My mother has always liked talking about the neighbours. Conny whose skirt is a little too short. And that at her age! And she just broke up with her husband, didn’t she? When I still lived with my parents some ten years ago, I did not really care. I usually let people be and live their lives – as long as it doesn’t harm others or themselves, of course.
Ever since I moved out, I have called one big city after the other my home: After my university city of Bochum came Hamburg, then Amsterdam, now Barcelona. And I have come to start talking about the people in my street and beyond, about tourists specifically. Tourists who stand dressed in bathing suits and flip flops in front of Gaudí buildings. Who go shopping only around La Rambla. I roll my eyes at people who think eating big bowls of paella around Plaça Catalunya is the Catalan way to go. Or hang on, do they actually know they are in Catalonia right now? In those moments I wonder if I have become an unbearably presumptuous kind of person or if I turn into my mother. But the truth is: Now I care. I care about the city.
The truth also is: I won’t get away scot-free here. I am a constant traveller myself. Recently I read an article by the German newspaper DIE ZEIT that suggests the real problem is that kind of traveller that claims to travel like a local. Those who presume to dive in to the destination’s local lifestyle, to dine among locals, to live among locals. I felt caught in the act. Why should exactly this style of travelling, which seems so soft, almost invisible, be a threat to locals and their city? According to the article package holiday-makers have their very own infrastructure and barely any touch points with the local community while the “sophisticated traveller” uses the locals’ infrastructure: sips coffee at the hip cafés, looks up insider tips, lives in the trendy neighbourhoods. This would lead to gentrification and a distortion of prices on the rental, public transport, alimentation markets. But not so quick – I won’t take that!
We need to talk about the package-holiday-tourist. The one who used to go to all-inclusive resorts and didn’t explore their destination beyond the hotel pool barrier. Cheap flights to the big cities and FOMO (the fear of missing out) have seemed to make city trips more and more popular among this very target group. But this is where two universes seem to clash that can hardly be combined. One is the tourist’s very own universe. He is used to going to a hotel where they speak his language, serve his country’s typical food, play his country’s common songs in the clubs. He hardly questions the fact that the bar he tags himself in on Facebook has a German name. Even though he’s abroad. Or more probably: He doesn’t want to question it. It’s his sacred holiday. The other universe is the city and its everyday life. While in a destination that is designed for tourism he can maintain this parallel universe, it collapses in the city. He is downright meant to collide with the local language, food, people. He stands out. The “comfort zone cosmos” he has thoroughly cobbled together blows its cover.
But why is that a problem you could wonder. Why not leave the tourist be? Of course I can roll my eyes when he enters a restaurant that is known as a “tourist trap”. I can secretly think that he’ll miss out on the real, authentic food experience. But maybe he likes the dishes in that alleged tourist trap even better, who knows? What’s for sure is: He won’t do anyone any harm by going there. However, it leads to a problem when lack of respect comes into play. Using a city beach to relax during the day? Ok. But wearing the bikini all day in all neighbourhoods of the city? Partying during the week all night in a club where they only play the tourist’s local music? Of course ok, enjoy. But partying during the week all night in the street of a residential area? This reminds me of a kind of travelling that entirely ignores the fact that there is people in the city who live their everyday life, wake up early as he does at home, go to work as he does at home, buy groceries at the supermarket around the corner as he does at home. The package holiday-maker is used to having an isolate place of holiday where everybody is on holiday. The city is not such a place.
But I already anticipated that I won’t emerge unscathed from this dilemma. A very interesting point the author gives in the article mentioned above is the fact that travelling like a local per se is not possible because travelling would always be an exceptional state. Which seems correct. It’s utopian to believe that I can adapt to a local’s life within a 3-day-citytrip. I’m willing to pay more for my accommodation, my food, don’t have a real routine in the foreign city and probably, when I say I want to visit that snug café that is supposed to be the current hip and edgy place, I enter a similar parallel universe as the tourist does. Just some layers deeper. But that doesn’t mean that this snug café has not maybe become more of a traveller’s hotspot than a local one already.
So is all travel bad? Certainly not! As opposed to the article’s standpoint, I also don’t believe travelling like a local alone leads to gentrification or a disruption of prices. It can probably accelerate such developments but not (always) initiate them. Because travelling like a local has a clear advantage: The money and time spent does mostly take place in the local cosmos. Which means that this kind of traveller rather goes shopping in a local boutique than packing their bags with clothes from H&M, eats local food, is more sustainable.
But sustainability in tourism goes beyond that. I strongly believe that receptive travelling is at least my way to go. I heard people referring to me as a “travel chameleon”, someone who melts in with a local culture. Of course, I’d like taking that as a compliment but I also think it’s a traveller’s duty to be attentive and considerate with their surroundings. To listen to stories that happen around, to meet locals and talk to them, to respect cultural, historical and/or religious customs. That does not mean that we all have to dress up and behave exactly as the citizens of our destination do. But to take them into consideration. And because I’m sure that travelling almost always leads to more openness and that standing out and clashing with a foreign culture can also be very rewarding, I want to emphasize that I by no means want to draw stereotypes here. Quite the contrary: Tourism can do harm but it also can bring so many good things. Sometimes it’s just worth to go the extra mile to get to know your destination. You’ll be back in your comfort zone soon enough.