Worthy Tourists

We have spent the last 3 days in Prague. We stayed at a lovely AirBnB overlooking the Vltava River and the Charles Bridge and with a view to Prague Castle. The AirBnB was so spacious and airy and pleasant that we were tempted to spend more time there than perambulating around Prague. The first night of our stay we had dinner in a student restaurant that operates in the courtyard between the buildings, immediately below where we were staying. In the restaurant we met Ian.

Ian is a stereotypic American of the disarmingly enthusiastic and openly friendly variety. He talked a lot. He told us about his month-long trip through Europe in which he was visiting many cities for an allocation of three days each, including Rome, Florence, Venice, Paris, Prague, Oslo. Ian listed sights he had energetically seen in the cities.

Ian gave us lots of advice. He said that Rome really needed more than three days, he was exhausted from all the walking that he did – 40,000 steps, can you believe it? He said that one should pay for the escalator in the Vatican so as to reduce the number of steps one has to climb up. He also told us how fit he was.

Ian had packed light for his trip. He told us about his luggage. He had carry-on only (full marks to Ian on this one). His clothing included 7 shirts and 7 pairs of underwear (too much detail Ian) and he would put items he had worn in his dirty clothes bag for washing (way too much detail Ian). We thought about our two t-shirts, two merino long sleeved tops, 2 pairs of underwear (sorry, too much detail) and 1 pair of shorts and 1 pair of trousers each. And our lack of a dirty clothes bag.

Ian told us about going surfing in Puerto Rico and how they had to walk half an hour to a desirable beach. Pristine water. Walking through the jungle. Can you believe it, through real jungle! He told us about some of the places using Spanish with very unusual pronunciation and told us how he was nearly fluent in Spanish.

Two things struck me about Ian. The first was that, beyond asking which country we were from, he asked no questions of us whatsoever. The second was that he was an active participant in what I might call ‘worthy tourism’. Worthy tourism means you can list all the sights you have seen and activities you have participated in and compare them with others. You know how when you go somewhere and people say, ‘Did you see the…?’ Worthy tourism means you can say ‘Yes’. I did see or do that. Worthy tourism subscribes to the curated tourism experience in which there are a set of activities that one ought to do in a particular place. One gets a sense of people justifying their tourist experience by having done the correct things when they were touristing.

In London we visited Sarah’s flat for lunch. In Cambridge we rented bicycles and cycled to the outskirts of town up a hill that was nowhere in particular, then found our way back through footpaths in fields of wheat. In Berlin we went to a local restaurant with Karin, with whom we were staying, and kicked a ball through the local (and not at all famous) Burgerpark with her two year old grandson. In Dresden we cycled up the Elbe with our friends and had a picnic on the riverbank. We spent the day in south Berlin with our friends and played a dancing game on the computer with their children then participated in a music quiz the children made (I was terrible). In Prague we sat with Sarah in a small café in a leafy garden that one entered through a literal hole in a wall, and breathed.

This is not to say we entirely avoided being worthy tourists. We did go into the middle of all the above cities and take pictures of the buildings – people are much more interested in you sharing pictures of buildings than pictures of people they don’t know and will never meet. We read signs and articles on the internet and became more informed in a tiny way about the places we visited.

However, there is a big part of me that actively rejects the curated tourism experience. Why would I want to do what everyone else is doing? How boring! And, as importantly, why would I want to spend a large amount of time learning about the past when there are real people living here in the present. For sure, history informs the present, and one can understand the here-and-now better with an understanding of the context of the past. Of course one also learns about context from talking to the here-and-now people about their perceptions of what has happened and formed their experiences.

There’s another interesting element to curated tourism in its veneration of the legacy left by exceptionally wealthy people, as well as worthy people. Prague celebrates Kafka, but the buildings that everyone is directed to visit are largely created by kings and rulers who were excited by spending their (or their country’s) wealth on monuments. For all the criticism of today’s multinational billionaires, creating personal empires and memorials to those empires is hardly anything new. If we want to shift away from the impact of billionaires today, perhaps we need to think about the weight we place on the actions of the billionaires of yesterday?

The whole concept of mass tourism, with its destruction of both environment and community, is largely based around the curated experience. Yes, Chris and I are participating in such destruction simply by being here, whatever activities we do. And, yes, exposure to other people and other ways of being permeates and is valuable, even when people do a large chunk of the curated thing. However, there is something fundamentally wrong when you find your home town is asking how to re-enthuse local people to visit the town centre, after millions of dollars of your rates money has been spent on ripping it up, then putting it back, to find locals don’t want to visit it.

Could it be the problem is that people want to meet people? They don’t desperately want renovated paving and gold pillars. They want a community where they see people they know, rather than the majority of passers-by being people they will never see again? Similarly, our friends in the cities we have visited say ‘We don’t go into the centre city’ – that’s not where their lives take place. In Queenstown at least we really need to ask ourselves ‘Who are we creating our places for?’ because if the answer is worthy tourists, then it should come as no surprise that locals have no interest in their locations.

For people who still remember the now antiquated methods of paying that was checks…

Published by janecshearer

I'm a self-employed life enthusiast living in Gibbston, New Zealand

4 thoughts on “Worthy Tourists

  1. So I probably should leave this reply until I have sobered up from the Cardrona d

    istillery tour. But isn’t the whole nz tourism industry based on curated tourism?
    Anyway what I wanted to say is Dresden – did you see the Green Grotto?

  2. I would say the pre COVID state of the tourism industry is one of the worst things that has happened to our country post colonisation. If people put more effort into true discovery and adventure and experience (as opposed to advertised), they wouldn’t clog the landscape like cluster flies!

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