The Rambling American: Tourist Terrorists

Locke McKenzie weighs the superficiality of tourism against the desire to experience new cultures.

Sitting on one of Antoni Gaudí’s ornate benches in Barcelona’s Park Güell, I feel ill. Hawkers stand behind cardboard boxes peddling cheap sunglasses and glass pendants while thousands of people mill about in fanny packs and group t-shirts.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” I say to my friend. “I’m freaking out a little bit.”

I hate large groups of tourists. They completely overwhelm me, and in Barcelona they are everywhere. I don’t know what I expected coming to the fourth most popular tourist destination in Europe (after London, Paris, and Rome). I guess I still hoped to have my own experiences, but everywhere we went, we did so alongside thousands of others.

This is pathetic, I thought to myself. The beautiful Park Güell is useless for reading or enjoying nature, and the Catalonian feel of the historic Barri Gótic is completely lost in the overwhelming screech of English voices.

What has tourism done? Barcelona’s inhabitants are slowly watching their city and culture get taken over. Now even the outsiders (the ones who have taken over) can’t get real feel for the city because they’re the only ones there.

Tourism has destroyed everything in its wake.

Right?

Graffiti in Barcelona.

Graffiti in Barcelona.

There are plenty of discussions on the negative effects of tourism on a country and it’s culture. I myself have often accused it of being a form of neocolonialism. A tourist comes in with their rolls of money (read: influence) and runs amok. They buy and demand and spread their influence until the culture adapts to their needs.

But according to Erik Cohen’s essay “The Sociology of Tourism,” this is not necessarily true. Unlike explorers, conquerors, missionaries, or even anthropologists, in a tourist-local situation the locals have the upper hand. A local’s advanced linguistic, geographical, and social knowledge place the tourist at their mercy.

The tourist walks around with a pocketful of money and a map that hardly seems to fit the streets, and the local gets to decide how much he/she wants to exploit this situation.

It is not the locals who are dehumanized and commodified; it’s the tourists.

If we take my time in Vienna — another tourist infested city — as an example, we can see exactly how easily the local population takes advantage of the tourists.

I had to walk directly past St. Stephen’s Cathedral every day. The number of tour groups in this area is uncountable. Besides making the streets noisy and crowded, however, they had no impact on my day. After a while they became no different than the horse droppings I had to walk around.

The men dressed in Mozart costumes, however, preyed on the tourists like hungry lions on antelope.

I think in many ways the ability to ignore tourists is a source of local pride. It differentiates their real city from that of the stupid facade.

“I hate Times Square,” a friend of mine living in New York recently said to me. “It’s so tourist infested. Locals never go there.”

So when a Barcelona travel guide laments the locals’ loss of Las Ramblas — the city’s main promenade leading to the beach — I wonder how much the locals truly feel the same.

Instead of getting used and abused, local society isolates the tourists. I certainly saw this in both Vienna and Barcelona. They have men dress up like Mozart or they put up street performers and tapas restaurants in one area and let the tourists loose. Then they don’t have to be bothered by it.

This then sets up another question: if the tourists are isolated from the locals, how can they learn anything about the city they are visiting? On the artificial island the tourist industry has set up it would seem impossible to have any genuine experiences.

In his essay “The Social Psychology of Tourist Behavior,” P.L. Pearce seems to agree with that statement. He says that tourism is much more about reinforcing what we already know about a city than it is about coming to new understandings.

Sad but true. Most people who visit a city for a week or two without any personal contacts are not going to see much more than the travel channel and guidebooks have already described. And if I’m honest, this is also true for me.

On my first trip to Eastern Europe in 2005, for example, I remember walking around taking pictures of houses with big holes in the roof and missing walls. The whole time I commented on how perfect I thought it was that it was cold and overcast on that particular day. I wasn’t gaining new insights on that day in Bratislava, I was simply seeing what I had expected to see.

One could say that the same is true of my trips to the Ukraine and Paris respectively. In the Ukraine I was more surprised than expected by the extreme poverty, but in seeing a group of people shoveling the streets rather than using a snow plow, I thought to myself, of course.

In Paris I walked through the streets stopping to drink espresso and wine. I meandered most of the day through massive crowds of tourists and stayed in the main tourist districts. In many ways, it was exactly what I expected it to be: the romantic, over-crowded Paris we haven’t gotten to know through books and movies.

Within the short amount of time that I have spent in Barcelona or any of these other cities, it was unrealistic to think I’d discover the true depths of the culture. But although most short trips are laden with preconceived expectations, there are always a few surprises, and these alone were enough to make the trips worth-while.

In Bratislava, for example, there was art everywhere. There were multicolored cows with boobs, a house completely painted in flowery, hippie-esque designs, and beautiful gardens. They may have seemed simple, but they were completely surprising in stark contrast to many of the worn-out buildings and monotonous communist blocks. It showed the city’s growth and its reaction to its past.

The colored cow in Bratislava.

The colored cow in Bratislava.

Although the poverty of the Ukraine was striking, my conversation with two wealthier-looking guys from Kiev also defied my expectations. After seeing their new MacBooks and single-lense reflex cameras, I was not surprised when made it clear to us that they spoke Russian (another surprise: most of the Ukrainians we were keen to make distinctions between themselves and their former dictator). My friend and I were surprised, however, when they turned out to be nerdy computer programmers rather than your prototypical Russian mobsters.

In Paris, I must admit that I was surprised by the exact things that I thought would be mundane. The problem with Paris is that it has been featured so often in our media that its image has turned into nothing but kitsch. While visiting I was astounded by how beautiful and noteworthy all of the sights actually were. The tourists still admittedly overwhelmed me, experiencing the city transformed it from something banal to illuminating.

Finally, we come back to Barcelona. While I feel I learned a lot while in the city, the one that struck me the most probably reflects poorly on me:

Spain is nothing like Latin America. This realization is admittedly naïve, but growing up in the United States, I had always associated Spanish-speaking culture with Latin America. This is not true at all. In Spain the people are quite reserved, ride brand new scooters, have beautiful old buildings, and are very wealthy. In every way, the Spanish are European.

These were the things I have learned while abroad. Granted, they are all relatively trivial — sometimes surprisingly so — but that just proves how important it is to visit these places.

I see my visits as a way for me to take a small nibble out of the whole European pie. Each trip has promoted a bit more understanding, and thereby moves each place from the fairy-tale image in my mind to the reality of its inhabitants.

Making these discoveries is a slow process — often times full of tourists — but it is one worth waiting in line for.

Locke McKenzie runs a language company in Munich, Germany. When not expounding on the finer points of communication, he tends to drink and write about it at Reinheitsgebot-Renewed.