I knew the drill. I stood in line for hours to get to the top of the Eiffel Tower, all for a moment's glimpse of the Paris skyline at dusk. I lost patience with others, complaining about the wait. The signs pointed to one dreaded realization: I was a tourist.
The current industry trend is for travelers to not appear as a tourist. "Know where the locals eat!" is the mantra of several travel sites, never fully understanding that locals don't have an inherent understanding of local culture. The anti-tourist sentiment is so prevalent, that there's even a guidebook series whose name is Not For Tourists, letting the rest of us know that there's a distinction between those "in the know" and those who are not.
Yet, for all of this posturing, for all of this rejection of "tourists", the fact remains that people will travel to places they know nothing about in order to visit attractions that they always thought they should. Ignorance abounds in traveling, there's precious little that can be done to alleviate that. And, to complicate the issue, there are many tourist locations that should be visited, at least once. The dirty little secret about tourists is that they often go to exactly the places they should.
Think of the major tourist attractions around the world: The Great Wall of China, Westminster Abbey in London, the Empire State Building in New York City. I cannot, for the life of me, come up with a good reason not to go to these places other than "It's full of tourists."
The reason "tourist" gets a bad rap is because it carries with it the connotation of ignorance. If one is a tourist, then, by definition, that person is doesn't know what's going on. To many, a tourist is little more than a sheep, going to the top of the Space Needle, or pondering the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, because they've been told that's what they should do.
But the truth is, we're all tourists in one sense or another. I've been to Europe several times in the course of my travels, and I still come across travel episodes where I was unfamiliar with an insider's knowledge that would have made my life easier. I can tell you how to get through a TSA line in less than 10 minutes. I can tell you how to deal with the Scottish police after almost getting hit by a car that had been stolen and totaled by a thief. I cannot tell you how to get to the top of the Eiffel Tower at dusk in less than 90 minutes. Why? Because such a skill does not exist to the everyday traveler.
It is okay to be ignorant of new people, places, or things. As a traveler, this will happen on a daily, if not hourly basis. The trick is to convert that ignorance into knowledge. I may not know how to get to the top of the Eiffel Tower quickly, but I've learned of its importance as a Parisian icon, how it was built, and how awe-inspiring that Paris silhouette can be at dusk.
If there's little to learn other than the journey itself, I focus on my friends want to do in that moment, so that the moment becomes invaluable to all of us. This is how moments such as drinking whiskey next to a Scottish creek or stumbling across a Genoan confectioner have become embedded into my memories. Tourists may start in ignorance, but they don't have to stay there.
Maybe that's why "tourists" get a bad rap. There's this fear that they will never move beyond ignorance, and will always disregard local cultures, customs, and never fully appreciating the local landscape. When all a local sees is the latest yahoo to come from out of town, and ask the same questions, and stare in awe at what we see is commonplace, it's easy to see why every traveler gets painted with the same brush. The local never sees the tourist who learns about their city, their food, and their customs. The locals never see the people who visit who have come to appreciate where they are at, and, even rarer, understand why the region, city, or landmark has value.
We all are ignorant about something, exponentially so when we travel. We all have been tourists, and we will be again. At some point in your life, you will have to come to terms with this admission. It's okay. The rest of us will be there for you, letting you know that sharing champagne with your friends on top of the Eiffel Tower at dusk is worth it - even if it takes 90 minutes to get there.