The American Tourist
The World Tourism Organization defines tourists as people who ‘travel to and stay in places outside their usual environment for more than 24 hours and not more than one consecutive year for leisure, business and other purposes not related to the exercise of an activity remunerated from within the place visited.’
That’s the clinical definition. But let’s face it, the tourist, or more specifically the American tourist, gets a bad rap. He’s not usually perceived as an adventurer. Instead, he’s seen as someone who heads off to packaged destinations wearing white sneakers, a baseball cap and a fanny pack, shouting loudly at incredulous natives and pouring ketchup all over everything he plans to eat. He gets on a tour bus and switches on his video camera. He lines up with his family for photographs in front of historic monuments, as if checking them off a to-do list.
To hit as many as he can in one go, he makes his way to Vegas, and has his picture taken in front of the Statue of Liberty and Eiffel Tower at the same time. Then he heads off to the all-you-can-eat buffet for dinner (and more ketchup).
‘The modern American tourist,’ says American historian Daniel J. Boorstin, ‘now fills his experience with pseudo-events. He has come to expect both more strangeness and more familiarity than the world naturally offers. He has come to believe that he can have a lifetime of adventure in two weeks and all the thrills of risking his life without any real risk at all.’
In this post-MTV world of texting, tweeting and instant gratification, the tourist is seen as pursuing fun like the Griswolds in the classic road movie Vacation. (‘This is no longer a vacation,’ says dad Clark. ‘It’s a quest. It’s a quest for fun. I’m gonna have fun, and you’re gonna have fun. We’re all gonna have so much fucking fun we’ll need plastic surgery to remove our godamn smiles.’)
What if travel isn’t always about fun, thrills, and a full belly? For all the American tourists who are looking for the cheap thrill, there are many who explore the world wanting to meet new people and expand their horizons. And there are many of them.
The American tourist, in all his forms and for all his flaws, helps keep the world turning. Without him, it’s almost certain, entire economies would fall apart, and prices for travel would skyrocket. He’s a useful guy, usually a really nice guy, and probably a lot more interesting than any stereotype will ever give him credit for. He’s traveling, for God’s sake, and so what if he’s wearing sneakers? They’re comfortable. They help him see more of the world.
If it wasn’t for the American tourist, many attractions wouldn’t be able to stay open, restoration of ancient buildings wouldn’t happen, and roads would be harder to travel. He’s made it easier for everyone to get to Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat.
Perhaps, rather than looking at the ‘tourist’ with disdain, everyone should keep in mind the words of French author Anais Nin: ‘I will not be just a tourist in the world of images, just watching images passing by which I cannot live in, make love to, possess as permanent sources of joy and ecstasy.’
Keep your eyes open, wander off the beaten track, paint your own Mona Lisa, and eat the occasional chocolate-covered bug. Leave the camera in your hotel room from time to time. Walk past Starbucks and try the local coffee. And ditch the stereotypes. RM