, this freedom was and remains quite frightening.
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It is not the tourist that we dislike, but the foreigner holed up in a resort, drink in hand, sunburned and oblivious to the surrounding terrain.
We find them lazy, and their experience inauthentic.
In her 1977 book “On Photography,” Susan Sontag points out that the tourists who take the most photographs -- Germans, Japanese, Americans -- are also the ones "handicapped by a ruthless work ethic."
Post-Foxconn, I think it's safe to add the Chinese to this list.
The traveler’s trap
The pleasures of traveling are alloyed with the guilty feeling that one should be working.
And this is where the trouble with tourism lies.
As a remedy, the enlightened traveler pursues difficulty and authenticity through the clichés of going off the beaten path and eating with the locals.
This is completely unsustainable (how many restaurants took a dive in quality once they appeared in Lonely Planet?) and politically virulent.
It results in not only inexhaustible smugness on the part of the traveler, but an ever-encroaching hegemony upon the lives and homes of the local population.
You can check out anytime you like, but they can never leave
The traveler hungry for the unique will only keep moving inland and upriver, until every restaurant is Zagat-rated.
This ceaseless ingestion of the authentic soon mimics the Ouroboros, that mythical snake that ate its tail. Even the shape of this image is telling: if you squint, it resembles the inner tubes leisurely bobbling down the Nam Song.
This happens to all types of tourist destinations, but it is most visible in ones that attract visitors because of their natural beauty or their cultural heritage.
Take the endangered longtang (alleyway) of Shanghai, for example. While their disappearance is more a result of gentrification and the influx of capital, tourism doesn't help much.
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In varying degrees of artifice, these lane-based neighborhoods have been gentrified and marketed to the gallant traveler searching for the “real China."
Those that weren't torn down and rebuilt (or transmogrified like Xintiandi) have seen a slow metamorphosis into tourist zones.
Consider Tianzifeng -- once a residential longtang compound with artists’ studios, now an officially rated scenic spot.
The 21st-century traveler/tourist
It is naïve to think that responsible tourism/traveling could reverse these changes, but it could slow down the erosive sweep of globalism.
An answer lies in diversification.
The past quarter-century has seen a splintering of the travel industry. You have backpackers and jetsetters, sustainable tourists, sex tourists, missionaries, volunteers; you have those who come for yoga or for cooking or a rave or to rebuild a community.
We will see travel get more and more specific, and the division between tourist and traveler will soon become extinct.
More on CNNGo: Demystifying the Chinese traveler
In order to hasten this, I suggest finding out exactly why you’re going where you’re going.
Whether it be pure hedonism or historical research, acknowledge it and tailor your trip to fit.
Most people will find what they’re looking for inside the cities and UNESCO sites, shoulder to shoulder with the dreaded tourists.
But hopefully, they won’t feel so bad about it.