A Trichotomy of Tourism: The Dumb
Russell Degnan

Guidebook bearing, fast paced, exuberant and fond of the word "quaint".

If I was being cruel - and I will be - I'd say that the dumb tourist is missing the point of travel. But that takes an unnecessarily narrow view of travelling. The dumb tourist isn't after experience and reflection - which travel provides in spades. They are after places to say they've been, art to say they've seen, and mountains to say they've stood before, and they want to get them as soon as they can.

The worst of them, who are all too often the "American" [1] of them, have barely changed since being endlessly pilloried in Mark Twain's "A Tramp Abroad".

They sit under the Eiffel Tower and list the places they've been like badges on a Scout uniform. That for many of them this involved getting off a bus in Pisa, or Reims, being shuffled through the cathedral, past a souvenir stall, and back onto the bus, is irrelevant. They've been there, they sent you a postcard - did you get it? No matter, it should arrive soon.

For those who avoid the packaged tour and its attached horrors - bad sleep, bad food, bad backs, bad hygeine - the beaten path is sufficiently beaten to guide them on their way. Attach a Baedeker, a Let's Go, or a Lonely Planet like an umbilical cord and off you go. The maps may be simplistic - if not indescipherable - and the history may be more potted than an Italian highway, but if the only people you are talking to are seeing the same sights and reading the same histories it won't matter.

I assume the dumb tourist is not unaware that the places they are seeing bear little resemblance to anything except the other tourist infested places of the world. But if so, why do they bother with the phrases from the back of the guidebook - sometimes slowly, like they are talking to a five-year old. When the spruikers outside cafes in Brugge cycle through several different languages trying to entice you in, it should be obvious that their target market isn't the local populace.

Travel for the dumb tourist is holiday work, there are places to go, routes to be organised, timetables to keep, and only a few weeks to cram it all in. Thomas Cook's motto, "Enjoy every moment" sums it up. Discovery is not important. Getting hopelessly lost, finding yourself without a place to sleep, or wasting a day or two because the guy your travelling with wanted to chat up the cute girl in the computer store is not on the agenda. If it at the end it had all the intellectual stimulation of a television documentary, then at least you can say you went there.

I'll let them speak for themselves though. The statement I (and half the town square) overheard in Brugge that, "without proper directions we could end up walking around for hours" sums them up completely. Leaving aside the impossibility of walking around Brugge for hours without finding yourself on the same street again; implicit in the statement is the idea that walking around for hours would be bad. For other types of tourist that is the best - even only - way to see things.

For all that though, the dumb tourist is a vital cog in the tourism industry. The most important in fact, because they bring in the cash, read the guidebooks, and ensure adequate signage. Then, having provided these services they huddle in a great swarming mass for just a few months a year so they can be easily avoided. Bless 'em.

[1]: I wouldn't want to suggest for a moment that all Americans are bad tourists. They aren't. Their biggest problem is that no matter how bad the stereotype, a little travel will always unearth someone who matches it - and reinforces it - completely.

Days Spent Away 7th November, 2004 20:43:59   [#]