What’s a tourist?

Tourist starter pack: fanny pack, camera, and dumbfounded gaze

Tourist starter pack: fanny pack, camera, and dumbfounded gaze

In the book A Small Place, Jamaica Kincaid says something that I believe sheds light onto many aspects of a tourist. She states, “The people in a small place cannot give an exact account, a complete account, of themselves. The people in a small place cannot give an exact account, a complete account of events.” In the same way, one cannot give an exact account of a tourist, but with my personal experiences and observations I can try to explain what the definition of a tourist is in my own dictionary.

I believe this quote speaks to the motivation that almost every tourist has within him/herself. We can flip through pages of travel guides, scroll through instagram photos, and receive loads of postcards with pictures of exotic, foreign, and beautiful places, but it’s never the same as seeing these scenes with our own eyes. Family, friends, and professors can describe with great detail their own adventures, but many people still have that itch to travel and experience it for ourselves. The people in this group who share that desire are the same people who also make up the group called tourists. They want to see the people who cannot give an exact account of themselves and experience the events that cannot be described.

Now, what makes a tourist is acting on these ambitions. A tourist has an agenda to go somewhere and see something. However, a lot of the time, people only have a small window to experience a whole culture. Therefore, they must be prepared for everything. This explains the stereotypical image of tourists (as the one above) that I’ve seen countless times in movies, books, and real life. If you’re experiencing a once in a lifetime event, you want to do it in the best way. So you put on your favorite clothes, slip on your comfy walking shoes, have easy access to all your necessities (hence the fanny pack), and snap lots of pictures to remind yourself of this moment once you leave and to show others.

When looking at this situation from the tourist’s perspective, it doesn’t seem like the tourist’s presence should bother anyone. But I’ve been on the other side. Every fall and spring, UW-Madison’s campus is crawling with prospective students and their families. As weird as it sounds, I feel as if I become a part of the campus tours. The people stop and stare at all of us, students, just trying to make it to class on time, grabbing a cup of coffee, or dragging our feet to the library. I don’t mind being part of the show, but it definitely gives a different feel to campus, as if there are intruders, people who don’t belong. This must be how the natives of popular tourist destinations feel.

Early in the book, Jamaica Kincaid states a fact about tourists and natives as she says, “For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere.” Therefore, looking at this idea of tourism from the outside in and inside out, I figure everyone needs to have empathy for the other. Everyone should have an understanding that someday that could be you as the tourist who doesn’t fit in, or one day that was you. I don’t believe tourism is strictly bad or strictly good for a nation. I believe that it can help a nation’s economy and even play a crucial role while hurting it at the same time through cultural imperialism. As with everything else in life, I believe balance and understanding are key. Every individual should feel free to explore the world as long as they have an understanding and respect for the natives and their culture. Every individual should be able to see and experience the things that natives cannot give exact accounts of.

How to look like a tourist

How to (try to) not look like a tourist


2 thoughts on “What’s a tourist?

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