The sign in the window of a beach house facing the Newport Beach boardwalk read, “If it’s tourist season, why can’t I hunt them?” I saw the sign first, and the man scowling through the window at me second.
I dunno. I think not liking out-of-town visitors and living along one of the country’s top tourist destinations is a little like not liking penguins and moving to a penguin habitat and then declaring “I hate that there are so many penguins here!”
Feels like a you problem, assuming you are the scowling man.
Nonetheless, I immediately felt defensive in the way I always do when I’m deeply embarrassed about something. And being a tourist is, for me, deeply embarrassing. More embarrassing than trying to parallel park on a crowded city street and suddenly remembering you don’t know how to parallel park. More embarrassing than getting out of a salon chair that is just a touch too high. More embarrassing than running into someone you know at the grocery store and having only laxatives in your cart.
Being a tourist is so embarrassing that I’ve deluded myself into believing I’m above the image that most often comes to mind when the word “tourist” is deployed — a sad sap wearing socks with sandals and an ill-fitting hat, a fanny pack hanging loosely from their hip, looking confusedly at a city map, and pointing in the wrong direction.
I find myself saying things like “I try to avoid tourist destinations when visiting a new city,” knowing full well that when I, a tourist, visit any place in any new city, it becomes a tourist destination by the very nature of me being there.
I try to blend in with the locals by wearing similar clothes and employing the cultural customs I learn from the internet, which never works, especially in places where the locals look very different from the way I look. The closest I’ve come to succeeding was being mistaken for a British person in Italy, and I think the Italian was just trying to flatter me so I would sign whatever petition they were peddling on the street. (It worked.)
I try and learn key phrases in the languages of the foreign lands I plan to visit, but when I whip out “Dónde está el baño?” the response is, “The bathroom is in the back,” spoken in perfect English, 100% of the time. It’s always humiliating to have to accept that, despite my most valiant efforts, locals in any place I visit see me as a tourist and probably roll their eyes.
And I get it. I roll my eyes at the hoards of out-of-towners who congregate in the southern part of my state every summer. They clog up the trails in our beloved national parks. They play loud, bad music from portable speakers. Every year there are reported incidents of vandalism and/or stupidity. The wear and tear caused by ever-increasing numbers of park visitors is a constant and legitimate cause for concern.
Other tourist destinations seem to have it even worse. According to a CNN report, tourists have smashed sculptures in the Vatican Museum, carved their initials into the Arch of Augustus, and driven down the Spanish Steps. No one could fault the Italian people for having a less-than-gleeful attitude toward such careless visitors.
But economies depend on tourism. And while being a tourist is not respected, being well-traveled is. Visiting new places and meeting new people is one of the most effective ways to better understand our world and develop empathy. It’s a key to the experience of being a human, and we will all, at some point, be a tourist.
So maybe we could make the process a little less embarrassing on both sides.
When we’re visiting new places, we can do our best to respect the land where we find ourselves and the people who live there. Put the AirPods in if we simply must listen to music while hiking. Refrain from pushing over rock formations millions of years in the making or etching our name next to hieroglyphs. We can take a page from the book of the godfather of world travel Rick Steves and remember we are guests.
And when we’re the hosts to those guests, we can try not to roll our eyes at the people who have traveled from all over the world to respectfully observe the beauty we are lucky enough to have in our own backyards. We could remember that we have been, and will be, just like them at many times in our lives.
We could maybe even remove the threatening signs from our windows and refrain from scowling at pedestrians.