Labels are bad. But then again, we love them. Oh, do we ever love them. Without labels we couldn’t classify things and fit them into the hierarchy. Everything has a stepped grading system of better and worse. How else would we know how to value things? Hmm? And don’t get all Zen on me and say that all things are equal. If that were true I’d buy a vintage Harley for the same price as a used Piaggo. They’re not the same thing.
After a recent hiatus from the Daily Gumboot in the south of France, I embarked on a wee trip in Western Europe. What I saw? The hierarchy of travellers. Now this isn’t necessarily how I see it, but wow do travellers love to grade themselves.
For those status oriented people (meaning, most of us), let’s start with the lowest on the food-chain:
Pre-packaged Group Tours: The Tourists
“Now everyone please get off the bus. Anyone need a bathroom? Plug in your radio headsets and tune into channel #1, because we’re the best tour group in Paris! [waits for laugh]. Versailles was built by blah, blah, blah…please try and stay with the group everyone —”
And the group checks off their list of tourist sites like a dabber on a foreign bingo card , The Louvre = B3, Eiffel Tower = G46, etc. This group flies in to see 12 cities in 10 days, by bus, talking with nary one local person, then jets back home. Typically between in the older of travellers, these groupsters will finsih their travels with hundreds of pictures and videos as proof of presence, and a garage sale’s worth of Union Jack coffee mugs and Mona Lisa keychains.
Bonus points for: number of pictures taken, number of stars on hotel, horror stories about hotels and airports, darkness of suntan, and full bingo card.
ALSO INCLUDED IN THE TOUR GROUP: resort resters, hotel tv-watchings vacationers, and timer-sharers isolationists.
The Young and the Dirty: The Backpackers
“You can totally save 20€ if you sleep on the train, or just sleep at the airport. I did Prague and just stayed out all night. No, I was just there for a few days, but it was awesome. Not as, like, open as Amsterdam, but cool. I’m totally going to Barcelona next. You can’t leave without doing Spain. Oh man, check out that tour…man, those people don’t see anything.”
This group spends between 1-6 months with rail passes and newly purchased behemoth bags, hiking boots, bandanas, and moneybelts hopping from city to city with other backpackers. They will “do” 16 cities which will serve as the backdrop for their mind-opening experiences they’ll talk about for years to come. Hostels and sex, you will find them in either a haze of drunkenness or hangover. Sure they go to the same museums as the tour groups, but they tend to smell worse and their cameras are smaller.
Bonus points for: dreadlocks, braided beards, number of flags on backpack, not having Lonely Planet in hand at bus station, and the possession of Moleskin notebooks full of ticket stubs.
ALSO INCLUDED IN THIS GROUP: post-university mates hitting up the world before “real life starts,” people searching for something (most often getting away from something), thrill seekers who prefer the thrill of beaten paths but sound exotic, and introductory globetrotters
Life Experiencers: Exchange Students and Volunteers
“I know it’s the best Indian restaurant around, but they just don’t do the spices right here. Hawaii is great, but the nothing tops the surf in Oz. He’s cute, but you should’ve seen Raphael in Milano. Of course I speak fluent Spanish…oh, I don’t understand that, I learned in Madrid. Sorry, I can’t come tonight I have to go to my capoeira class.”
For a semester or a year, these students of the world pack their books and laptops and head out to have their rite of passage experience of a lifetime. With incredible opportunity to truly immerse themselves into the culture and enrich their lives with a first-hand look at living histories this group of travellers unfortunately performs minimum scholastic or actual volunteer work. Yes, they have a few local friends, can tell the difference between a Bavarian and Belgian brew, and have developed a solid distaste for tourists and backpackers. They may have lived with a local family, can speak the language at a decent level, and have opinions on why the country is like that. Much like the backpackers there is a lot of partying, but sometimes includes local parties.
Bonus points for: having local friends/boyfriend/girlfriend, speaking language, less-travelled-to or more-difficult-to-say-countries are better, more time spent away = more bragging rights
ALSO INCLUDED IN THIS GROUP: do-gooders who tend to spend more time at Big Milly’s Backyard than their “boring” volunteer project, high school and university students looking for foreign fun away from watchful eyes of parents, intermediate globetrotters
Expatriates to the Rescue (and Michael Ignatieff)
“I have to wake-up at 4am to be sure I can talk with Seoul and get specs by the ends of the day. I just wish the property values here would go up before we sell and go back home. The bureaucracy is terrible, it’s really incredible, but the health care system is so much better. I think the money’s about the same, but you just can’t get the same ________ back home, which makes it totally worthwhile.”
Foreign assignments, contracts with overseas companies, working from home anywhere in the world, this jet-setting group is monstrous. 3 million Canadians overseas right now. Expats, they like to call themselves. Michael Ignatieff was one before he tried to become the prime minister. You’ll find them at the Irish pub watching whatever sport doesn’t air on local television, excessive time on the internet talking with friends back home, and speak with a certain authority about their host country, as cultural/political/social interpreters that are basically experts in this esoteric field. This group complains about all the lower classes of travellers because they usually make their home culture look brutish and stupid to the locals. They don’t do “touristy” things because it’s beneath them.
Bonus points for: being married to a local, having children with said local, having local friends, using correctly strange and subtle slang and cultural jokes, knowing the “best” places to do anything touristy for visitors, and having a super-cool job that doesn’t exist at home.
Emigrants are just Immigrants in Reverse
It was brought to my attention that people who move across borders aren’t always travellers. There are people who actually move overseas…for good! Since an emigrant (or conversely, immigrant) are not really travellers but rather residents, I thought I’d leave them out, like the government tends to do. It’s actually a whole can of worms that I’d really rather not open. And then there are all those politics and power and integration and problems, problems, problems to address. I think I’ll just stick to the nice, easy, privileged people who travel for fun and bum around the world under the guise of becoming worldly. They’re a far easier target.
So where does this leave us in understanding the movement of people around the world? It tells us that hierarchy certainly exists and that travellers love it like everyone else. So many people want to feel superior to others. No, we shouldn’t all live overseas for years just to prove we’re better than your friend Jim who did his PhD research in Belize.
Yes, tourism has real inherent problems. That doesn’t mean we all stay at home either. People should just stop being such jerks about how their experience is better than someone else’s. That’s the moral here. So grow up and enjoy travelling already.
Oh, and if your city attracts tourists, makes you millions of dollars, perhaps consider a halt to complaining about the tourists?
My friend Iain hates platitudes, but really this is a situation of “it is what it is.”