In Defense of the Touristy Traveller

Woke millennials might screw up their noses at tourists, but there is nothing wrong in sightseeing the old-school way.

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Photo by: John Sones Singing Bowl Media/Getty Images

Two years ago, when I was in Oslo for two days, I did as much as I—or anyone—could in 48 hours. I took a boat ride to a fjord, checked out “The Scream” (and every other painting), did a walking tour through the city, went to the sculpture park, the Viking and Polar expedition museums, and dispatched a bunch of postcards. I went to the city hall where they have the annual Nobel Prize ceremony, thinking I really ought to have got one for efficient sightseeing.

Luckily my companion on that trip was literally a fellow traveller, down for hustling with the fervour of a rampaging army. We made actual lists, writing up and crossing out things to do and places to see, enjoying that warm fuzzy feeling of achievement that comes with conquering the touristic canon. I know, I know. It sounds so utilitarian, so planned, so decidedly uncool. But at the end of two days, I felt like the city had gone through me even as I’d gone through it—distilling its essences into each of the clichéd things seen and done.

Of course, the woke traveller would have disapproved. No charming locals had been befriended for an insider’s take. Not a minute had been spent idling in some park as birdsong rent the air and a renewed life purpose was discovered. No fortuitous misstep had led us to the streetwalker with a heart of gold who gave us free cocaine, and traded hallucinogenic confidences in the twilight by the sea as Santa’s elves gambolled.

The zeal with which we hewed close to the obvious would have earned us prime spots on the thinking traveller’s hall of shame. We had seen monuments, for god’s sake! We were a blot on the millennial travel ethic! At one time I even worried that other friends would slow down our two-person sightseeing juggernaut, diverting our agenda into excessively indulgent lunches and focus-free walks. You know, that crowd—the one that says it’s all about the journey, not the destination. But what if I sometimes really want just the destination; journeys, epiphanies and serendipitous street-walker encounters be damned?

Here is the thing: I am not a traveller, I am usually just a tourist. And despite the high-minded exhortations of the travel ecosystem, there is no shame in being a tourist. I am one, out and proud. I am the kind of tourist who is a bane for many of my friends—I want to check the boxes, I want to see the famous paintings and eat the local foods and do the mainstream things that seem to be on everyone’s hitlist these days. Basically, I am way off trend, and I’m here to tell you, that it’s okay, you can be too. If you want to buy that overpriced souvenir and take that cheesy hop-on-hop-off bus tour, I hear you sister. If you want to inhale a town in one afternoon, don’t let any avant-garde listicle tell you otherwise.

Over the years, the word “tourist” has acquired an unpleasant stench—reeking of packaged holidays and whistle-stop visits in crowded buses. There is a special contempt for “tourism” and a noble sense of purpose about “travelling”. You are urged to go “off the beaten path”, discover the unexplored, forge through cities’ “best-kept secrets”, because this confers a sense of discernment. You are apart from the crowd.

Grubby old me, on the other hand, just wants to stand in line for hours to press up against the sweaty bodies of strangers to cop a look at the Mona Lisa. I want to skim my hand along the remnant of the Berlin Wall and climb to the top of Table Mountain, thanks very much. I wouldn’t be able to say I visited Paris, Berlin or Cape Town otherwise. If that makes me a square, I am prepared to be a square because I have had it with the world telegraphing a message that unless you are a certain kind of traveller, why travel at all?

I have nothing against slow travel or idle wandering. But it increasingly feels like excessive navel gazing wrapped up in the language of exceptionalism. It has the social sanction that that old dinosaur “sightseeing” does not. If you have just one chance to see a place and a limited budget to see it in, don’t feel hounded by the hackneyed sloganeering swirling in the ether. Race head first down the beaten path, if that’s your thing. Everyone is so busy diving off it anyway, the path will be all yours. And I’ll be the person just ahead, the one with the to-do list and no time for pleasantries.

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

  • Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist. She was previously a beat reporter with the Hindustan Times. She usually writes on criminal justice issues, culture, books and sports.

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