Recently, a friend shared an article titled “Your Wanderlust Is Inauthentic: The Real Difference Between Travel And Vacation”. While the article made some good points, those are shrouded in what I can only describe as Travel Snobbery. To the author, there is only one right way to travel, and doing otherwise cheapens the experience and makes it into a “vacation”, which has little merit.
For the author, vacations are trips of privilege. These are all-inclusive trips to a resort somewhere tropical and thus, exotic and worthy of bragging about. Vacations do not include public transportation or wandering very far. Vacations are experiences without culture shock or immersion. Because of this, “vacations” and “authentic” travel experiences are two completely different things.
I wholeheartedly disagree. Vacations are not separate from travel experiences.
The definition of “authentic” travel provided in the article seems to exempt the sort of tourist activities that can be an essential part of a trip. In the article, “authentic” travel experiences should be a quest to deviate from “the beaten path” and “search for the elusive history of a country and its people”. If learning the history of a place is your goal, it is not so elusive. People usually want to share their culture with you in ways that are accessible to many. Culture is preserved and shared in many ways– in museums with signs and souvenirs, in brochures at the local tourist office, and guidebooks to name a few. Those are all touristy, but no less important.
Meaningful travel should not keep you from experiencing the well-known, “brag-worthy” marvels of the world. In Rome, does “authentic” travel demand that you skirt the Coliseum to avoid the inevitable touristy atmosphere that surrounds it? Or do you make two trips to Rome? One should be a “vacation” where you stay at a ritzy hotel and travel by taxi to all the Meaningless Touristy Spots. The “authentic” experience would demand a stay in a hostel without air conditioning and stumbling your way through small talk “conversations” in jumbled Italian, walking down alleys that hold neighborhood pizza places, and wasting sleepy afternoons in streets that kind of all look the same. Are you “enlightened” about Italy based on these superficial experiences of Italian culture?
Any experience of foreign culture is based on your perspective as an outsider. An American in Rome will never have the same experience as an Italian who grew up there. Travel allows you to return home with a more well-rounded view of yourself and the culture in which you grew up. It is arrogant to suggest that your presence in another country can in any way impact that country more because you avoided the “touristy” things. Tourists make impacts on countries, especially economically, that are undeniably significant. On a smaller scale, people make connections to each other while traveling, be it through couch surfing at a local’s house or showing kindness to the cleaning person at your hotel.
Experiencing culture can take many forms wherever you visit, and “culture” is not something to be worn like costume. It is not simple, disposable, or made for a traveler to experience. Culture is complex and includes the traditions, beliefs, mannerisms, art, and history of a place or of a people. You will not become part of the culture where you are merely a visitor, no matter how much you try to act like a local.
People go to Paris to see and experience French culture. While it is certainly not representative of all of French culture, in avoiding the tourist attractions, you are missing out on that very culture. By not visiting the Louvre, you are missing out on seeing the masterpieces of French artists, not to mention all the other masterpieces that are collected there. In avoiding the Eiffel Tower (which would be quite a feat), you are missing out on a wonder of engineering. You are missing out on a story that is a part of France’s history.
The beaten path includes some of the most beautiful views and cultural landmarks. While the back roads might give you a glimpse into the life of the people that live in a city, it does not make you part of that city. The laundry hanging from the windows, the overgrown plants in window boxes—those cannot tell you the story of a country and of a people in the same way that their art can. That brief glimpse cannot tell you the history of a proud nation.
There is no right or wrong way to see the world or visit new places. Travel should enrich your life, whether you are visiting a beach you have been to a thousand times or a city that you have only dreamed about. While it is wonderful if your travels enable you to see the world and people more complexly, traveling with the intention of leaving as a different person is incredibly limiting. Simply allowing yourself to experience and enjoy your trip is enriching on its own, regardless of how much exposure you get to the everyday experiences of the inhabitants.
To the author of the original article, I respect and understand your passion. It is wonderful that the way you travel makes you happy and provides you with enriching experiences. But your experiences aren’t the only valid traveler experiences. Everyone’s experiences are valid, whether or not you choose to travel off the beaten path or if you stick to what is safe and commonly visited. People travel for themselves and will find their own way. Many of them come back with their own passion and a case of wanderlust that is more than just a passing trend.