Conscious Tourism

This past semester I took a class on Cultural Anthropology for kicks–I’d just come back from studying abroad and was thinking a lot about cultural differences and encounters, so studying that in a classroom sounded appealing to me. The course pushed what I knew and thought in many ways, and one interesting discussion we had was about tourism.

While I’m all about traveling, there can sometimes be this uncomfortable gnawing at the back of my mind. Am I really experiencing a different culture or just consuming and sustaining stereotypes? Am I seeing a real “local” side or just a front that people put up for tourists? Does tourism cause people to sell out and package their culture into something fake and easy digestible for visitors? These kinds of questions were on my mind when I traveled around Spain last August. So, here’s a list of some tips to be more of a conscious traveler instead of a mindless tourist.

Don’t take pictures–Pictures put a barrier up between you and what you’re photographing. Additionally, they require less effort in forcing you to remember something. I’ve found that sometimes when I purposefully don’t take pictures, I’ll better remember what’s happening and bring home more meaningful memories.

Don’t buy souvenirs–Souvenirs can so often be small, packaged up representations of a place that push forward those stereotypes or a few reductive images of a place. In Florence? They sell everything David and Venus. In Seville? Vendors push castanets and paper fans on you like no other. To make matters worse, these kinds of things are rarely actually made in the place where you buy them from.

Read local papers–Stay abreast of local issues. See what people care about and what’s important in the area where you are. Are there any important debates going on that people would explain to you?

People watchPeople watch—Sometimes it can be fun to sit down with a coffee outside and let the show unfold. See how people occupy a space. Are there any local habits or mannerisms that are distinct? Do people rush, meander, stop to talk to friends or acquaintances? Where do they go and where do tourists go?

Do less research and talk to locals–This can be a tough one to think about at first, but it works. When I visited some old friends in Oslo, I hadn’t done any research beforehand and put the trip in their hands. Not only did I have local guides, but I also felt that what they showed me surpassed anything that I would have found trying to do some online research. One caveat to this rule, though, is that local bloggers can be an excellent insight into getting the pulse of a city.

TransitTake public transit–This last one is both fun and affordable. Some cities boast the best public transit in the world, so a trip on London’s Tube can be a marvel in and of itself (yes, I just called a subway a marvel). Public transit combines the people watching I talked about with experiencing for yourself how people use a space. Do people play instruments on board? Panhandle? Is everyone locked into their iPhone or Kindle (Boston T, I’m looking at you)? While taking a taxi may be quick, they can be expensive and remove you from the daily experience for a lot of people.

Is there anything you do that makes you more of a traveler than a tourist? Do you have any other suggestions?

4 thoughts on “Conscious Tourism

  1. I wouldn’t say I agree with all your tips as I’m a big fan of photography and I have a terrible memory so taking photos helps! But I always want to get a taste of the real culture and traditions of the country I’m visiting. So, for me, it’s about talking to local people (even though sometimes there’s a language barrier) gestures and a few words and a handful of smiles helps! I’ve recently set-up a cultural food and wine tour on the very premise of giving tourists a taste of something different….. So far I’ve received nothing but glowing the reviews, so I hope I’ve nailed it!

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    1. Hi Valerie, thanks for visiting and for the insight. I think taking pictures can be helpful as a memory aid, and it’s nice to have some photos to bring back. However, what we said in my class was that photography can become problematic when tourists take pictures at the expense of really being somewhere or when they take a picture of something and move on without trying to understand that which they’re photographing. For example, I went to the Galleria Nazionale di Parma and saw a tour group whip through the museum, taking pictures of every piece of artwork without stopping to really look at any of them.

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