Sure, tourists boost local economies, but unless it's done respectfully, you'll never be truly welcome.
I grew up in a region called Muskoka, Ontario’s cottage country three hours north of Toronto. It’s a beautiful place, with thousands of clean lakes for swimming, magnificent granite cliffs, towering pines, and forests teeming with moose, bears, and beavers. During the summer months, however, cottagers and tourists flood into Muskoka and the population quadruples. Suddenly, in my hometown, there are traffic jams at the single stoplight and lineups at the grocery store.
These visitors are important to the area. They bring business that enables people like my parents to continue living there year-round. Most visitors are wonderful people, too, who add to the social fabric of the community for the brief time they’re there. But many others are rude and inconsiderate. These are the ones who make us locals long for September, when the towns and lakes empty out and once again we can have paradise to ourselves.
Take, for example, the drivers of the sports cars who race around the curvy, narrow highways at appalling speeds. They seem to think that, just because they’re out of city traffic, they can drive however they want. Maddeningly, this mentality is encouraged by Toronto-based newspapers that publish lists of the best roads to drive ‘fun’ cars on, and Muskoka is always featured.
Consider the customers who show up at my sister’s pizza shop and urinate in full view of the restaurant. (This has happened several times.) Or the literal busloads of tourists who pull into the shop, order a few pizzas, and disgorge their mountain of trash into the can – all of which needs to be hauled by hand to the landfill site because there’s no curbside pickup here, but that probably never occurs to them. Or the cottagers who buy enormous speedboats and whiny jet-skis and race around in circles on the lake, pulling kids on inner tubes and creating wakes that wash loons’ nests into the water, decimating their populations.
Because of my personal experiences, I’ve been intrigued by the unprecedented backlash against tourists in Europe this summer. Cities such as Barcelona, Dubrovnik, and Venice are protesting actively in the streets against the suffocating surge of tourists that descend upon their cities each year, disrespecting historical sights, impeding the flow of daily life, driving up the cost of living, and generally behaving as if they own the place.
Travelers don’t like to hear this. An article in the Guardian is full of nasty comments suggesting that European cities should be more grateful for the economic boost that tourism offers. One example:
“Well that's gratitude for you. Your [sic] trying to tell me that after 30 plus years of holidaying across Europe those ungrateful sh**s didn't even appreciate me or the hard earned cash that I spent on weak drink, overpriced tourist traps, pseudo foreign ‘cuisine’ and tacky souvenirs. Wish I'd voted leave now.”
While it’s true that it is risky to “bite the hand that feeds,” these cities are entirely justified in challenging a model that’s clearly not working for them. Just because a particular model makes money doesn’t mean it cannot be adjusted to better suit the locals. Even the United Nations is calling anti-tourist sentiment a serious issue.
I love traveling, which is why the uprisings make me uncomfortable. I feel a bit guilty, wondering how my trips over the years have exacerbated the issues that are now reaching a tipping point. This awareness, along with my evolving environmental views, has changed the way in which I want to see the world. Travel is no longer about getting a cheap flight and going anywhere for however many days I can escape; I have new criteria that must be met when planning a personal or family trip.
1. Go for as long as possible.
Also known as slow travel, this is a tough one for many North American travelers who get considerably less vacation time than Europeans, but it’s important. I don’t want to go anywhere on holiday for less than a month now. If this means banking vacation time and holding off a trip for several years, so be it. One should stay long enough in a place to make friends.
2. Choose accommodations carefully.
I steer clear of resorts and big chain hotels. Instead, the goal is to seek out small inns, hotels, or bed-and-breakfasts owned by locals, where I know my money will go directly to residents of the country, not a big international corporation.
3. Get off the beaten track.
It’s a fair bet that tourists are more warmly welcomed by locals in unusual destinations than in popular ones, since they haven’t worn out their welcome. This spreads the valuable tourist dollars further afield, instead of pouring them into an already-saturated market. Future off-the-beaten-track destinations on my list include the country of Georgia, Jordan, Corsica, and Basilicata in southern Italy.
4. Put down the camera.
Few things irritate me more than traveling surrounded by people snapping pictures. Since I’m not a professional photographer, I figure that unless I’m taking a picture of my family, there’s always going to be a better shot out there of the same historical site or famous vista. So I consciously try to leave my camera in my pocket and pay attention to what’s going on. It’s amazing how a camera distracts from other sights, sounds, and interesting encounters that could otherwise happen.
5. Learn some language.
The most respectful thing one can do, when planning to visit another country, is to study the language. This is more than learning key phrases or reading them phonetically from a guidebook. This is about learning how the language works. Study the grammar, build a vocabulary, and practice. It goes a long ways toward making a tourist stand out in the crowd and is almost always appreciated by locals.
Regardless of how much you learn, always talk to the locals. I know how much my parents appreciate this in their line of work, when they’re treated by seasonal visitors as respected members of the community, rather than mere service providers and vacation-enablers.
6. Rethink what’s truly relaxing.
With international travel being so cheap, there’s a tendency to assume one should go far afield during vacation – but why? Sometimes there are better options closer to home that are easier to reach, cheaper to visit, and far more relaxing. For example, I regret jetting off to Costa Rica for our honeymoon seven years ago, when, really, all my husband and I wanted to do was sleep and take a break from parenting. We should’ve gone to a rustic Ontario inn for a week, paid a fraction of the cost, eaten like royalty, and not felt like we had to do a million touristy things just because we were there.