In defense of being a tourist

CNN  — 

These days, it feels like everyone is a traveler.

A recent study revealed that millennials are five times as well-traveled as their grandparents.

That has a lot to do with travel becoming less expensive (thanks, budget airlines!) and the world more connected globally. But whenever any action becomes accessible and popular, it inevitably comes with a backlash.

How often have you heard someone who just returned from a vacation say, “Oh, I love to travel, but I’m not a tourist.” “Tourist,” like “tacky,” seems to have become a dirty word.

“Tourist” is now a coded derogatory term to refer to a person who goes to chain restaurants in other cities or who spends hours waiting in line for an overpriced activity.

But there has to be a middle ground between a person who exclusively eats McDonald’s in foreign countries and a person who spends their whole trip co-working at coffee shops and not seeing a single famous local attraction.

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While travel is, in some ways, more accessible than ever, that doesn’t mean that everyone has an unlimited budget or the ability to take tons of time off from work. If you’re going to Paris for the first time, and you aren’t sure when and if you can come back, damn right you should visit the Eiffel Tower if you want to.

Yes, Iceland’s Blue Lagoon is full of tourists – and it’s also one of the world’s best ways to re-energize yourself after a red-eye flight. The Great Wall of China? Yep. Pretty great.

Want to stay in a hotel instead of a rented apartment because it makes you feel safer in an unfamiliar place, or because you don’t want to spend your hard-earned vacation making your own bed? That’s OK.

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Why pass for a local?

The truth is, many “do it like a local” exhortations come out of classist ideas about who should be “allowed” to travel and why.

If you’re the kind of person who can afford a trip to Paris every year, then sure you’ll want to experience the city comme une Parisenne the second or third time around. Once you have the chance to get to know a destination, it’s easier to explore new neighborhoods or find stuff further off the usual visitor’s radar.

And passing for a local is, in itself, kind of a fraught idea.

If you’re a different race or ethnicity than most of the people around you, you’ll probably stick out whether you know the proper way to drink coffee or not. If you don’t speak the local language and can’t get to know the residents, people may not care how far you went out of your way to avoid major tourist attractions.

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Simply being a tourist isn’t a bad thing. Every group has bad apples, and “I’m not a tourist” is how some people say “I am being respectful of cultural customs,” “I’m not afraid to take public transit,” or “I’m trying a new food instead of relying on what I already know and like.”

Take me, for example: I’ve lived in New York City for more than a decade, so I qualify as a local. But my own days are more likely to contain Netflix marathons, long subway commutes and ordering takeout than they are visiting a world-class art museum.

The truth is that I’d feel sorry for anyone who came to Manhattan and thought that my “experience it like a local” was a fun or novel way to experience the city. It’s often not until friends visit me from out of town that I can really enjoy walking the Brooklyn Bridge or trying a buzzy new restaurant – experiencing my own city like a tourist is a much more fun experience than doing it like any local other than a very, very privileged one.

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Go your own way

The bottom line: If you have a bucket list and really want to visit some of the most famous, most beloved and most photographed sites in the world, you should be able to do it without anyone making you feel bad about yourself. And that’s part of what we believe in here at CNN Travel. Your time is valuable to you, which means it’s also valuable to us.

If you want to go to the Eiffel Tower, we won’t judge you for it – but we will tell you the best time of day to go, how to skip the line and where to stand for the perfect Instagram photo.

Travel is extremely personal, and no one trip fits all. If you want to stay at a five-star hotel, that’s cool. If you want to stay in a 10-to-a-room hostel, that’s cool, too. If you want to take a street art tour in a lesser-known neighborhood or eat at a restaurant that’s famous for being featured in a TV show or movie – you can totally do both.

Basically, we travel to expand our ideas of the world, to experience new things and – most importantly – to find happiness.

So, enjoy the Eiffel Tower. And the Pyramids of Giza. And Machu Picchu. Because the truth is some things are famous for a reason.