Home » Commentary » Being a Tourist is OK. Thanks CNN: An Essay
Commentary Travel Writing

Being a Tourist is OK. Thanks CNN: An Essay

Paris street scene

When I read this article on CNN, I thought it was some sort of archived piece from the Victorian era. I had visions of boarding a steamboat, smoke puffing from the funnels, women with parasols waving kerchiefs to lovers as men walked with canes up the gangplank discussing the absurdity of being a tourist. Surely in 2017 a reputable news site wouldn’t be publishing such an unbelievably thoughtless attempt at an essay that delves into an issue that has been so extensively discussed in the past century, right?

“Tourist,” like “tacky,” seems to have become a dirty word,” the author writes.

There it was, the beginning to a reductive and poorly researched argument of why it’s OK to be a tourist. What was missing was any context or research to justify this claim, highlighting the quality of journalism CNN sometimes accepts (I’ve written for them, so I can be critical). As a journalist and researcher myself, I was expecting a bit more.

The word “tourist” is not newly pejorative. Let me make that clear right now. And even though I agree with the writer that, indeed, it’s just fine to be a tourist, I think we need to think more deeply about what that really means.

Tourism History: The Nutshell Version

Before Thomas Cook and others like him began selling group tours through Europe and beyond in the late 19th century, people didn’t generally travel like they do today. Mass tourism didn’t exist. But that all changed as Cook’s tours and John Murray’s travel handbooks began to cater to a growing population of wanderers.

Why did people start traveling en masse all of the sudden? It’s easy. Technology. Steam engines, steamboats, trains – these new inventions of the 19th century made it easier for people to move. And so people did just that. They moved.

As more people shuffled around at a greater rate, tensions grew. Think of a run-down neighbourhood suddenly infested with hipsters. People get angry, people feel pushed aside, people react. Now imagine the world was this run-down neighbourhood and this newly mobile society was the hipster. Those who were already there – not just locals, but those who were traveling well before mass tourism – began to feel the effects, and a linguistic division between tourism and traveling came to head. Don’t be fooled, however, as this tourist/travel schism was born many years ago, but it erupted more clearly with mass tourism.

Tourist vs. Traveler: Finding Local Experiences is Rough

Discussions on this phenomenon are not new. French scholar Jean Didier Urbain describes travellers as walking alongside the natives, while tourists follow in their footsteps, a sentiment that developed in the late 19th century with the development of mass tourism (see his 1991, L’Idiot du Voyage). Catherine Bertho-Lavenir also explains that travellers are what tourists are not – aristocratic, not plebeian; they discover, they don’t follow; they look for intimate experiences, they don’t travel in groups (she writes in her 1997 book La Roue et le Stylo).

It’s not just the French who have underscored these historic differences. In his seminal book, The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class, American Dean MacCannell discusses at length the idea of tourism in modern society, which resonates with some of what the CNN article’s author was trying to say.

The whole idea of “local” that arises in the article is not new. Airbnb is not offering something that people weren’t seeking before, they just made it easier and cut out the middleman. In MacCannell’s book, a must-read for anyone interested in this concept, and rather accessible at that, he talks about how people in modern society have been fascinated with going behind the scenes, to witness the inner workings of a place, to see the “local.”

These experiences – think of the Paris sewers, for example – are indeed marketed as local, but MacCannell argues that many of these authentic-feeling experiences are actually fabrications. He talks about “staged authenticity,” a practice of packaging something as authentic for tourists when, in fact, it’s not.

We’ve all seen it. A chocolate shop designed to look like an actual chocolate factory. A dance routine by locals dressed up in native garb who change into jeans and tee shirts afterwards. A restaurant designed to look like a quintessentially French café…in Philadelphia or Toronto. These are hallmarks of the tourism industry because they sell this idea of local authenticity, but for MacCannell, it’s all staged, and real authenticity is ultimately never really possible. Someone is always performing, even if we think otherwise.

The CNN article correctly states that it’s hard to get a true local experience – though not for the slightly racist reasons mentioned. Being accepted by the locals is not what constitutes a local experience. I lived in Paris for 8 years and considered myself a local, but my accent always gave me away as being foreign-born. Still, I knew more about the streets and trends in Paris than most of my French friends who lived in Paris their whole lives, so there’s really no metric for gauging how “local” someone feels.

The onus is more on the experience itself. If you’re going to go to a restaurant that’s touting authentic French food, but it’s actually coming from a prepared frozen meal, there are red flags to raise. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white. If the experience is falling short of an expectation, it’s not your fault if you are engaging with it with an open mind.

Eiffel Tower

Travel is Personal: Do You, But Do It Responsibly

By the end of the CNN article, we land on a solid point – that travel is personal, that tourist attractions are OK. It’s funny to me because it seems a little elitist to make such an argument. It’s almost like an aristocrat telling people in an article, “Look, it’s OK not to be poor! Let’s celebrate it!” I’m sure the author didn’t mean it that way, but it comes across as a bit patronizing. Anyone who appreciates tourism and travel in any capacity isn’t going to scrutinize going to a tourist attraction so aggressively. But if a CNN writer says we have to scrutinize these things, then surely we were wrong in the first place, right?

A look into tourism studies – even for beginners – reveals a more realistic concept that sums up what this author is trying to get at. The idea of post-tourism, elaborated recently by John Urry and Jonas Larsen in their book The Tourist Gaze 3.0, gets to the heart of it. They write that post-tourists “find pleasure in the multiplicity of tourist games.” They know that there is no true authentic experience, and moreover they revel in the inauthenticity of places like Disney World where it’s purely escapism. Guilty, as charged!

So they take the touristy with the non-touristy, appreciating it all in the end. The person who books an Airbnb on the premise that they are getting a local experience isn’t going to shun Notre Dame, the Louvre, or the Eiffel Tower. They mix and match, creating their own personal experience. Some people love chain restaurants but are equally at east walking through a food market in some far-flung part of town. Guilty again, but I am the model post-tourist.

So, CNN, I will not thank you for making “being a tourist” OK. As a tour guide and travel writer, I’ve been doing that for years, and others before me as well. I always told my visitors, look, it’s totally fine to want to go these places. MacCannell describes that there are rituals in society that people like to partake in, to feel part of a larger community, and tourist attractions satisfy that need.

Someone may feel righteous that they didn’t go to the Eiffel Tower, but really, who’s the fool? The person who satiated their curiosity for a cultural icon and took part in a piece of historical narrative, or the person who shunned it in favour of a pop-up chai tea stand run by an Australian lawyer and British copywriter who just moved to Paris to dabble in chai?

I defend the right to either, but if we’re going to talk about these things, CNN, let’s do some homework first.

More energy should be focussed on discussing how to be a responsible tourist, a sustainable tourist, a good tourist. It’s not about whether or not you go to the Eiffel Tower. It’s whether or not you buy trinkets from the illegal vendors underneath it. It’s not about whether you visit the Louvre or not. It’s about whether or not you start touching the art when it clearly says do not touch. It’s not about walking over the Pont des Arts or not. It’s about deciding to lock a padlock to its gates, ultimately committing an act of vandalism.

It’s not tourist vs. traveller dichotomy anymore. Those days are over. We’re all post-tourists whether we realize it or not, but are we good post-tourists? Let’s have a chat about that soon, shall we?


Click here to post a comment

Have something to say? Join the conversation!

  • That penultimate paragraph really hits the proverbial nail on the head. Especially that bit about the so-called "love locks." Ugh. And they're showing up everywhere now; just saw some in Prague last month.

  • Thanks for the thoughtful piece on tourism. I think of authenticity from the perspective of Heidegger or Sartre–what makes an experience "authentic" is my being able to get myself out of the way and stay open to what happens, open to whatever presents itself, open to the moment doing what moments do best–surprising the hell out of us. Great website, too, by the way!

  • Thank you – for both the article and the comment. Very encouraging to an older solo traveler at last free to explore at will. Returning to Paris soon and looking forward to returning to some traditional experiences and seeing if I can find some new ones.

  • Do a little research beforehand. Learn a few French phrases so you will sound reasonably gracious. See whatever you want to see. The Eiffel Tower is lovely to see, though a bit of a mess just right underneath–but still worth doing once. Notre Dame is magnificent and worth a look. It's worth going up into the Arc,, etc. Lots of people go to see them simply because they are worth seeing. So nothing to apologize for. Remember that, even in Paris, a short walk away from these icons will probably bring you to a section of "real" Paris and get you away from the hordes of people. Deliberately go to areas off the tourist track–not to be "in the know", but because they are worth seeing. We wandered around in the 17th Arrond., and enjoyed it a lot. Be polite, not loud, don't look for negatives. You can have a wonderful time.