The Tourism Trap

Talked to an elderly couple at church about their recent adventure in China—Beijing, Tiananmen Square, The Great Wall, Xi’an and the Terra Cotta Warriors. I checked off the same spots during my first trip to China in 1997. And today I looked at a friend’s Facebook pics about a recent trip to China—Beijing, Tiananmen Square, The Great Wall, Xi’an and the Terra Cotta Warriors.

Anyone that stays on the well worn, urban, tourist pathway of Beijing, Tiananmen Square, The Great Wall, Xi’an and the Terra Cotta Warriors, really can’t say they know much about China which is still largely rural and poor. As tourists, we lack creativity, independence, and a sense of adventure. Our collective lack of creativity, independence, and sense of adventure creates tourist traps—must see locations that make people feel like they understand a people and place far more than they really do.

Of course, in the U.S., foreign visitors have their checklists too. Here’s the Top Ten according to Forbes Traveler—1) Times Square; 2) The Las Vegas Strip; 3) D.C. and the National Mall and Monuments; 4) Faneuil Hall Marketplace; 5) Disney World; 6) Disney Land; 7) Fisherman’s Wharf/Golden Gate Bridge; 8) Niagara Falls; 9) Great Smoky Mountains; and 10) my birthplace NavyPier Chicago. If you’re an American citizen, what kind of feel would a foreign visitor get for your community if they went from one “Top Ten” site to another?

How does a sense of obligation to see standard tourist sites form, that if I’m traveling to Country A, B, or C, I have to see X, Y, and Z? Is it a fear that someone might ask upon returning, “Did you see the Great Wall? Did you see Times Square?” Are we defenseless in the midst of the iconic sites incessant, sophisticated, billion dollar marketing campaigns?

My most memorable travel experiences have been off the beaten trail. In China, a bicycle was indispensable to experiencing more of daily life. When abroad, I’ve learned the more still I sit, the more I listen and observe, the more I learn about different forms of daily life.  Lo and behold, many people live markedly differently than me and their unique ways of life work well for them. Once I learned what’s “normal” is culturally defined, I not only learned to appreciate foreign cultures, but cultural diversity in the U.S. as well.

International school visits have always been enlightening. The different architecture, curricula, teaching methods, teacher-student interactions, extracurricular activities, and feel in foreign schools always provides wonderful insights into the larger culture.

Think about a foreign tourist to the U.S. that spends a few days at the Grand Canyon and a week on the Vegas Strip. And another that spends ten days visiting private and public elementary and secondary schools in urban, suburban, and rural communities. Which would learn more about life in the United States?

What other, “off the radar” experiences—besides school visits, a farmers’ market visit, riding city busses, a homestay or two, attending religious services, a hospital visit, watching a youth sports tournament, visiting a courthouse and sitting in on a trial, attending a summer concert in a park—would you recommend to a foreign visitor who wanted to not just recreate, but learn as much as possible about life in the U.S.?

Here’s a travel challenge from Roman Krznaric, the author of the book I’m currently reading, The Wonderbox. This from a chapter titled “Empathy”:

The idea of empathy has distinct moral overtones and is often associated with ‘being good’. But experiential empathy should be really regarded as an unusual and stimulating form of travel. George Orwell would tell us to forget spending our next holiday at an exotic resort or visiting museums. It is far more interesting to expand our minds by taking journeys into other people’s lives—and allowing them to see ours. Rather than asking ourselves, ‘Where can I go next?’, the question on our lips should be, ‘Whose shoes can I stand in next?’ 

4 thoughts on “The Tourism Trap

  1. I am taking eight kids on an exchange in Germany this summer through the excellent German American Partnership Program. After four days of tourism in Berlin, we will be staying with host families with a partner school in Kiel for 16 days The kids will work with host students on a science project comparing and contrasting environmental concerns in the Baltic Sea and Puget Sound. The German kids come here in October to stay with us and continue the project. This should be fun

    • Very cool! Be sure to see Sixteen’s favorite Berlin site. . . the hotel where Michael Jackson dangled his baby over the balcony. :)

  2. I think a lot of tourists unfortunately aren’t interested in getting to know “another people”. I think, in many instances, they just want to do what other people have done to be able, when they get home, to say to their friends that they’ve seen those things as well.

    • I agree. And the sad thing is most tourist traps would be enjoyable to visit if they weren’t overrun by other tourists and the product pimping that follows the crowds.

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