Like many expats, I do a fair bit of traveling but it has never occurred to me to try to look like a native at my destinations. Who am I kidding? With my lily-white skin and fair hair, I stick out like a sore thumb in some countries. I came across this article however, which seems to suggest you don’t ever want to look like a tourist when traveling. Hmmm…did I not get the memo?
The writer claims – “The consequences of looking like a tourist in a foreign place can range from serious (becoming a target for theft and scams) to humorous (awkwardness, frustration, public embarrassment). Here are a few of the most blatant ways that your lack of familiarity with local culture in Europe can bring you public shame and humiliation, plus advice on keeping it cool while abroad.”Public shame and humiliation? Where on earth are you visiting that the locals are so judgmental. (No one say Paris.) Okay, I know the piece is slightly tongue in cheek but what on earth is wrong with admitting your “lack of familiarity with local culture”? I would have thought you’d look like more of a plonker if you pretended to know the country and quite obviously didn’t.
Obviously, coming across as a naïve tourist can sometimes get you into trouble. Walking around with wallets and purses dangling behind you is an obvious one, as is getting into cabs when you have no idea whether they’re real cabs or not. Another one, which I fell for a few years ago in Ghana, is not to look at your hotel receipt as soon as you get it. I had to pay cash, up front for a hotel stay. It was very late at night when I arrived and very dark in the reception area. When handing over the cash, being the “savvy traveler” that I am, I counted it out loudly to the desk clerk, and asked him to verify the amount, which he did. He then gave me a hand-written receipt that I kept safely during my stay. On my last morning I was asked to pay “the balance”, which apparently was $100. I told them I had paid in full but the (different) desk clerk pointed to the carbon copy of my receipt, which indeed showed $100 outstanding. And yes, my receipt said the very same; the little monkey had written a lesser amount down knowing that I would either not be able to see it clearly or just not check it. (When I asked to see the manager about it, or speak to the desk clerk who had checked me in, it was suddenly “not a problem”, by the way.)
When traveling, I like visiting the sites; I’m not a beach person. I also like to learn about places and try the food (with caution – I have the digestive tract of an octogenarian.) That means playing tourist. There seems to be a certain label attached to being a tourist or doing touristy things. Apparently in some circles, there is even a distinction between tourists and travelers, nicely explained (and then lambasted) here.
In fact the writer hits the nail on the head when saying “….when we visit an attraction or destination that is known for being a tourist hotspot, we cannot become jaded about it. Tourist attractions are popular for a reason. If you decided to avoid the Pyramids of Egypt because you don’t like stones piled on top of each other, that is your own personal inclination. If you skipped them because there were too many people there, you may be looking too far into the situation. If you thought Angkor Wat was not worth visiting because other people were visiting it too, you need to spend more time admiring the temples themselves. To me it is ironic that someone would travel to a tourist destination and then complains that there are tourists there.”
So go on, don’t be afraid to get your tourist on!
Toni Summers Hargis has a new book – “The Stress-Free Guide to Studying In the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students”. (Summertime). She is also the author of “Rules, Britannia; An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom” (St. Martin’s Press) and blogs as Expat Mum.
Read Toni's other Expat Focus articles here.