The word “tourist” has always had a negative connotation for me. I imagine people with obnoxiously large maps blocking traffic on a busy sidewalk. I think of the people whose hands are glued to their cameras. They choose to see a new place through the small screen of their smartphone instead of taking a moment to look up and enjoy the perfectly HD image that surrounds them in real time. A tourist visits everything their guidebook tells them to see but doesn’t take the time to explore. As English writer and poet G.K. Chesterton put it,
“The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.”
Despite the sometimes cringe-worthy thoughts that the “T- Word” may bring, I have come to terms with the fact that when I travel to a new place, I am, by definition, a tourist. It was a tough pill to swallow, but I’ve created a few guidelines to ensure that my fellow tourists and I don’t become the horrifying stereotype.
Here are my top 7 rules for being a good tourist:
1) Talk to locals.
You may have scavenged through hundreds of pages of guidebooks, travel magazines and blogs (obviously I’m a fan of this option), but nothing will beat talking to the locals. No one knows the ins and outs of a place like the people who live there. I recommend mixing in visits to all of the tourist attractions with some insight on the lesser known but equally awesome parts of the place the locals call home. It essentially guarantees that you will get a more holistic view of the destination and have a good time doing so. It may be intimidating and even difficult if a language barrier exists, but it is undoubtedly worth the effort.
2) Get lost and explore.
Although guidebooks and locals are amazing resources for information, even they do not know everything about your destination. Taking the time to explore and possibly get lost gives you the opportunity to find the hidden treasures just waiting to be discovered. Finding those secret gems that most tourists will never get to see makes it feel like that place is all your own. That vacation spot is instantly a little more special.
3) Take good pictures for your fellow tourists.
There is nothing more frustrating than when someone takes a picture for you and hands back the camera with a full-body shot of you that cuts off the beautiful (fill in the blank) in the background that you actually wanted to capture in the picture.
Think, people! This person asked you to take a picture in this particular spot for a reason. Think about what that reason may be or ask if you can’t figure it out. No one needs a picture of his or her legs if it means cutting off half of the Disney castle in the background.
Take good great pictures. Take more than one just in case. Different angles would be nice too. It will take only a maximum of two minutes but the good travel karma you will create is infinite.
4) Check your surroundings before stopping to take a picture.
Do you abruptly switch lanes without looking while driving on the highway? Do you slam on the brakes instead of slowly and smoothly coming to a stop as you pull over? Well, maybe you do all of those things, but you know you shouldn’t! It’s the same when stopping to take a picture. Do everyone a favor and take a quick look around before you stop to snap that photo, especially if you’re in a busy place like New York City where the sidewalk might as well be a highway. You will avoid traffic jams and collisions with other tourists, and the locals will thank you by saving their glares for the not-so-conscious traveler.
5) Put down the camera!
This is my last photography related rule before I step off this soapbox, and it’s a simple one: Put down your camera! A picture may be worth a thousand words, but sometimes a thousand is simply not enough to capture the beauty we can find in this world. So, put away your cameras and phones and soak it all in right in that moment. Some images will never look as amazing as what is actually right in front of you.
6) Ask questions.
A lot of information is thrown out at us tourists during those guided city tours and museum visits. It is very easy to tune out and let everything go in one ear and out the other. Don’t make this mistake. I am by no means saying we should strive to remember everything. For me, that would be impossible. What I am saying, however, is that if something peaks your interest, don’t let the moment pass you by without asking questions and trying to deepen your understanding. This is especially true if you are witnessing a culture very different from your own. Actually knowing a little something about what you are seeing or doing makes your experience more meaningful and gives you a few fun facts to take back home.
7) Be respectful.
If you ask your questions and seek to understand this new place and people around you but still find yourself scratching your head, be respectful. Don’t dismiss them as “weird” or “strange.” It is simply different from what you are used to. I have found this rule to be especially useful in places like Europe where many of the tourist attractions are religious places of worship.
I will never forget the group of tourists I saw loudly interrupt Sunday mass at a church in Spain. Instead of being respectful to the attendees who were trying to focus on the service, these tourists were too busy gawking at the beautiful architecture and artwork inside. It was incredibly rude, but they didn’t seem to notice.
Don’t be oblivious to what is going on around you. Be aware, and be respectful. It’s a great guideline to follow in all aspects of life.
What do you think of these rules? Do you have any of your own rules for good tourism that you would add to the list?