Traveling tourists and who they are

In this HuffPo column, Lisa Haisha provides useful tips on being a traveler, not a tourist, in a foreign country.

I like Haisha’s definitions. She says, “A traveler immerses him/herself in the culture. Travelers make lifelong friends along the way, get off the beaten path and experience the culture as a local would. Tourists simply see the sights. Tourists keep to themselves, visit the usual “traps” and leave the location with lots of trinkets, but few amazing moments.”

Much of the advice given is solid. Dressing like the locals is one of the fastest and easiest ways to blend in. Carrying gifts and sharing what you have is simply good manners. A willingness to talk to strangers and be friendly is a must.

However I disagree with some of her minor pieces of advice. Now before you think I’m nitpicking just to take issue with ideas different from my own, I want to explain where this is coming from.

I moved from Salt Lake City to Chungju  one month ago. In that time I’ve met several Americans. One person has lived here for just four months, another for ten years. In these people I see different attitudes about travel that lead some of them to be “tourists” and others to be “travelers.”

Haisha writes, “If you don’t know the local language, don’t worry.” No, no, no! You should worry!  I know, I don’t know Korean, but it does create problems. Haisha goes on to say, “Almost everywhere around the world people speak some English. If they don’t, they likely know someone who does who can help translate.” While this is true, this requires people to go out of their way to help you.

Please be mindful of this extra task you are asking people to perform. You are a guest in a foreign country. I cannot stress enough the importance of being grateful for people’s help and expressing it. Although Haisha does suggest carrying a phrasebook or dictionary, I would say it’s important to go a step further and learn to say key phrases. It’s important to know please and thank you no matter where you are in the world.

You’re parents were right, good manners are good manners now matter where you go. That’s why the conclusion rubs me the wrong way.

Travel is venue for personal growth — both for you and the people you meet along the way. You gain an understanding of a new culture, and your new friends gain insights and experiences with a foreigner. Remember that many people in other countries never get an opportunity leave the village where they were born. So you’ll be enriching the lives of others, as well as your own.

What?! Are you kidding me?! This is the attitude I hate to see in anyone. More so than not speaking the language, not wearing the right clothes and taking pictures every five minutes–this is the kind of attitude that marks you as a tourist. If you go to a party where you don’t know very many people and you start acting like you are the coolest kid in the room, you’re an asshole. You will never get invited to a party with that group of people again.

And you know what? It’s the same thing when you’re in a country you’ve never been to before, where you know no one. Who wants to meet a tourist who is thinking, “I’m doing you a favor by coming to your developing nation?” No one! You are an asshole. Don’t get off the plane thinking you are doing anyone a favor.

I don’t know Haisha. I haven’t read her previous work and perhaps the conclusion was rushed in her efforts to meet a deadline. I can only hope she doesn’t really think she’s doing a people a favor when she imposes on them to translate for her every step through their homeland. It is the people who remember they are strangers in a strange land and show gratitute for the help from the locals, who truly enjoy their travels and become what Haisha calls a “traveler.”


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