…but not touts.
I still haven’t had time to look through my Krakow photos. But when I think back to my first impressions of the town (since first impressions are all you really have time for during a weekend trip), the word touristy comes to mind. I had a really fun time there actually, but the town itself didn’t immediately blow me away.
Yes, I’ve shyly ventured into the realm of opinionated blog posts.
We chose to go to Krakow, of all places, quite randomly – I’ll admit it had never been on my list. Before our trip, I read some blog posts on Krakow, admired the photos and thought the Old Town must be so atmospheric. (I had also read that Kazimierz, the Old Jewish Quarter, was worth visiting. More about that in later posts.)
Nowhere did I read how touristy the Old Town was, however. Or maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. Why does it seem that Old Town areas everywhere are full of aggressive hustlers selling tours?
Krakow was no different, and I should have seen it coming. I was blind-sighted by the fact that we were visiting Poland for the first time and it seemed exotic.
Instead of atmospheric in a casual, real-life way, there were a dozen horse wagons in a row, with young ladies dressed up medieval style calling passers-by to ride with them. The driver was always male, the girl was decoration, it seemed.
There were tour touters, and rows of restaurants catering to large groups. I couldn’t tell if they were really in the business of offering culinary experiences, or rip-offs aimed at tourists who didn’t know where else to go. Some of the groups appeared to be locals (I later heard from Pooja that domestic tourism is popular in Krakow).
This is where I have mixed feelings. There’s nothing wrong with taking a tour in a rickshaw or miniature train or horse wagon. Who knows, I might even do it myself some day, if my feet hurt, my kids beg me to, or if I suddenly see the humor in it. I don’t want to judge people who choose these activities. There are a thousand ways to travel and tour, and they are all equally good.
But I don’t like the apparent attitude of some of these pushers. Not just in Krakow but anywhere, everywhere. The mentality that a visitor, a guest in your country (or town), is in fact just a walking wallet and also a silly doofus with funny tastes in life. It just seems so disrespectful to me, to us tourists and travelers.
Yes, I know you can’t judge a book by its cover. Some of these touts may have a heart of pure gold if you get to know them. Again, I’m talking of my personal first impressions. You know what I mean.
I used to work in the travel industry but that was completely different from this kind of tourism work – if you can even call it that. This touting kind of approach to tourism makes my head spin because I always loved the industry and meeting like-minded co-workers, I was inspired by the atmosphere of an airport or an airplane.
My former jobs in sales and customer service seem so naive in comparison to the Italian shopkeeper charging tourists extra, the Parisian taxi driver taking the long route, and the Spanish tour guide following people around on the streets armed with maps, right next to the beggar with the flower gift that they will ask 20 euros for while video-chatting on an iPhone. Mass tourism comes with a price.
I do understand that not everyone is fortunate enough to travel and to them, we who do must seem wealthy (even if it’s a business trip, for a funeral, or something else that isn’t actually fun leisure travel). But I also believe in creating your own opportunities.
I wanted to travel when I was young, so I learned some language skills and applied for airline work. Nobody handed me those jobs on a silver plate. I went out and pursued them, while studying for my degree at the same time, and it took some hard work to get what I wanted. We create our own luck. It’s not always easy and no one said it would be. But you are the master of your own existence. To an extent – we can’t control everything, but some things we can.
Thinking about how different my work in tourism felt compared to these services also aimed at tourists… this brings me to another topic that’s been floating around in my mind. Tourists vs travelers. What do you think about the distinction?
I’ve noticed a trend of bloggers separating travelers from tourists in their posts, maybe just because they have nothing else to write about, or maybe because they genuinely have an opinion on the subject. This trend invariably involves the authors considering themselves to be travelers, whilst looking down on those they call tourists. The bloggers tend to be quite young.
This division is interesting. I know there isn’t anything new about it, there were plenty of famous quotes already driving a distinction between the two categories way before social media. I am deliberately not going to quote any of them here. I am surely taking all this too seriously, but whenever I hear someone say something like, “Be a traveler, not a tourist” I get annoyed. Let me tell you why.
The problem for me is that one of them is always said in a derogatory tone, and the other one not.
What’s wrong with being a tourist, anyway? What is the difference between the two? Why is the person speaking always a traveler; what makes him a traveler and not a tourist?
In travel industry jargon, everyone was simply called “a passenger”.
We dealt with dozens of different types of passengers each day.
Business, leisure, solo, couples, groups, seniors, families, unaccompanied minors, crew members, police escorts. The ones with backpacks and the other kind with four fancy suitcases for just a weekend trip. Those with no luggage at all. Those with pets. Those with infants. Those who live in another country than their family. Those in need of medical assistance. Those who are fine but then get sick on the plane. Those that get drunk on the plane. Those who are afraid of flying. Those who fly so much they are never at home. The list could go on and on.
For the sake of argument, let’s only look at air travel. All these people use the same services. They all go through security control, maybe passport control depending on the countries involved, they have some spare time at the airport and have a coffee. They sit on the plane and use its services. At the destination, they need transportation, accommodation, food, the activities they came for. Everyone basically uses the same services no matter if they are on a business trip or a beach holiday or backpacking while blogging.
So why are some of these people looked down upon and called “tourists” as if it were a four letter word? Tourist, that horrible word!
Is it because of their choice of travel agent? But even the coolest websites where independent travelers can buy their self-tailored tickets are still travel agents.
Is it because of their choice of destination? But even in the most touristy destinations, there are people who call that place home. There is real life there, too.
Is it because of what they plan to do, or perhaps how they plan to do it? But how do these things differ from what the “traveler” does? Who decides which activities are okay and which aren’t? Is it about appearing cool, like we were in high school all over again?
Is it because they think that tourists are people who won’t leave the hotel area to explore the destination? But so what if that’s what someone wants to do on their highly awaited holiday. Maybe they just need a break somewhere different from home. (Warmer, perhaps?)
Is it because tourists might stay at an all-inclusive hotel which is somehow worse than staying at a hostel or an Airbnb? Hotels pay taxes and contribute to society that way, which Airbnb hosts don’t do. And even hostels are businesses.
Maybe the people staying at resorts and fancy hotels need it – the pampering, a few days of easy living – or maybe they simply got a good deal at that particular accommodation. How does it really differ from the backpacker who goes to a restaurant in a popular street where the restaurant owners mainly serve foreigners anyway?
Some travel bloggers seem to draw the line between travelers and tourists at whether you immerse yourself in the local culture or not. I agree that’s a great way to travel… but do you mean that all introverts are by default tourists?
One blog post I read a while ago went even further by stating that tourists have no regard for the environment (which is quite a stretch), and that they aren’t educated in their destination, just wanting generic experiences that they could have anywhere. And also that the companies the tourists use aren’t responsible.
My reaction to that is that most large companies these days don’t have the choice to not be responsible and that applies for companies in the travel industry, too. As for generic experiences… I agree that if you stay at a resort, it could be anywhere. That’s never been my style of traveling, but I could well imagine myself doing that in the future with our kids.
There’s a time and place for everything, and there may come a time in life where a generic experience of relaxation is all you want. History lessons and museum visits are enlightening but not always relaxing.
Personally, I’ve never understood the need to categorize and to judge other people’s traveling style or reasons. We are all different, and we go through different phases in life. Our travels evolve, too.
And that’s why I like how democratic the term passenger is. Nobody cares if you’re a seasoned traveler or a young newbie, or whether you have a popular blog or how many Instagram followers you have. You’re a human being, just like everyone else at the airport, on the plane, at the hotel.
To the locals, we are all tourists anyway. Even those who travel for work.
The slow-paced elderly couple on the chartered holiday flight might have traveled to 100 countries in their time, how would you know?
Maybe the quiet girl in the corner is on her very first trip abroad, but so what – we all start somewhere. The guy in the dorky tourist outfit might be the sweetest, gentlest guy on earth and totally excited to be traveling. The woman who was so confused that she couldn’t even find her seat might be on the way to the hospital, and so distraught that she’s not thinking straight.
Please don’t judge a book by its cover and please don’t label people as good or bad. Please don’t think that all tourists are silly doofuses or that they all want to do the same things on their travels.
We each have different priorities, resources and backgrounds leading to the choices we make. In a different moment in life, even the travel blogger who proclaimed he was not a tourist might make a touristy decision – and the touter on the street might end up taking a tour somewhere himself (and getting ripped off when they return his change at the restaurant the tour operator’s friend runs).
There are as many ways to travel as there are reasons to. None of them are better or worse than others. I even remember a time when not everyone wanted to travel in the first place, when it wasn’t the mainstream dream it is now. Is social media to blame?
This post wasn’t really about Krakow, which I liked and enjoyed visiting, and which I will be posting about later. These phenomena are quite global. I guess I was looking for something real, something authentic. Does that even exist anymore?
Luckily, I’d say there are still spots in the world where a visitor is left alone for some good old exploring of real places and real life, like my quiet hometown Helsinki.
Until one day, when it goes viral on Instagram!