Oliver Farry on the pretensions of “travelers” versus the supposed naivete of “tourists”:
“They are also just as prone to finding something in their destination charming or ersatz. And the idea that a traveller or a tourist (let’s persist in this distinction one last time) is capable of fully comprehending more than a tiny fraction of what they experience while travelling is an illusory one.
The reality of any locale is constantly shifting, according to what is introduced to it or withdrawn from it – the presence of visitors is no different – and the best any visitor can hope to extract from a place is a distillate of the environment and culture, helpfully mediated through their own language, or at least one they can speak.
And, remember, to the locals, especially in countries that are less well off, there will be no doubt as to your status as a visitor – for a Greek or Portuguese person getting by on €700 a month, you are a tourist above all else, your pretensions to greater awareness notwithstanding. That is about the greatest measure of authenticity of the place you are visiting.”
I’ve back-packed through remote-ish parts of India and Laos. I’ve done more conventional one-day bus tours on Guam (where the tour guide only spoke Japanese, natch) and in Hong Kong (Victoria Peak is not worth the trouble). I paid a tuk-tuk driver 20 bucks to carry me to the Killing Fields outside Phnom Penh (I ended up having to assist him in some minor mechanical adjustments when we broke down 10 km outside of town). And I think this passage really nails the absurdity of trying to break travel into “authentic,” culturally enlightened experiences and mere “tourism.”
So much of travel is really about what you bring to the table — what you really want to see or experience, and if you do that in the most out-of-the-way cafe in Paris or one of Korea’s huge national festivals, more power to you. But chasing the “real” or “authentic” France, China, or Mexico is a fool’s errand, not to mention a fairly problematic one in terms of post-colonial or Asian (“Oriental”) countries.
I’ve always found “tourist-y” places kind of fascinating, actually. They’re not my preferred cup of tea but I want to experience as much of a foreign country as possible.
The economic point at the end is important as well. As a white dude in Asia, who the hell am I to arbitrate what an “authentic” experience of, say, Vietnam is supposed to be?
There’s no right way to travel, beyond realizing you’re a tourist no matter how elevated your tastes might be.
And I’ve said it before — one of the most authentic meals you can find in Asia is at a KFC. (Don’t stop there of course.)