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Is There Anything Wrong With Being a Tourist?

Buzz Poole
04/04/2012 - 00:00

After discovering a used copy of the 1963 edition of Arthur Frommer’s Europe on Five Dollars a Day, Doug Mack came up with the core idea for his book Europe on Five Wrong Turns a Day: travel to Europe today, using an old guide. Additionally, Mack also decided to reference a shoebox of letters his mom sent to his father as she and a friend toured the Continent for ten weeks in 1967. As Mack writes: “Guided solely by my parents’ correspondence and my obsolete guidebook – no modern guides, no internet research – I sought to re-trace the old hippie backpacker route, to see how far I could get using those documents and nothing else, to connect the dots between that era of travel and my own, to understand just how the beaten path got so beaten.”

Traveling through Spain, Italy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Austria, Mack certainly kept to the “beaten path.” But that’s what makes his spin on travel so interesting. In this interview from WorldHum he drives home the point: “Tourism has always been, to some degree, an act of status, a statement that you have the time, money and ability to go abroad. With the budget travel boom of the 1960s, though, it exploded and fragmented, open to more people and more ways of showing off, including not just conspicuous consumption but conspicuous frugality. Today, specific travel attitudes and methodologies are as carefully calibrated as attire worn on a first date . . . But each attitude completely misses Frommer’s essential underlying point: What matters is not finding something your friends haven’t found but appreciating and understanding that thing—that culture, that place, that food—on your own terms.”

Plenty has been made of the difference between the “tourist” and the “traveler,” and while I have long considered myself the latter it is impossible to say I’ve never been the former. And, in truth, when I really think about it, I think Mack is spot-on in his perspective on the issue. I’ve been to France a number of times, but I’ve never visited Versailles, mainly because I’ve never wanted to deal with all the tourists. But this is a poor excuse, especially in light of the fact that just a few weeks ago I was traipsing around Pompeii, which I loved.

The first time I went to Europe, having read a great deal of travel writing, I only wanted to have off-the-beaten path adventures. Who needed museums and cathedrals when there were back alleys and holes in the wall to explore? In fact, I split with my companions for one day when they took the train to Versailles and I opted to wander the streets of Paris (to this day I’m sure I had a better time than them). But in Florence, something unforgettable happened. Much to my chagrin, my friends insisted that we go see Michelangelo’s David. I was not thrilled about the idea, but went along. After waiting in line for a bit, we finally entered the gallery where the statue stands. I was amazed. The scale and detail, its presence – these are not qualities that come through in a photograph in some art history book. To this day, the hands alone remain vivid in my mind. On this day, I was very appreciative to be a tourist.

What tourist attractions do you adore and which ones do you loathe? Why?

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