Friday, May 4, 2007

Are You a Tourist, or a Traveler?

When you travel to foreign lands, are you a tourist or a traveler? Do you like the tour bus, the five-star hotel or resort, the Michelin-rated restaurants? Or do you check out the public transport, sleep where you have to carry your own bags to the room, and eat more like the average locals?
There's something to be said for both, I suppose. But if your trip consists mainly of snapping photos through the tour bus window, why not just stay home and watch the Travel Channel?

One of the most memorable hotels I've stayed in was in Istanbul, across the plaza from the Blue Mosque. The shower flooded the toilet, my friend and I had to share a bed, and we were jolted awake every morning at 5:00 by the call to prayer. Memorable bus trips include a city-to-city bus in Cote d'Ivoire with the African music blaring at ear-splitting decibels, another bus in Cameroon which was so packed I could barely move for 3+ hours (and my friend couldn't move even his foot), and a "city" bus in Zanzibar that was a pickup with benches and a canvas roof (and a freshly-caught stingray on the roof). Then there was the memorable ferry ride in Tanzania where they handed out barf bags before departure and a goodly number of the passengers actually had to use them. The airplane flight in Nepal where the lady threw up on me. The open-air, streetside restaurant in Cairo with fresh-grilled meats, local families chilling, and cats milling about our feet hoping for leftovers. The accidental concerts where I poked my head into a church and somebody was rehearsing (or getting married).

OK, I admit that I prefer a clean, quiet hotel room with facilities, and I don't cotton to being barfed on while flying or compressed and roasted on a bus. But I agree with the sentiments below, expressed by Arthur Frommer, founder of the Frommer's tour books. We learn more as travelers than we do as tourists.

Here's an excerpt from the interview with Frommer, or you can read the whole interview here:

Q: Why did you focus on budget travel?
AF: As a soldier traveling in Europe on a Pfc's pay, I discovered that not only was budget travel possible but that it was preferable; that it was a better form of travel. It enabled you to enjoy the authentic aspects of the cities you were visiting and to remove yourself from the artificial world of tourism.

There was a day in Paris when I was traveling on my own, before I did the GI's Guide, and I was sitting in a sidewalk café writing letters home, nursing a little glass of wine for several hours -- to enable me to keep sitting at that café. I looked up and saw a motor coach of forty or so American tourists passing by with everyone's noses pressed to the glass looking out at the life of Paris from the inside of the bus. At that moment, I realized that the difference between them and me was that they had money and I had no money -- and because I had no money, I was having the time of my life. That if I'd had any money, I would not be sitting at an exotic cafe, meeting Parisians and involving myself in the life of Paris ... I would be in that bus, having a second-rate experience.

I suddenly realized that when you travel, the less you spend, the more you enjoy. The experience is better. And I held onto that lesson and will go to my grave still advocating it. That's the love for budget travel which underlies Europe on 5 Dollars a Day.

Q: What was the biggest challenge travelers faced around the time that Europe on 5 Dollars a Day was published?
AF: It was overcoming the advice given to the American traveler, that Europe was a "once in a lifetime" visit that had to be accomplished in the grand manner. The idea that you took several suitcases, you went there for a lengthy trip, you lived only in first class hotels, that you could not possibly hazard staying in a hotel of second-class quality. The idea that you would be eaten up alive by bedbugs in war-torn Europe. People were being told at that time by the entire American travel industry that there was only one way to travel in Europe and that was first-class.

Q: What do you feel is the biggest challenge facing travelers today?
AF: The biggest challenge is keeping travel authentic. Getting away from the tourist mill. Returning to the basic elements of travel and tourism. Going like a traveler, not like a tourist. Not bringing the United States with you, but remaining open to new ideas, new surroundings, new lifestyles, and new approaches to life. Listening instead of talking.

The biggest problem today is that whole vast areas of travel have been taken over by people who have commercialized the activity and made it more and more difficult to experience the authentic aspects of the travel experience.

Q: In the fifty years you've been involved in travel publishing, what has been your biggest surprise?
AF: It has been the invasion of an intellectual activity by people who regard travel as a trivial recreation and not as a learning experience. The great majority of the professional travel industry -- the tour operators, the hotels, the cruises -- treat travel as simply a form of entertainment. I have always believed that travel is the best form of learning and that it affects the mind in a way that no other activity -- even that of widespread reading -- can possibly do, and that, therefore, it has become an essential part of a civilized life.

1 comment:

  1. Cats? Wow, you hate cats, don't you? But, of course, these were Egyptian cats, who used to be gods over there once upon a time?
    I have several more amusing thoughts at this point, but I will spare you.

    Thanks for the posting, insightful as always.