In Defense Of Tourists

We’ve all been there. We’ve rolled our eyes at the tourist in front of us who couldn’t figure out the ticket machine when we were in a rush. What if, instead of being annoyed by it, we tried to remember how it feels to be a tourist? What if we tried showing them some compassion?

I want to make one thing clear: There are some things that tourists do that aren’t acceptable. Often, those types of tourists make the news. In defacing statues or walls of monuments, in hurting local people, in doing things that go against the local culture, and so on. This is not a defense of those kinds of tourists.

I’m talking about the old grandparent couple who are struggling to read a map and mispronouncing the name of the place they’re trying to reach. I’m talking about the group of twenty-somethings (or worse, “millennials”) who want to take photo after photo after photo, even when no one else understands what they’re taking photos of. I’m talking about the family that walks around slowly, open maps in sticky hands, children grumbling about the amount of walking they’ve done so far while their parents bribe them with more apple juice and argue about the best route to the next landmark on their to-see list.

I just watched an argument take place between a tourist and a local. The tourist was standing in the middle of the sidewalk to take a photo of a street sign, and the local just wanted to get to work. Neither really seemed to understand what the other wanted, and both were in the wrong in that situation. But it got me thinking…

Tourists are so often seen as annoying, in-the-way, and clueless.

Okay, so I’ll admit it. I’ve had my fair share of being annoyed at tourists.
With just over a month of living in London, I’m already easily annoyed at people who stand on the left side of the escalators, or even worse – right smack in the middle – which means no one can walk past them. I’ve sighed impatiently once or twice as a group of tourists has taken up the entire sidewalk just to shuffle slowly along, maps in hand, trying to find their way about, while I myself try to speed-walk past them to get to work.

And yet… I have also been a tourist. And I have likely annoyed some locals. With “some” being a very generous descriptor.

The thing about tourists is that they come to enjoy your city (or town, or village, or other-named area of land). They come to see the landmarks, monuments, and yes, even street signs, that you walk past every day. The ones that you turn away from because “that’s a tourist thing, I’d never do that”, as you laugh at the exhaustingly long line of people waiting to buy tickets to see the monument.

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A seemingly mundane photograph that for me represents a beautiful morning I spent with someone close to me.

Yes, sometimes the photos they’re taking don’t seem to make much sense. Maybe they just think it looks pretty, or maybe there’s a story behind it!

I’ve taken photos that I know look mundane to others – and I’ve seen people look at me wondering why on earth I’m possibly taking a photo of a street sign on a street that isn’t famous, or of a simple door, or of the back of a nondescript building. At first, I used to feel a bit insecure about taking “odd” photos.

I’ve realized since then that it doesn’t matter if others think my photos are boring or weird. My friend who used to live on the street where I took a street sign photo was so excited to know that I had accidentally found her old street. My friend who loves hanging baskets in doorways absolutely loved the photo I took of the ‘mundane’ door on a random street.

Ultimately though, it shouldn’t matter what the reason they’re taking a photo is. Photos are one of the easiest (not to mention cheapest) ways to remember and share travel moments. That’s why I take so many. I can tell my friend all about the flower market I went to, but no words compare to the photos of the beautiful flowers that I could show them instead. There’s nothing wrong with taking photos of simple everyday pieces of a different city – sometimes even the simplest of things are extraordinary to us based on the rest of our life experience so far.

Tourists don’t always all travel just to see a famous historical landmark or a busy monument. Some people travel to see the differences in everyday life between their home life and everyday life in other countries.

So, yes, sometimes tourists may ask silly questions or make small faux pas or pronounce things weirdly and/or incorrectly. I myself have done all of those countless times. Just the other day, I mispronounced the name of a tube station. Through my manager and a co-worker’s laughter I learned that “Highbury & Islington” is not pronounced High-burry & Ileing-ton but High-burry & Iz-ling-tun.

For a moment, I wanted to duck out of the office and hide, as I felt ashamed for getting it wrong. And yet, I have watched tourists struggle to pronounce the place names of my own homelands, and though I may have laughed as their hesitant sounds were amusing to my ears – I didn’t judge them as people. I _have_ judged the tourists who insist on pronouncing something incorrectly because “that’s how (their home country) pronounces it”, because that shows no respect for the land they are currently in. But for the tourists who try and accidentally mess up words? There’s no need to judge them, in my eyes.

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I’m sure I could find much better photos of Big Ben on the internet. But I don’t want glossy magazine-cover worthy photos, I want this photo. Because I took it while I stood in front of it.

Judgement tends to be aplenty when there’s tourists involved, even from people who themselves have been the annoying tourist before. Because as humans we tend to judge ourselves based on our intentions, but others based on their impacts.

When we’re walking slowly and trying to find a restaurant or the next must-see attraction, we tell ourselves that it’s okay that we’re walking slowly and that we keep looking at the navigation app on our phone, because we’re walking on the side of the pavement and not taking up much room. Yet, when someone else is doing the same thing, we judge them and wonder why they couldn’t just look up where they were going and then memorize the route.

So, to all the locals, in London or any other area of the world – let’s all try to have a little more compassion. Ask the lost tourists if they need help with directions, kindly re-pronounce a difficult local word for someone, and point them to the best restaurant in town. You can laugh about it with your friends later if you want – but please don’t be rude to someone who just wants to see your city.

P.S. To tourists everywhere – go, explore, take photos of everything that catches your eye, do all the cliché things that are in every guidebook, try all the food you want. But respect local customs and rules and please, for the love of locals… stand on the right!*



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