Happy World Tourism Week, everyone.
This is the annual week (September 21-28 in 2013) when the United Nations World Tourism Organization — which supports sustainable tourism around the globe — celebrates global tourism and tries to keep it on an environmentally friendly path.
This year’s theme is “Tourism and Water: Protecting Our Common Future” — a vital topic because if we don’t protect the earth’s oceans, rivers, lakes and wetlands, we’re all in deep trouble, not just the tourism industry.
But the name “World Tourism Week” got me to thinking about a debate that’s been brewing among travel bloggers and websites recently on the connotations of the word “tourist” and whether or not “tourists” are lesser forms of life compared to “travelers.”
The thinking goes like this: “Tourist” implies someone who takes group tours, maybe even (shudder) bus tours, probably wears garish clothing, and no doubt wants to eat hamburgers in China to the exclusion of local foods (or, if the situation is reversed, and we’re talking about Chinese tourists, noodles and rice porridge in the U.S.).
“Tourists” also probably want to visit “tourist traps” where they’re led around by the nose until they buy cheap souvenirs. And they definitely want to take lots of photographs of themselves and their friends in front of various world landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, Roman Colosseum and Statue of Liberty, which, by the way, are beginning — in the minds of some — to acquire the status of “tourist traps” themselves.
To paraphrase Groucho Marx: Nobody goes to those places any more — they’re too crowded.
“Travelers” — on the other hand — are those in the know (meaning, of course, you and me — though sometimes I wonder about you, as we used to say in school).
We travelers are too cool to be seen circling Manhattan on a sightseeing boat, or gawking at Stonehenge, or sitting in a Left Bank cafe once haunted by Hemingway, which, of course, is now filled only with tourists because it’s been listed in all the guidebooks except Lonely Planet and Rough Guides.
Travelers don’t “tour” — we absorb ourselves in the essential beingness of every place we journey to, which requires us to shield our eyes should we mistakenly pass too near the Tower of London or (mea culpa mea culpa) the Magic Kingdom. The sight of a McDonalds fills us with revulsion. Fanny packs (sorry to use that term for those of you non-Americans who may be offended) cause us to consign you “tourist” types to the outer circles of travel hell, next to the TSA officers and RyanAir customer service reps. And cruises — so…mass market!
Now, a confession: I admit to having been a bit of a travel snob myself at times. I’m not a fan of bus tours, genuine tourist traps (if that’s not an oxymoron), or eating burgers in China. I’ve chuckled at folks snapping pix of each other in front of every monument or intersection. And my wife long ago convinced me to deep-six the fanny pack and white sneakers.
On the other hand, I do love cruises and take some guilty pleasure in sitting in cafes where no Lonely Planet writer would dare be seen.
So I see both sides of this issue.
What I’d like to suggest, then, is that we all — baby boomers and other generations alike — lighten up a little bit. Those of us who have been lucky enough to travel a fair amount should keep in mind that, while we may have earned the designation “traveler,” there are a lot of people for whom “tourism” is not a dirty word at all.
They love posing for photos — and yes, horror of horrors, even “holding up” the Leaning Tower of Pisa with the palm of their hand. A cruise may be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. The Magic Kingdom really does produce magical moments for themselves and their families.
Global tourism does raise serious environmental and cultural issues that need to be addressed. But which of us travelers doesn’t add in some way to the problems, or hold the promise of contributing to solutions?
So let’s feel free to celebrate World Tourism Week and the fact that all of us can travel the globe in ways that most previous generations could never have dreamed. And quit the phony debate about who are the “real” travelers.
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