I’m a Tourist

See the people in the yellow caps? That's a tour group! Piazza Rotunda (outside the Pantheon). Rome, 2012

See the people in the yellow caps? That’s a tour group! Piazza Rotunda (outside the Pantheon). Rome, 2012

“Tourist trap”
“Too many tourists”
“I’m a traveler, not a tourist”
The word “tourist” seems to have a lot of negative connotations. The definition of a tourist is one that travels for pleasure. Where did the negative come from? There’s a long tradition of people traveling from their homes to far off places. Maybe the religious pilgrimages could be considered early tourists. In the glory days of empires such as the Romans, Egyptians and Greeks, it’s likely people went to the major cities and centres to see the sights, perhaps get a glimpse of the ruler. These ancient sites continued to draw visitors all through the centuries. Explorers could be considered tourists, too, even if they didn’t know what they were going to find before they got where they were going.

The word “tourist” was first used in 1772. That’s just about the time that wealthy gentlemen began taking Grand Tours around Europe and some of the sites of the more ancient civilizations. They became tourists. Baedeker published guide books and maps to assist building an itinerary. At first, tourism was mainly something that you did if you had money or if you were poor and wanted to go on a pilgrimage. But soon, there were more means of transportation available which got cheaper and cheaper, chiefly train travel which linked widespread destinations. Organized tours companies sprung up. Local people made money guiding visitors. The industry flourished.

The crowds became thicker. And it seemed people in them started to be less inquisitive, more interested in the status of being able to say “I’ve been to…”. They were rude to the locals, didn’t try to speak even a few words of the local language or observe some of the customs. They complained because things weren’t the same as they were at home, as if they should be. That one always baffles me. Even today you hear people whine. If you want things to be the same as they are at home, stay home. The tourist gained a bad reputation even if it’s the case of a minority ruining the reputation for the whole because let’s face it, there are millions of tourists. They aren’t all rude and they don’t all complain. The crowds can be off putting. The attractions and the souvenirs become tacky, with too much corporate influence. But sometimes, corporate sponsorship is the only thing that helps keep them open. That’s not always a good thing but mostly, it is, especially in the case of historic sites. And “tacky” is often a personal opinion. Others might call it kitchy or fun. Everyone has different tastes.

Our tour group from the UK tour 1993

Our tour group from the UK tour 1993

People are becoming proud of bragging that they are a traveler, not a tourist, and they go to places that are less popular, more remote, and “live like the locals” as much as they can. That’s great if it’s what you want to do. If you want to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Great Wall of China, or the Pyramids of Giza and elbow your way through the crowds, that’s great, too. There’s always a way to avoid the more crowded times if crowds give you the heebie jeebies. You can still living like the locals and see the famous sites, visit the galleries and museums, shop and enjoy a wonderful meal with local wine. Locals do that, too.

As for me, I’m a tourist. I really enjoy historic sites, museums (especially quirky small ones, but any will do), galleries, cathedrals and other religious buildings (because the art is usually superb). I shop a little, take a huge amount of photos and like to try local beers and wines along with my food. As far as the major class “attractions”, I find a large majority of them are over-hyped, over-expensive and end up a disappointment. “Is that all there is?” I pick and choose, depending on the value that I perceive it to have for me.

The White Tower, Tower of London

The White Tower, Tower of London

The Tower of London is expensive, but it’s very historic. The Crown Jewels? I’ve seen them but I found the armoury and museum far more interesting. I’ve been to the Eiffel Tower but I haven’t gone up to see the view, which is a bit odd for me because I usually like going up high places like that. I do, however, think it looks amazing now that there’s a sparkly light show at night every hour. The Roman Colosseum was all the better because we booked a tour and heard about the history behind it. That really added to our experience.

It really does come down to personal taste as far as what you would enjoy, what you feel is worth the money and effort. Be polite, be curious, be open minded and be flexible. Go with the flow and be on your toes, too, because another down side to being a tourist is that you might be a target for petty crime, especially in crowds.

Whether you consider yourself a tourist or a traveler, you’ve journeyed away from home to experience new things, different cultures, or just a change of scenery. Whether it’s around the world or a day trip to a nearby location, being a tourist means new memories. That’s never a bad thing.

More views on being a tourist on WordPress’s daily challenge, here.

 

 

Tourist Traps: Come one, come all

Crowds at the Colosseum in Rome

People look down on the most popular spots in a destination, calling them “tourist traps”. They say these places are rip offs, scams, and attract throngs of crowds. All this can be true. But on the other hand, many of these places are of interest for various reasons, be it historical, architectural, religious or otherwise. Many of these places are iconic to the destinations. Does that mean you *should* avoid them?

Not necessarily. Some of them I do avoid, but many of them I visit anyway. It all comes down to personal choice and there are always ways to minimize the “trap”.

If the attraction has a very expensive entry fee, you have to decide how important it is to see it. If you can get the experience from viewing it from the outside, then it’s free. You don’t have to buy from the souvenirs or eat at the restaurants on site or near the site. If it’s that iconic, you can get souvenirs and postcards of it anywhere. Just compare the prices before you buy.

If it’s the crowds that put you off, go early in the day, or late in the day. If you can travel off season in the spring, fall or winter, even better. Chances are, there will still be lots of people but it won’t be claustrophobic.

I mention all this because I’ve just come back from Rome and believe me, there are quite a few iconic tourist destinations there that attract crowds. The good thing is that many of them are free or aren’t exorbitant in price.

So what did we see of these sites?

Vatican Museums = 15 euro for an adult entry.  Colosseum  = 12 euro for an adult entry. We paid a bit more because we booked a tour for both of them. In both cases, you see the highlights (Sistine Chapel!) but you can then stay on and wander around at your leisure. We were there in mid November, too, so though there were still lots of people, the crowds did not make us feel closed in.

The real “trap” feeling of the Colosseum is all the vendors in the area around it, both with booths set up or walking through the crowds attempting to sell you things they’re carrying. That can be really annoying. There’s also a few “gladiators” in costume and if you want your photo taken with them or want to take a photo of them, they expect cash payment. You can always take a photo from farther back with your camera’s zoom! The queues for tickets can certainly be very long. If you can pre-purchase them either online or from another agency, you will be able to use a much shorter line. We sailed through that one.

You see all the people in the photo with this post? This was taken on a November mid afternoon after we’d left the building. None of them are in queues to get in. They’re all just milling about looking at the structure from the outside. The day we were there, there seemed to be far more people outside than inside. Some are part of organized groups but most aren’t. Many, I’m sure were inside or were going to be.

St. Peter’s Square and Basilica are free and on Wednesday’s for the Pope’s “audience”, the square can fill up with thousands of people so keep that in mind.

Other famed tourist spots in Rome are the Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona, the Spanish Steps, and the Pantheon and piazza outside. The worst crowds we encountered here were at the fountain. There’s a tradition that you can toss a coin into the fountain to ensure a speedy return to Rome and it’s one that a lot of people take up. We did go, because the Baroque fountain covering the wall of a building really is lovely but we didn’t stay too long.Most of these are public squares or Piazzas so of course, they’re free to visit.

We visited all of these but my favourite is the Pantheon.  It was originally a temple and now a Christian church. The round domed structure is really beautiful inside. It, too, is free to enter and when we were there, not overly crowded though busy.

What seems to make an attraction a “tourist trap” is the sense that it’s not worth the price of admission or that it’s overpriced and far too crowded. The souvenir shops and restaurants tend to be overpriced. The food often of lesser quality (at least the ones by the Colosseum were, the other squares, maybe the quality doesn’t suffer but they ain’t cheap, even just for a cup of coffee.)

Some places you go are “visitor centres” and some of these really feel like rip offs. Some are very good with lots of information about the site but some are set up like a cheesy “experience” and you get little bang for your buck.

I wouldn’t avoid popular tourist attractions. If you’re going to Paris, why wouldn’t you want to see the Eiffel Tower? You don’t have to pay the price to go up, you can see it from most places in the city. You can walk across Tower Bridge in London for free. You can see the Statue of Liberty from the free Staten Island Ferry in New York.

Some attractions have a free entry day once a month or are discounted if you enter late in the day or on the evening opening. Expect more crowds but it’s a way to see or do something you might not want to pay the full price for otherwise.

It all comes down to your own interests, priorities and budget.