Travel: Are We All Tourists?

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tourist or backpacker?

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Unfortunately the phrases "tourist" and "backpacker" are often used to segregate travellers. Stereotypically, the tourist is the person on holiday, short on time and high on cash with a long list of must-sees. Rather romantically, the backpacker is a hippy and a vagrant, wondering the planet searching for authentic experiences and local prices. To get the most out of a destination you really need to dance on both sides of the tourist / backpacker spectrum. Increasingly, travellers are more atomised than ever, both from each other and even from local people. I believe that whatever you brand yourself we are all, to different degrees, tourists!  But having travelled for 8 months, it’s clear when over-tourism has gone too far, it can strip all the fun out of a place and it makes everything about money. Over-tourism can change the entire character of a place, eschewed for the big spending tourists rather than the people whose home it was. The ideal way to travel is to find the balance between the big attractions but also remembering to get off the beaten track.

Getting off the beaten track in Jaffna's fishing village

Getting off the beaten track in Jaffna's fishing village

Time-rich means money-poor

Time and money are huge factors for travellers. If you have money then there’s no reason not to visit every attraction and zip around town getting your cultural fill. But if you have money then normally you won’t have time and this is why ‘must visit’ ‘top attractions’ are always filled with people trying to squeeze everything into a short trip. The backpacker outlook is the opposite, switching money for time, the backpacker will probably have longer to explore a place but will have to pick their activities wisely to keep costs down. They probably can’t eat in the best rated restaurants or stay in the fancy hotels, but exploring local areas does lead to more time with local people and a better appreciation of what everyday life is like there.


The Lonely Planet

It’s a common sight to see some restaurants that are incredibly busy and then similar ones next door completely empty. This makes it easy to spot the places that are recommended by Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor. Often these places get lazy, they offer sub-standard food, varying customer experiences and always have higher prices. These establishments drift along in mediocrity on their once rightful recommendations. Sometimes, I see Lonely Planet wielding travellers following the exact route from their guide book too. Look, it’s totally fair to want the best experience for a short trip but the feeling of being on a tourist conveyor belt can feel decidedly un-special. This is where the backpackers mindset is different because they’re more likely to research their own path and avoid areas where local culture has been replaced by tourist culture. 

Hoards of visitors on safari at the Kaudulla National Park in Sri was still pretty amazing to see wild elephants though 

Hoards of visitors on safari at the Kaudulla National Park in Sri was still pretty amazing to see wild elephants though 

The Route

Nowhere was the set path more obvious than in our recent trip to Sri Lanka. The country is very beautiful, amazing local food, easy to navigate, with the friendliest local people we’ve met travelling and really varied activities like safari, trekking and beaches. We spent 4 weeks straddling both tourist hotspots in the centre of the country and getting off the beaten path in the north and east. What we noticed is that the touristic areas, like Ella, had the least friendly local people, the worst (and most expensive) food and the attractions were very busy with western tourists. Following a guidebook can often take you to the busiest, most expensive places with no local people, think western style restaurants and bars. When we reached these places the backpacker in us longed to be a few miles away where normal local life was continuing.



What I believe, is that at its heart, tourism can create inequality between local people and their communities. Some get rich from guide book and trip advisor recommendations while others barely benefit. But even worse, increased tourism can actually separate local people and tourists. Local people cannot afford tourist prices, a place like Ella in Sri Lanka represents this perfectly. We asked ourselves why we would choose to eat in western style restaurants half way across the world, especially when the food is 5 times the price of the local food and nowhere near as good. Whereas in a local kitchen in Jaffna we could eat amazing curry, roti and kottu for pennies and chat with local people about their lives. One of those experiences you’ll remember forever and the other is just another night in a restaurant.

We met these handsome chaps after a unplanned wonder out of Trincomalee

We met these handsome chaps after a unplanned wonder out of Trincomalee

Finding Balance

But, living the continual low budget backpacker lifestyle can be frustrating. We had to balance cheap day to day living with the odd memorable activity, because why travel if you're not going to enjoy the local highlights? For example, we splashed out on the the safari in Kaudulla National Park and on hiring a guide to trek up to the top of the Knuckles mountain range. Finding a balance between the ‘wow’ tourist moments and the quiet local backpacker moments is, for us, the perfect way to travel. The thing to remember is that the Lonely Planet guide is a perfect start to exploring a new place but it is limited.  Following it continually will mean that only a handful of restaurants, guesthouses and tour companies benefit from your custom and they often offer western-style experiences. I do think that the LP guides are really useful but would advise that when you feel confident in a new place try putting it down and explore it on your own. Walk into a local restaurant, without an English menu, and ask about their food, or at least point at something that looks good!


The Signs

Because tourism is setup for short term travel experiences, there are lots of opportunities for local businesses to pray on inexperienced travellers. Long term ’backpacking’ does teach you how to avoid these little traps. Here’s a few to consider; there’s never one price for a service and it’s almost always negotiable, we’ve seen many people pay the first price without question. Restaurants all over world will try and add random meals to your bill and taxi and tuk tuk drivers will always start their prices high. If you don't deal or barter then you'll become a tourist who'll pay exaggerated prices, this only makes it more difficult for future travellers because businesses see that visitors are willing to pay more than they should, inflating the price further. As the prices go up so does the inequality between the rich and poor in the local community. When you see families flourish and others malnourished you can clearly see the problems that wealth inequality creates, it’s the same at home.

Sadly, one of the tea pickers asked us for money. When working people still beg it's clear that over-tourism has had a negative effect.

Sadly, one of the tea pickers asked us for money. When working people still beg it's clear that over-tourism has had a negative effect.

Helping All

Any person travelling abroad, in developing countries, are helping the community they’re visiting and we should feel happy that our money is spent improving people’s lives. But it’s worth remembering that too much tourism pushes out the local culture and then the people that make the place amazing are sidelined. One of the most touching things to experience, and learn from, is that it’s always the poorest people who have the biggest smiles and want to help you the most. So if you don't already, why not try balancing your travel between tourism and backpacker mentalities for an amazing experience that helps all the people in the community.

What are your thoughts on tourism? On over-tourism? And the stigma's of being a tourist or backpacker? Leave any comments in the box at the bottom.



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