I spend a little time on travel forums, groups and blogs, and I notice a propensity for self-proclaimed “travelers” – versus “tourists,” which seems to have become a pejorative term – to have a genuine phobia of “looking like a tourist.” They give advice to others to always blend in, act like a local, never do anything that might give away the fact you’re a foreigner on vacation. I’ve seen comments such as, “Don’t take out a map in public, you’ll look like a tourist!” “Don’t let people notice you have a camera, they’ll think you’re a tourist!” And for god’s sake, don’t wear zip-off pants – people will ridicule you for the dirty tourist you are!Large carpet seller inside the medina in Kairouan, Tunisia.
There’s a difference between acting like a moron or a jerk, or acting insensitively in another culture, and simply owning up to your tourist status.
I like “going local,” for example staying in a condo or apartment for awhile rather than a hotel so I’m forced to glimpse the daily local life, go grocery shopping, etc. I travel independently versus group touring as a personal preference. And I typically wear zip-off pants only when hiking; let’s face it, though, they’re practical. But the notion that I or you should never give ourselves away as tourists, i.e., foreigners who are, eh hem, touring a certain region, I find ludicrous. You may fear being a larger target for scam artists and pick pockets, but just don’t be flashy, be alert and use your common sense, and that’s usually a problem in large cities where even the locals are victims.One of many spectacular mosques in Isfahan, Iran.
Anyone who tries so hard to look exactly like a local, who won’t consult a guidebook in public, etc., is missing out on an amazing dimension of traveling. Because you will learn heaps more about a location by NOT looking like a local … who on earth walks up to a stranger they think lives in their town and tells them the secret cool places to see, invites them to their home, explains subtleties about their culture? Have you ever done this to someone you think lives down the block? If you let the cat out of the bag that you’re a visitor, 90% of the people you encounter are thrilled to tell you about their country or city and to show it to you in ways you will never experience otherwise, no matter how much research you do beforehand on the internet or reading guidebooks or talking to other travelers in your hostel. Couchsurfing is a great way to interface with locals, but even that gives you only one person’s perspective.
Five Reasons to Drop the Charade and Admit You’re A Tourist
(1) Learn the best local routes and secret, unadvertised attractions.
I’ve read traveling advice such as, “Pretend you know what you’re doing even if you don’t; it gives you self-confidence.” I would argue it simply wastes your time. If you ask for directions or how to buy a bus ticket, people will tell you the best routes to get to your destination, which oftentimes only a local would know, and also they may tell you about something else that’s better than your itinerary or not mentioned in the guidebook.
My husband and I asked a fellow in Iceland how long it would take to drive to a certain location while gauchely studying our map. He answered us, but then volunteered that significantly closer was a place where we could see wild seals right along the coastline. Nowhere in our guidebook was this information disclosed. Had we not professed our ignorance of the locale, we would have missed a highlight of our trip.Seals in Iceland
Another time an Irishman struck up conversation with us when we stumbled into a small pub looking a bit dazed and confused because it didn’t look like a pub from the outside. We were clearly not locals, and eventually, after several mutual beers, he told us of a secret magical place … drew a map on a napkin we were to subsequently destroy. The locals know of it; he would never have confided it in us if he thought we already knew.
No one has ever given me the stink eye for asking them directions or how to do something. People are proud of where they live; give them an opportunity to show their pride and tell you about it.
(2) Receive local hospitality.
If people know you come from a far-away foreign land, they may invite you into their home for tea or a meal.Locals offer us some homemade hooch as we walk by. (It actually didn’t taste that bad!) Kaokoland, Namibia.
When my husband and I were in Tunisia and he accidentally spilled his beer at a restaurant, if we had looked like locals, the guy sitting at the next table would likely have watched the scene without comment. Instead, noticing we were foreigners, he took the opportunity to come to our table and introduce himself. We exchanged a lot of questions and answers about our respective cultures, and before the night was over, we had ditched the restaurant, he had us over to dinner at his sister’s house, and took us out to a nightclub (on his dime, nonetheless). He didn’t do this because he needed company for the night; he wanted to show us Americans his culture’s hospitality.
(3) Gain cultural insights and friendships through conversation.
Anyone who advises you to blend in at all costs and look local has clearly never traveled to a country populated by people of a different race than theirs. The “I’m not a tourist” ploy is utterly impossible and therefore pointless. I’ve been to several places where I didn’t see another white person (my race) for days in a row. And when you’re the only white person around, people come up to you out of the blue and strike up friendly conversations because they (a) are interested in you, and (b) want to practice their English. Naturally you need to dress culturally appropriate and observe prudent social customs, but otherwise letting your touristyness hang out is the easiest way in the world to make friends and the easiest gateway to cultural and social insight.Typical convenience store in Lesotho. Notice the sign banning firearms.
Within 10 seconds of entering a liquor “store/pub” (literally a hole in the wall with one refrigerator half full of beer and a television) in Lesotho, the patrons were barraging us with questions because we were clearly tourists. We gained some perspective on their country when they asked things such as how many times we’d met President Obama, (i.e., that their president is very accessible), and a little understanding of their perception of America (i.e., not comprehending how huge and populated it is).
If we were presumed locals while we were in Peru, my cousin would never have been asked with great curiosity how many chickens she owned, nor would I have been asked in South Africa by Zulus how many cows my family owned, which are awesome and insightful questions to be asked, but no one randomly asks this out of the blue of their own countrymen.
(4) Learn subtleties of the local language.
Similar to (3), you will give yourself away as a tourist the second you speak, anyway, unless you’re freakishly fluent in all languages as well as accents of the world. I’ve learned plenty of fun phrases and idioms by not hiding my tourist status, as well as things not to say because they mean something different and more rude than what they mean in America. This is the kind of thing locals will kindly teach a foreigner. Often it’s a fun game to teach each other slang and popular phrases from your respective languages.
If people know you’re a tourist, they’ll actually save you a lot of embarrassment in their country by pointing out linguistic pitfalls. (Or in Iran, for example, that giving a thumbs-up sign means what giving the middle finger to someone in America does. If they thought you were a local giving a thumbs-up, you would likely cause a scuffle! But they understand tourists’ ignorance about this.)
(5) Come home without regrets for missing photo opportunities.
I’m all for putting away the camera from time to time, but are you really going to pass up something amazing you’ll see only once in your lifetime just because you might look like a tourist if you’re holding a camera? Also, here’s a newsflash for you: I often take pictures of my beautiful mountain hometown and nearby cities. I’m not a tourist, I’m a local and I just have a camera. If people are judging me in my own town in some demeaning way for having one and using it, well that’s really their problem, not mine.Kids are some of the easiest people for tourists to make friends with … if you ask, they usually love having their photo taken.
You worry that people are going to laugh at you for looking like a tourist? Well sure, kids might laugh at you, but kids laugh and make fun of their very own peers and classmates in school every single day of the year. So what? We’re adults; deal with it and get over the cool kid syndrome.
To be a good traveler, you need to be respectful, be tolerant and patient, take hardships with grace, and be flexible. And if you want to attain the best local experiences – to be invited to someone’s home for dinner, have culturally enlightening conversations, learn which words you should never say, get insider tips on secret or off-the-beaten-track sights, and yes, make genuine friends with the locals, then in my experience, you should just be who you are – be a tourist. *
Shara Johnson plots her travels abroad from her home in the mountains of Colorado, and is aware of the irony that her travel persona on social media contains the word “traveler,” but she established this before the term came to be used in opposition to “tourist.” You can follow her adventures at SKJ Travel.