I often think about the perception of London that tourists go home with. After visiting Buckingham Palace, Oxford Street and the London Eye, I think it’s safe to say they go home not knowing London at all. But let’s say they skip the tourist spots and find some local ones. Would you say then that they know the city?
I was thinking about this because our generation doesn’t want to be seen as tourists. We use Airbnb and Instagram recommendations and research all the coolest spots beforehand. We want as local experiences as possible. And yet even when I do all that, I still feel as though I’m observing. On the outside, looking in, as though there’s an invisible tourist barrier that I’ve yet to break through.
So what is it that breaks that tourist barrier? When do we go from simply observing to actually knowing and understanding the destination that we’re in? The thing with our perception as tourists is that we’re seeing everything through a different lens. Often it’s a rose-tinted one and sometimes if it’s the opposite way and we’re seeing it negatively, it could be because we don’t fully understand what we’re looking at.
What really struck me when I was thinking about London tourists, is that it could be their rose-tinted view of it that’s preventing them from really getting to know the city. Many tourists want to see the traditional English way of life that they see in movies and the tourist attractions feed off of that. When I did a boat trip down the Thames for instance, the commentary was saying how young Londoners eat jellied eels and spend their evenings playing darts. I hated that people were going to go home believing that, but then maybe that’s what they wanted to hear, just as when I went to Thailand and was outraged to see a Tesco. It ruined my perception of it being so foreign from what I was used to back home.
But there maybe lies my answer. Maybe we need to take off our rose-tinted glasses and see the ‘bad side’ of our destinations. Just like people, you have to know the good and the bad of a place to really know it. History tours or visits to museums frequent the tourist checklist, but being aware of its present-day problems will give you an even better insight into the place you’re staying.
P.s. this may not be at the top of your list if you’re taking a holiday, but remember Reset isn’t about holidays or quick city breaks. It’s for those who are after more in-depth experiences which involves really getting to know other cultures and learning about the world we live in.
Tips for breaking the tourist barrier:
The one we’re always told but is harder than it sounds - make friends with locals! And not just one type of local. Diversify your friendship group so that you’re getting the full picture of where you’re staying. Talk to people that you meet and ask as many questions as you can.
Read! Another simple one but probably the best way to learn - especially if you enjoy reading. Fiction books set in the place you’re visiting can give you a richer insight into the culture and past and present problems of the lives of locals - so can be easier than tip 1 if you’re an introvert.
Research some local social enterprises. In London for instance, there’s numerous cafes or coffee shops that are helping work towards local causes. Visiting one and talking to the people that work there can be a great way to gain an insight from people on the frontline.
Suggested reading: Shantaram by Gregory Roberts. Although the end of this book goes downhill (in my opinion), the first half is still one of the best travel stories I’ve come across. This one is a good example of getting to know a place through it’s problems as the main character gets involved with the black market, lives in a slum and even goes to prison.