I want to talk about something that I’ve become particularly aware of – and thought a lot about – since moving to one of the most tourist-lauded cities in the world.*
A couple of weekends ago I spent a very pleasant afternoon at the Louvre and on my day off earlier this week, I passed an hour or so sipping hot chocolate at Café de Flore. I enjoyed these activities immensely – and yet, when I told my colleagues about them, I did so almost apologetically. Sort of rolling my eyes at myself for being “such a tourist”. One or two of them laughed at me, albeit not unkindly, for the same thing. This happens a lot.
I am not, of course, a tourist in Paris. I have a job and a bank account, and an address here. I pay French taxes and French social security (exorbitant sums of it too). I have a favourite boulangerie.
I live here.
And yet, I am so concerned about not looking, or behaving like “a tourist”. It doesn’t stop me from visiting (and repeatedly photographing) all the famous hotspots – but it does make me feel almost guilty about it. Like I’m doing something distasteful. And I’m trying to shake that feeling off, because frankly, it’s ridiculous.
The fact of the matter is, generally, these places that are most popular with tourists are popular for a reason. They hold real historic or cultural significance; they’re one-of-their-kind; or they’re just really beautiful. Perhaps it’s the restaurant with the best *whatever they make* in the city, or the oldest salon de thé, or the inspiration for some feature of a celebrated piece of literature. Maybe the views are simply spectacular. Whatever it is, if tourists are flocking there, it’s because it’s probably really worth a visit. And it is such a crying shame that so many places – landmarks, restaurants, significant buildings, even whole towns – are shunned by locals and visitors alike as simply being “touristy”. The word is almost invariably used as a disparaging term, often accompanied by an ‘ew’ face (technical terminology), or a dismissive shrug of the shoulders, and I have encountered a lot of people who would explicitly avoid anything that fell into this category, declining even to make a one-time cursory visit purely on the grounds of this dirty word.
It’s not even a question of authenticity. Okay, a lot of people think/claim it is, but actually, the whole reason a lot of cafés, bars and restaurants, at least, have become tourist hotspots is because they offer an ‘authentic’ experience – the taste of local culture that every visitor to a new destination hopes to find. Maybe that sometimes means locals aren’t keen anymore, favouring quieter haunts, but it doesn’t detract from the ‘authenticity’ of the place itself. People are creatures of habit when they’re at home, and a lot of us are lazy in familiar territory; ‘locals’ frequenting a place is certainly no guarantee of superiority, and yet it’s the invisible stamp of quality often sought by visitors hoping to experience the best a location has to offer.
Don’t misunderstand me – there are plenty of features of tourism which really wind me up. Carcassonne was a great disappointment to me, between the fact that many of the (lovely) narrow, cobbled streets of the citadel were literally packed with sightseers, and – worse – the way that some (not all) of the local shops and restaurants were very ostentatiously (/tackily) orientated towards tourists (think lots of princesses and knights-in-shining-armour). There, all sense of authenticity is lost. Apart from anything, I was mostly just a bit sad – I had first learned about Carcassonne via a fictional TV series and I had fallen in love with what I saw. Admittedly, it was predominantly set in medieval France, so perhaps my expectations were somewhat skewed. Even so, the citadel is so old and has such a rich and fascinating history, I felt that something sacred had been desecrated with this pandering to the tourist industry in a way that most visitors wouldn’t actually remotely appreciate.
I will also acknowledge that there is an annoying ‘brand’ of tourist with whom we are all familiar and prefer to avoid at all costs. The loud, disrespectful kind who don’t even attempt so much as a “please” or “thank you” in the local language and treat whatever or wherever it is they’re visiting like it’s there for their personal gratification – and theirs alone. I am as irritated by these people as anyone. And now I think about it, I may write a post at some later point (to rant) about how just how irritated I was with said type of tourists in Notre Dame on Christmas Eve.
But do you know what? They’re the minority. And they’re probably just as irritating/rude/ignorant in going about their daily lives, when they’re not tourists. The term “tourist” is not synonymous with these sorts of people and should no more be an insult than “touristy” a reason to dismiss a place or activity.
My point is, just because something is frequented by tourists, it does not make it an undesirable place to visit per se. And I really wish people would stop looking down on the touristic escapades of others as being distasteful or inauthentic or whatever it is that prompts the pulling of that face. Hidden gems and untapped secrets make for the best discoveries, no doubt about it – but shun all things “touristy” and you will miss out on some of the most fascinating or beautiful things the world has to offer.
Oh, and taking lots of photos doesn’t make me “touristy” either. It just denotes an appreciation of my surroundings, thankyouverymuch.
I live in Paris, for goodness sake.
*According to Business Insider UK, Paris was the city with the third most international overnight visitors in 2017. Now you know. https://goo.gl/9SboEM