A few years ago when I lived in Spain as a student, my friends and I used to scoff at the tourists we saw milling about the city that we saw as ‘our’ city. You know, the ones with maps, cameras and hats saying ‘I love Spain’. Being lured into mediocre restaurants and paying over the odds for beers. We, of course, weren’t tourists. We had our own rented flats, knew the cheapest places to eat tapas, spoke Spanish and shunned the souvenir shops and tourist restaurants. We cemented the deal by having ‘authentic’ flings with older Spanish guys, finding our own ‘authentic’ local Sangria place and going to our ‘authentic’ Spanish lectures that we didn’t really understand.
We were young and pretty full of ourselves as language students let loose on our year abroad – many of us going abroad seriously for the first time. So we were excited to put our hard-won linguistic and cultural knowledge into practice. Ordering our food and drinks in flawless (we thought!) Spanish, exploring off-the-beaten-track venues, attending typical events like the botellón in the park and at least attempting to meet some locals.
Since then I’ve always been staunchly anti-tourist. I’m a Londoner and often at pains to make it clear. No map! No camera! I know where I’m going! Even when I don’t. And when I visit other cities I’m often wedded to this attitude of enforced authenticity and semi-desperation to appear like a nonchalent local. Later on, when I worked in Spain for a summer, I was so proud to get tanned to an almost Spanish level, and I reckoned that with sunglasses on to hide my blue eyes, no one was going to know I wasn’t a REAL Spanish person, at least until I opened my mouth. Often, I’m so keen to pretend I’m at home in the city that I end up wandering round and round back alleys with no idea where I am – too proud to look at a map or ask for directions in English.
Sometimes it’s great not to be a tourist. I’m a strong believer in the idea that it’s better to spend several months (or longer) in a place. To work or study there. To have your own place, mix with locals and really try to fit in. It’s always more rewarding to really find the true heart and soul of the place and its people – meeting people, speaking the language, trying traditional foods and hanging out where the real locals hang out.
But let’s face it – we can’t do that all the time. Sometimes, whisper it – it’s ok to be a tourist!
As a passionate linguist, I hate to be ‘that girl’ who speaks a little louder in English rather than chatting away in fluent whatever. I hate to point at a bottle of water then be overcharged; to know that I’m getting charged the ‘tourist’ taxi rate and to have to resort to gestures, pointing and – worst of all – English to get around. And I hate the idea of having the plastic, packaged version of a city – the overpriced steak grill instead of the local specialities, the Irish pub instead of a cool local bar, the tacky souvenirs and the crowded beach full of Essex lads and lasses. But being a tourist doesn’t have to mean being a typical tacky, brash and annoying Brit abroad.
The fact is, that if you travel a lot, you’re very unlikely to speak the language everywhere you go. Sure it’s great to attempt greetings and to order food or ask directions in the language, but sooner or later you’re probably going to have to try English or pointing to get what you need. And guess what – that’s ok. If you want to see the world and experience new things, sometimes you have to accept that you can’t always be the perfect, culturally-aware traveller that you think you are. When we’re abroad we’re all a little outside our comfort zone and our experience. Sometimes you won’t know the word for what you want, or where to find the place your’re looking for, or the proper etiquette for a certain situation. So just ask for help. After all, tourism is often one of the main money-makers for some countries and cities. There are dedicated stands and people to help you enjoy your visit – why not use them? It’s their job to dispense maps and advice, after all. And in many situations, the locals rely heavily on tourism for their livelihood, be it selling crafts, enticing you into their family-run restaurant or running tours or events. Sometimes I think, well, who cares if I spend a couple of hyryvna over the odds for a taxi in Kiev? I’m not particularly well-off, but compared to people in some of the places I’ve visited, I can afford a lot more. Just tipping a few dollars in a country like Malawi could absolutely make someone’s day at no real expense to me.
I’m also starting to come around to the idea of visiting the big-name tourist sites. Yes, the Eiffel Tower is a massive cliché. But then again, who the heck goes to Paris and deliberately doesn’t see it. It’s not obligatory to take a selfie pointing at the Eiffel Tower, but then again, it’s not actually a big deal if you do. Most of the sites that everyone’s heard of are famous for a reason – they’re really great places to go and see, and even if your photos are basically the same as Gary from accounts’ photos, they’re still YOURS and form part of your memories of the place. Silly selflies in front of the Taj Mahal or the Pyramids of Giza are a rite of passage – they’re not what authentic travel is all about, but they’re a fun memento of good times abroad. And even the mainstream restaurants are not as bad as people make them out to be. Sure it’s better to eat tapas in a little out-of-the-way bar where you know the owner by name and you can get a whole spread of home-cooked food for a few euros. But then again, when you’re on the go and starving, it’s not such a bad idea to grab something from a chain. And I know that the restaurants with touts outside are basically tourist traps, but sometimes if they offer me a three course meal with bread and drinks for 9 euro, I’m going to go for it anyway! My rule of thumb is, if it’s affordable and tastes good, it’s ok. You should definitely try to mix it up and not stick to places heavily frequented by tourists or marketed to Brits, but it’s ok if now and then you take the easy option – hey, that place does Sunday roast!
Last year I took a trip to Alicante, and while I was enjoying eating traditional Spanish food (my all-time favourite cuisine) and talking to people in Spanish, I was absolutely ok with hitting the great-value beach-front places and enjoying the beach.
Mid-way through my trip I spent a day in the Brit-abroad Mecca: Benidorm. I was fully expecting to hate it, with visions of drunk, red-faced Brits hogging sunloungers and shouting for ‘UN SERVESSA POR FAVOOOR’, but it was nowhere near as bad as I expected. Ok so there were plenty of stores selling ‘I heart Benidorm’ hats and cheap sunnies, as well as a scattering of clearly British-centric pubs and eateries offering the great British fryup, Sunday roast (in case you want either of those in 30 degree heat) and pints of Carlsberg. But it’s actually quite a beautiful place with great beaches and, at least when I was there, I didn’t notice any boorish lager louts around.
So, my message to my fellow travel-fans is this: sometimes it’s ok to be a tourist. The main thing is to enjoy yourself. And if you happen to want to enjoy yourself whilst wearing an ‘I love Benidorm’ hat, go right ahead!