The NYT and The Guardian have recently featured criticism of the idea of “bucket list” and “must see” travel, with the implication that there is a right way and wrong way to experience life and overseas. There are legitimate criticisms here about the superficiality of packaged tours – and the benefits of immersing yourself in a country and culture – but an over-simplified view that all travelers will only benefit from one prescribed travel style is the same narrow mindedness and arrogance travel is supposed to correct in the first place.
One article not only attacks the idea of listing top destinations, but features places deemed “not worth it.” The reasoning given is beyond a measured suggestion to avoid popular “tourist traps” and adds a definitive “trust us” to erase any doubt that these suggestions might not be for everyone.
The compiled advice from would be savvy globe trotters follows the same opening inflection, and is presented in the smug manner of someone who is infinitely secure that there is no alternative to their own deep well of interests, experience, and conclusions. They advise, for example, avoiding The Vatican with the same certainty one might intone to caution against hitting your thumb with a hammer: I’ve tried it, and you definitely don’t want to do it.
I have to wonder if the person complaining about crowds at the Holy See is experienced enough to consider going in the off-season, or possibly in the morning, since that would alleviate the chief complaint. Maybe its crazy to assume not all travelers are the same, but there was no daylight in the condemnation of wrong travel to discuss time, interest, budget, and savviness constraints and considerations that most people have.
To be sure, I have definite opinions on how to get the most out of a foreign locale, and I certainly wouldn’t spend all my time on the beaten path with other Americans in an all-inclusive tour or resort. I think that over time there are likely diminishing returns for the worldliness gained if a traveler never moves past the novelty of the check in the box that celebrates a brief visit to yet another well-trodden landmark before piling back onto the bus. I can make that judgment for my own travel preferences now after over a decade of travel, almost half spent living overseas, and visiting many of those landmarks.
I think a quiet side street café with some locally made wine and a few words with the locals could be a transformative experience for anyone, but I still don’t understand how in the world that the first glimpse of the Coliseum for a history or architecture enthusiast could be judged any less impactful just because it’s popular. The automatic idea of avoiding specific places because they are “touristy” is just as bad as the “must see” lists the authors decry.
I can’t help but think of how I might tell someone that has never been to Paris to not bother, as the article suggests. I suppose I would describe it exactly as I remember my first visit, but assure them that there is zero redeeming experiential value to be gained from a couple of days strolling around a richly historical and very pretty European capital with world-class museums and a global landmark awash in lights. Trust me, I’d say, you don’t want to see that.