Why Tourism is Not a Four-Letter Word

Eric Weiner: On travel snobbery -- and why paying 30 bucks to get pummeled by a guy named Mustafa isn't such a bad thing

03.01.10 | 12:47 PM ET

Taj MahaliStockPhoto

On a recent trip to Turkey, two seemingly unrelated experiences got me thinking about a dirty word—tourism—and how terribly under-appreciated it is. Item one: A beefy, mustachioed Turk named Mustafa beats the living daylights out of me and, as I grow ashen and dizzy, douses with me ice water until I perk up, so he can beat me some more. For this, I gladly paid about $30. Mustafa works in a hamam, a Turkish bath. 

Item two: About three dozen Turks, dressed in long white tunics, twirl round and round while musicians play a plaintive, haunting melody. It’s a mesmerizing performance that renders the audience silent with awe. The “performers”  are sema-zan, whirling dervishes.

What these two events have in common is that they are traditions kept alive (at least in part) with tourist dollars. Three-quarters of my fellow hamam bathers were foreign. I doubt if the business, housed in an elegant 16th-century building, could last a month without us. As for the whirling dervishes, they earn their salary entirely from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Otherwise, their job prospects are grim, whirling not exactly being a growth industry these days.

Tourism gets a bum rap, especially by—let’s face it—travel snobs. You know who I mean. Yes, you who wouldn’t be caught dead at Disney World. Or on a Caribbean cruise.  Yes, you with the Moleskine notebook and sourpuss expression. You know who you are.

Travel snobbery is rampant, insidious, and, frankly, annoying. Everyone fancies themselves a traveler, not a tourist. But that’s a lie. The fact is we’re all tourists. Yes, even you, travel snob. Now get over it. It’s not such a bad thing either. We tourists provide jobs and, more than that, keep centuries-old traditions alive. Granted, some of these traditions—the long-necked women of Thailand spring to mind—should probably be allowed to die off, but that is the exception, not the rule.

The idea is simple: A culture is worth more alive than dead. The same applies to monuments. In India, foreign tourists pay much more than locals to visit the Taj Mahal. India is asking foreign tourists to, in effect, subsidize their heritage. I don’t have a problem with that. I can afford the extra rupees and, besides, it makes me feel good.

A travel snob might look at the hamam I visited in Istanbul or the whirling dervishes I witnessed in Konya, Turkey, and declare them “contaminated’ by tourism. Well, yes, of course they are.  The moment we step foot in a foreign land we change it irrevocably. We tread heavily, whether we’re wearing sneakers or Birkenstocks. Why not do some good while we’re treading?

The fact is that young Turks don’t visit the public baths and don’t care much for the whirling dervishes. Foreign tourists do, though, and that’s not such a terrible thing. Better a slightly “inauthentic” cultural experience than none at all. My dollars are keeping the dervishes whirling and the sadistic Mustafa gainfully employed.  That is, I think, money well spent.

22 Comments for Why Tourism is Not a Four-Letter Word

Kim@Galavanting 03.01.10 | 2:16 PM ET

Well put.

Andy Murdock 03.01.10 | 2:24 PM ET

I agree, but I hope that doesn’t mean that I have to give up my Moleskine notebook habit.

Anny at BikeHike Adventures 03.01.10 | 2:25 PM ET

I expect you’ll be getting a lot of comments with this post. ;) It’s very well written.

I especially like this line: “A culture is worth more alive than dead.”

Dian Emery 03.01.10 | 2:35 PM ET

YES! I have been meaning to write about this topic and you beat me to it.

It sets my teeth on edge when I hear people say crap like ‘we tried to NOT be tourists’ Come on…

Some of my best travel experiences have occurred because it was quite evident that I was visiting and I was obviously a tourist People love to show off their country, they are proud of their native land and if given half a chance would be delighted to share their insights with you. That can not happen if one goes around not talking to people or avoiding the ‘tourist traps’ in fear of being labeled a tourist.

David Frey 03.01.10 | 2:49 PM ET

Wise words. Personally, I think it’s healthy for those who travel to aspire to be travelers, not tourists, as long as they don’t forget that in the end the difference is slim.

Lauren Quinn 03.01.10 | 2:54 PM ET

Ah man, that’s totally me with the Moleskin notebook. ;)

Growing up across the Bay from one of the US’s biggest tourist attractions (San Francisco), I can definitely say that tourism can benefit a place a lot—-it keeps Alcatraz open and cable cars running, while the astronomical hotel tax funds social and arts programming that other cities don’t have. I think tourism can be exploitive when it’s sole aim is commercial—-but when traditions are kept alive and the people of a place actually benefit, not just large companies, then tourism can really do a lot of good.

Totally related to the hamam experience. Though, in Morocco, they tend to still be locals joints. But a thorough cleaning/abusing none the less.

Anil 03.01.10 | 2:55 PM ET

Ah well, spoken like a ‘true’ tourist, whatever that might mean.

By the way, at the Taj, young kids aged eight onwards who might otherwise have gone to schools instead loiter around the whole day selling replicas, fighting other kids for territory. Their parents will no doubt prefer it that way.

Not far from the Taj, again children, beg for a living, pushing tourists hard into parting with their money, often foreign currency, before offering to exchange the money for Indian currency albeit for less. Again, NGOs working there have found it difficult to get the children to attend school. They find begging far more lucrative, and with influx high, it can bring in much.

Come to Goa, Eric, and find out what locals will tell you if all tourism is good. They’ll tell you of drugs on the beaches, of sex tourism, child abuse, and of how a generation of youth thinks easy money is the way forward. Environmentalists will tell you of how infrastructure has grown right upto where the waves break, in contravention of all norms. Shacks that’ll serve everything from coke to dope.

Other countries will have their own stories, and not in the least the recent flap resulting from Ocean Cruises.

Having said that, not all tourism is bad if it can manage to achieve a lighter footprint, is distributed across a wider geography, and is responsible. Tourism is needed, let there be no doubt about it. It is ‘How Much’ that matters. Sometimes, it is ‘Who’ that matters as well. Add ‘How’ to it too.

No culture survives if it is restricted to acting out to groups of tourists. Culture will survive only if it is integral to the lives of those it is handed down to. So lets not be conned by ‘tourism saves culture.

And who is a travel snob, Eric? Someone who might extoll the virtues of experiencing a culture beyond that “to see” list culled from the “10 Hottest Things To See in Egypt”? Or someone who shakes his head on seeing folks stuck to their resorts, floating in a fancy swimming pool? He is probably ruing what the tourist might be missing out on.

And who cares if fancy 5 Stars catering to the ‘tourist’ uses up much of the water that sustains villages along the beaches!

Sure, each one to their own choice. It’s not about “my way” being better than “yours”. The issue is somewhere in between, maybe somewhere beyond as well. And maybe to not realise it might be snobbery, but in reverse.

Chuck K 03.01.10 | 3:32 PM ET

We travelers are purists at heart, but the reality is sometimes different - and OK.  I remember being in Sanitago de Campostela in Gallicia.  Having toured the cathedral earlier in the day, we were again walking past it when I had this calling to re-enter for a moment.  Serendipity strikes again.  A crowd had gathered in the crossing of the cathedral and a group of vested men were now entering with a large incense burner - the one for which the cathedral is famous.  The embers were already lit, the incense was now added, and the burner attached to a rope hanging from the transcepts tall (very tall) ceiling.  And then the men started to pull the rope and the incense burner swang over our heads as it eventually went almost from ceiling to ceiling, wall to wall.  The incense filled the cathdral with its aromatic and scared sweetness (designed to cover up the “smells” of the pilgrims arriving from there many-week pilgrimage).  It was awe-some.  Then within a few minutes, it was all over.  The dozen men left with the burner and the crowds dispersed.  Exiting the cathedral, we overheard that a cruise ship company had made a contribution to the church in return for the incense ceremony.  Hmm.  Did it detract from the moment? Only momentarily.  It was still a special experience, steeped in the history of this place and one that I still recall fondly many years later.  It felt like we were meant to be there.  And I said a little thank-you prayer to the cruise ship company as we returned to our hotel.

Emme 03.01.10 | 9:00 PM ET


To suggest that children in India begging for money at the Taj Mahal would go otherwise go to school if tourists were not there is patently ridiculous.

These children cannot afford school to begin with. They would be put to work and at much more difficult labor than asking for a few rupees.


Anil 03.02.10 | 2:56 AM ET


Before passing judgements, step back for a moment and check facts.

You are mistaken in thinking poor children cannot afford education in India. They do not have to afford it.  School education is Free through much of high school in Government schools for the poorer section. They do not have to pay anything. It is FREE. 

Even with free schooling available, would you rather they beg at tourist spots than work?

If nothing else, being put to work when young would still be better than a life of begging, the latter often leads to other, less than legitimate activities.

Harkiron 03.02.10 | 10:17 AM ET

Absorbing debate your write-up has triggered, Eric.

Culture conservation efforts would get a leg up if the youngsters at primary school level-onwards get sufficiently exposed to all things traditional; how festivals are celebrated, what is chanted at religious do’s and what those words mean ( all in sequence as kids grow, absorb and practice), what different forms of performing arts denote…

Sadly, the ‘yuppie’ (for want of any new word) parents are too busy ekeing out double incomes to give much time / weight to traditions in their ‘true’ form to ‘gift’ a rich heritage to their offspring, and kids grow up thinking and believing anything ‘traditional’ means ‘not-so-cool’.

But there’s hope, yet! I have seen young collegiates dancing and singing with abandon with Rajasthani and Punjab folk musicians troupes, trying to emulate their colorful styles. That tells me our kids are just waiting to be inducted, inundated and seeped in our rich cultural heritage, if only the educational institutions would pitch in, too!

I agree with Anil about the education being there for their taking; but who is minding / guiding these youngsters??

Travel-Writers-Exchange.com 03.02.10 | 10:50 AM ET

Tourism has it place.  Most areas of the world wouldn’t be able to survive and thrive without tourism. What’s the harm if people engage with the locals, partake in traditional customs, and learn about another culture?  To each their own.  All that matters is that people are respectful when they travel.

Bob Berwyn 03.02.10 | 6:33 PM ET

Hmmm, thought-provoking essay. I agree with your main points about tourism snobbery, but I’m not sure if a cultural tradition on tourism life-support has value to either the culture it springs from or to tourists. Do we, as tourists, have a pre-conceived idea of what a culture should look like? Do we base our tourism expectations on that, rather than accepting that other cultures are developing, modernizing and developing new traditions?

I would suggest that, if a tradition is maintained solely for the purpose of extracting tourism revenue, it has lost its cultural value. If the tradition is still cherished by “locals” for its intrinsic values, then it’s a different story.

Do tourists come to the U.S. expecting that they’ll find “authentic” towns that look like Williamsburg?

“Slightly inauthentic?” Where’s the line between that and artificial? Makes me think of a few of things, one, the secret “authentic” ceremonies performed by Taos Pueblo natives that have rarely, if ever, been viewed by outsiders, as compared to the tourist-oriented ceremonies performed for show (and money). Can you place relative values on those? I don’t have the answers, just asking?

Two: Bavarians/Austrians wearing their traditional kit as part of their everyday life or for visits to the Oktoberfest. Yes, they do. It’s not a cultural show for tourists, but something they continue to value even as other parts of their society change and modernize.

Similarly, the Corpus Christi boat procession and floating mass on Hallstatt Lake in Austria, which continues to have deep meaning for Catholics in those villages, but has also become a tourist attraction. In this case, I believe there’s been a good blend. Visitors are even encouraged to rent a row boat and paddle along with the flotilla, but clearly, the religious ceremony is still the core value for locals, not the income derived from the event.

Kim 03.03.10 | 2:23 AM ET

Great way of addressing an age old topic.  My take on life is about moderation.  I was recently in Indonesia staying in a mining company compound on a trip arranged by a nearby luxury dive resort.  I mentioned to the manager of the resort that the locals had played really loud (fortunately they had good speakers) music at around 1am on Sun morning and his response was “this was not in our agreement”.  So for 2 people visiting and not contributing a cent to the local (ie within 50kms) economy the locals need to be quiet at night - to me that is wrong, but it is what the clientel of this resort expect. 
I think as a tourist we need to remember WE are a guest in some-one else’s way of doing things and act accordingly.  And also remember - enjoy what the culture has to offer - even if it is a bit touristy!

Linda Walters 03.03.10 | 9:14 AM ET

but then, the people you meet in those hamams are worth the trip even as a tourist.  In Istanbul we met an Australian actress who works in Ballywood… and in Antalya missionaries from Scotland… New personal contacts are a part of the tourist equation as well as the experience.  Enjoy!

lisa kirchner 03.03.10 | 10:11 AM ET

Yes! A traveling tourist’s mere presence “contaminates” a scene, except, that is the scene. I should know, I live in NY’s theater district. The distinction is one of the level of contamination. I hated seeing people in too-revealing clothes when I lived in Qatar, & felt embarrassed by loud types in Bali. It shows a lack regard for the place you’re visiting, which has nothing to do with enjoying the place, tourist attractions and all.

Laurie McAndish King 03.04.10 | 11:51 AM ET

An irony: I participated in an Earthwatch expedition in rural Argentina in which I helped an American-educated botanist (originally from Colombia) identify and catalogue medicinal plants and their uses. The goal was to record this information before it was permanently lost, since very few members of the younger generation were interested in learning the ways of the curanderos. (Instead, the trend was to be modern like Americans and pop a pill to cure an ailment.) The presence our our group of foreigners, the work we were doing, and the importance we attached to it helped to reignite the locals’ interest in traditional botanical treatments.

I worked on a similar project in the Brazilian rainforest, and the presence of our group of foreigners helped catalyze the local population to put a particular tract of land into a public trust. Prior to our work there, the land had been slated to be developed into a golf course to help attract tourist dollars.

Tricia Keffer 03.04.10 | 7:10 PM ET

I have grown up as well in a “tourist” hotspot and I think a change of attitude is in order. How wonderful my hometown must be for people willing to spend a couple thousand dollars to just spend a week ...where I live 365 days a year.

The thing is… don’t try to be a local. We can pick you out in a heartbeat. Enjoy being a tourist and be friendly and tell us how much you love the area. More than likely.. if you are friendly we’ll tell you about the best places to go then.

We only ask two things: pick up after yourselves and be nice. How hard is that?

Mary Arulanantham 03.05.10 | 2:10 PM ET

Sometimes even living with and travelling with locals will not get you out of being a tourist. Often the locals have rarely, if ever, gone outside of their day-to-day lives where they live, so they are eager to experience the pleasures of tourism with you when you visit. When friends and family come to visit us in the SF Bay Area, we take them to the usual places (GG Bridge, Chinatown, Fishermen’s Wharf, maybe a hike on Mt. Diablo). They don’t have a lot of time to see the little art shows, local open mikes, etc. I have travelled with family in Sri Lanka and they have never had the chance to check out some of the delights of Kandy, ancient ruins and temples, etc.—partly because of the long war, and partly because they have jobs, school, etc. to attend to so there is no time. For me, what is satisfying in these situations is the filler time: meals, bedtime rituals, going to church or the store—when you just step into their lives for awhile and see what it is like to just be an average person. The only problem for them is that when I am with them, they get pegged for tourists and get charged the higher rates, are targetted by beggars and then they get to see what it is like to be a tourist in their own country. Not always a good tradeoff.

Lauren 03.07.10 | 12:31 PM ET

I have mixed emotions about this topic, and frankly, don’t think I fall on one side or the other. For me, it’s not at all about whether I call myself a “traveler” or a “tourist” - about this, I could not care less, and I think the whole topic of this labeling debate is rooted in elitism.

In some places, tourist consumption of cultural traditions or natural wonders does, in fact, hold some benefit and even supports preservation of cultural traditions or natural environments. This is undeniable.

I’ll give an example. My city’s downtown streets are flooded with tourists all summer long. I have to dodge the salmon flying through the air at the Pike Place Market while I am there to buy my actual dinner. Sometimes, I wish the crowds were thinner. But really, I don’t mind. Without tourism, Pike Place Market would have closed long ago, and I’d not be able to stop on my way to the bus to easily buy that fresh wild salmon, which is sold just one stand away from my organic salad fixings, which sit just one stand away from my bouquet of tulips.

Washington state depends on tourism. It supports billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs here. And if it weren’t for this tourism being such an economic engine here, I think it would have been much more difficult for wild Puget Sound chinook salmon to be listed as “threatened” under the endangered species act.

In other areas, tourist consumption of traditional culture or natural environments is plain gross, exploitative, and imperialistic. And I think it’s somewhat dangerous for us “travelers” or “tourists” (whatever you call yourself) to pat ourselves on the back, even a little, for getting in our climate-killing jet planes and going into countries to help preserve their cultural traditions, whether it is through paying for a Turkish bath experience or just taking a photo. 

Everything we do has an impact, and it can be positive and negative at the same time, for entirely different reasons.

Hal Peat 03.14.10 | 3:24 PM ET

The basis of this article is largely a moot point at this point in history.  The global economic recession has for the most part put a permanent boot into the mass market brand of tourism—meaning, exactly those people the author thinks are so swell.  Huge all-inclusives are like ghost towns, Carnival - level cruise liners are dry-docked, airlines collapse.  Inept PRs invite bloggers on trips called Bloggers in Paradise, and to write about their navels at “eco-resorts”, while economic/social hell engulfs both third and first world countries.  So much for responsibility.

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with a passionate intensity” - W.B. Yeats (I think he foresaw travelboggers).

Stephen R Douglas 03.28.10 | 6:21 PM ET

I visited Turkey once on a package tour.  I was struck by finding little out of the way spots where people lived in old ways that will soon disappear as global westernized culture moves in.  It is sad, but I am not so sure how the locals may view changes.  So, I am going back again in May to do two package tours back-to-back.  One tour starts in Trabzon and generally explores the eastern part of Turkey.  The second tour explores the cultural heritage of the central part of Turkey.  Anyway, I will get a topical view of a lot of Turkey on my limited budget.  I am thankful to be a tourist.  If money were not a consideration I would move to Turkey and live out my final days in a small village.  Turkey is wonderfully exotic and I hope it stays that way.  It will be a pity when many parts of the world becomes generically modern so much so that travel becomes ordinary.  Tell me,.....who really wants ordinary?

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