The Thin Line Between Corny Tourist Fun and Vulgar Exploitation Tourism

Robben Island

I’m not above seeing touristy sights and joining touristy tours while traveling abroad, particularly in destinations I’m visiting for the first time. Sure, I spent over a decade living in New York and never once went to the top of the Empire State Building, or cruised out to Ellis Island, or took a tour of the Chrysler Building, but that’s different. When you live somewhere, the last thing you want to do in your free time is rub elbows with gawking tourists for a few hours.  Oh, I had every intention of doing all of the above at some point, but you know how it goes: weeks turn into months, months into years, and before you know it you’ve moved to Singapore. Que sera sera.

When you’re abroad, however, sometimes you have no choice but to get in line with everybody else, swallow your “Yeah, but I’m a real traveler, not some schlumpy tourist” pride, and find out whether Attraction X lives up to the hype that brought you there in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, you still have to run these things through a filter (“Do I really need to take a ride on that garish fucking ferris wheel?”),  but to turn a blind eye out of hat to certain attractions, activities, and events just because you know they’ll likely be uber-touristy is to potentially rob yourself of a rewarding experience.

In Bangkok, you don’t skip the Grand Palace (but you damn well better be there as soon as it opens if you want to enjoy it). In London, you join a somewhat campy, but informationally fascinating guided tour of the Tower of London. In Taipei, you zip up to the top of the Taipei 101, currently the world’s second tallest building behind Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, and fill your camera’s memory card with shots of the stunning panoramic scenery. Hell, in Amsterdam you take the fun Heineken Experience tour, if for no other reason than this is one place on the planet where that swill is actually somewhat palatable. (No, really!)

There will be expensive, waste-of-your-time misses along the way — South Africa’s Robben Island immediately comes to mind — but more often than not, I’ve found that most of the not-obviously-corny-but-still-blantantly-touristy attractions I’ve visited and activities I’ve joined have been worth it.

Heritance Tea Factory

One touristy thing I absolutely won’t do? One that really drives me crazy? Certain… unintentionally demeaning experiential travel activities.  I’ll give you an example.

The Heritance Tea Factory in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka, is a stunning, lovingly restored hotel idyllically located in the middle of a working tea plantation. Loved it; would definitely return again someday; fairly grossed out by the “pick your own tea” activity. It’s one thing to be interested in the cultivation and harvesting processes of tea, to see how it’s picked, and do tasting tests of different varieties, but it’s entirely another to get dressed up in the “local attire,” go into the fields, and do some token tea-leaf picking alongside the women who do this back-breaking labor every day, all day, for very little pay. In fact, here’s how this jolly old good time is in part described on the Tea Factory’s website:

“Our professional tea pluckers will accompany you – you’ll be amazed at how efficiently and quickly they manage to fill their baskets by comparison. Luckily, we don’t expect you to produce the minimum 15kg a day that is their target!”

That’s right: 15 kilograms, as in just over 33 pounds, minimum. I wonder if the pickers are paid extra for dealing with the tourists while trying to hit their daily quota? Ew. I already felt pangs of traveler’s guilt when looking out the window of my posh accommodations at the women bent over the bushes, picking leaves from morning to night, even as I snapped photos of the admittedly scenic sight of a working tea field, the multi-colored sarees painting the deep-green fields with splashes of oranges, reds, blues. I certainly didn’t need to get out there, dressed in a sarong, wicker basket fashioned to my back, and glibbly join them, however.

I felt the same way while lounging poolside at Ubud’s lovely Kenanga Boutique Hotel, swept up in the bucolic scenery of the greenest of greens rice field upon which the hotel sits, watching an old, wiry Balinese man sweeping through the field, scythe in hand, misty morning to black of night, just as he’d done the previous day, just as he’d do the next day, just as I’m sure he has done and will do every day for years.

The irony of preaching from my experiental-travel soapbox while still traveling to and staying at these places isn’t lost on me. Still, that doesn’t mean I have to get in the tea plantation or rice field for a lark to “see how it’s done,” or crowd a guy with my insanely expensive camera — one who’s been breaking his back in the fields all day, and with a camera likely worth more than the guy will make after months (a year? more?) of hard labor — as I saw one Japanese tourist do repeatedly in Ubud.

No matter how well traveled one might be, we’re all tourists. We all do touristy things; we should do touristy things. There’s a line to be drawn, however, a filter to be used, an understanding to be exercised. With more of the world more accessible than ever before, it’s our responsibility as the world’s lucky few leisure travelers to pick and choose what we support — and how we act — with measured discretion.

More of the writer’s features for the Perceptive Travel Blog can be found here.

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