Being a tour snob risks missing out on good times, writes Sarah Pollok.
There I was in Paris, wandering through the sun-soaked streets as I took in the last day of my weekend trip. It had been, on all accounts, the perfect quintessentially French experience. Staying with a French family, I would let their breakfast table chatter wash over me before giving them double-cheek kisses and walking to catch the train into town.
As the afternoon hit I found myself at my favourite cafe, where I settled down with an espresso and Hemingway novel in an effort to be as French as humanly possible.
It was then that I heard the unmistakable racket of a tour group. Spilling off the street they were being herded along, easily identifiable by their matching bumbags, obtrusive cameras and palpable cluelessness. Pursing my lips, I stared disdainfully, unable to work out why these proudly foreign people irritated me as much as they did. It was only later I realised they were always a reminder that no matter how many espressos I drank or French phrases I learnt, I would always be just as much of a tourist as them.
There is no question that "authenticity" is having its moment, especially in travel. No longer satisfied with superficial tours and popular sights, we want travel that is genuine and unique, to experience a place "like a local". Tourist has become nothing short of a personal insult, with connotations of being arrogant or uncultured, while a "touristy" attraction is one to avoid.
So, why the sudden desire for authenticity over tourism? The answer, surprisingly, lies with economists who identified a shift in purchasing priorities, which gave rise to what the Harvard Business Review called "the experience economy". The same report went on to suggest that unlike past generations, who found status in owning objects such as houses and cars, people now desired entertaining and aesthetic experiences. Market researcher Harris Insights and Analytics reached a similar conclusion in a 2013 study that found 75 per cent of 18-34-year-olds would choose to spend money on experiences like travel and concerts rather than objects. As for the "why" behind this change, IKEA's head of sustainability Steve Howard suggests it is the only response left after mass-materialism, saying, "in the west, we have probably hit peak stuff".
The growing appreciation for travel isn't just determining how we spend our dollars but how we define ourselves. We are no longer what we "have" but more what we have "done", with extra points awarded to those who put it on social media. In this way, travel's core purpose is no longer just to enjoy oneself but to also make a statement about who we are as individuals, the countries and experiences becoming elements that curate and define our identity.
It makes sense then that we want our overseas affairs to be unique and exotic, setting us apart from the crowd of commoners.
As a self-professed tour snob, I'll be the first to confess my disdain when I see a hoard of disoriented sightseers tumble off a tour bus. However, it's important to remember that a
fine line sits between the desire to assimilate into a culture and excluding potentially enjoyable experiences in a dogged pursuit of obscurity and individuality.
Wandering off the beaten path of tourist-catered culture is by no means a bad thing, as long as one does so knowing that it doesn't take value away from those who choose to walk the road most travelled. Walking up the Eiffel Tower, posing in front of Niagara Falls or watching a Broadway show has undoubtedly become cliche, but these things are cliche because they have captivated people for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
We go and marvel by the millions at these "touristy" things because they have value worth marvelling at and this doesn't fade with popularity. The view from Machu Picchu or the genius of a Da Vinci doesn't change in its value when it becomes known or popular, it's our attitude that changes.
More people are travelling to more places than ever before. The undiscovered corners of this world are disappearing and with them, the elitism of travel. No longer reserved for the wealthy corporates or boho vagabonds, the world has never been so easy, cheap or accessible to see. It's up to us to decide whether this opens up our maps, or closes them off in pursuit of ways to "stand out".
That's not to say we have to sign our lives away to overbearing tour groups or tacky packages. Stay in the Airbnbs, ask the locals where to eat and always try and fit into the unique rhythm of the city you find yourself in. Take public transport and learn the foreign phrases but remember it's okay to embrace your inevitable status as a tourist, camera, bumbag and all.
Don't spend your days away constantly chasing authenticity because you might just miss the beauty of where you actually are.