How to Burst the Tourist Bubble

| July 27, 2009 | 19 Comments

Charles Caleb Colton was a minor English writer of the late-eighteenth century. And although you may have never heard of him, it’s more than likely that you’ve quoted him on more than one occasion. While the majority of his works are largely forgotten these days, his pithy quotations have lived on—preserved for posterity in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

You’ll recognize one of Colton’s most famous quotes almost immediately: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. And although his writings may have been wildly popular in their day, less well known was his penchant for travel. He was a consummate vagabond, however, and while a two-year stint through the United States may have been motivated more by his creditors, who were seeking compensation, than it was by his desire to see the world, his observations from the road were nonetheless poignant. Of travelers, he wrote:

Those who visit foreign nations, but associate only with they own countrymen, change their climate, but not their customs. They see new meridians, but the same men; and with heads as empty as their pockets, return home with traveled bodies, but untraveled minds.

Almost 150 years hence, scholars would term what Colton was describing as the “tourist bubble”. In short, the tourist bubble is a cushion that the travel industry has created, complete with it own infrastructure. It’s a hermetically sealed environment—reality supplanted—and depending on the destination, may come complete with its own transportation, its own currency and its own law enforcement system.

The Tourist Bubble

In some destinations, socialist states such as Cuba and China for example, the government often seeks to separate the tourist population from the local population, forbidding locals from entering certain hotels, patronizing certain beaches and even excluding them from certain ‘resort cities’. Western democratic or capitalist-friendly destinations are not immune to the effects of the tourist bubble, either. However, here the cushion is  a function of the tourist industry rather than the state.

tourists How to Burst the Tourist Bubble
Photo by Jen SFO-BCN (Creative Commons)

Why do the state and the travel industry go to such great lengths? To put it simply, it’s about two things: control and money. Thanks to widely available and relatively cheap airfare, the tourist industry is the fastest-growing segment of the global economy. And controlling that segment is easiest when the tourist experience is standardized, modified and commodified. Unfortunately, however, the commodification of travel is for the benefit of the travel industry and rarely, if ever, the traveler. And what it leads to, ultimately, is the type of holiday wherein the vast majority of local knowledge of the area is imparted to the tourist by a bus driver. And in such cases, to paraphrase Colton, many tourists return home with emptied pockets and traveled bodies—but untraveled minds.

Unbeknownst to Colton, nearly 150 years later, his observations would be reflected in a whole subsegment of cultural anthropology—the study of tourism. One of its central texts, revolutionary when fist published but now somewhat dated, was Valene Smith’s Hosts and Guests: The Anthropology of Tourism. Smith’s book became a staple for those interested in the interactions between traveler and local. It was smith who popularized the concept of the “tourist bubble”—a space she defined as both physical, and to a great degree, mental.

Breaking the Tourist Bubble

In examining the notion of the ‘tourist bubble’, Smith’s theories proved that its construction and preservation  was a product both of a travelers’ mindset—ie their expectations—and a function of the tourism industry.

Think for example, of Khao Sarn Road—the classic tourist bubble. This Bangkok neighbourhood is now territorially distinct from its environs and local businesses have grown up to help a traveler evade or soften the shock that arrival in a foreign country generally implies.

It’s here too, that backpackers come face to face with a paradox that they have difficulty escaping—travelling to exotic destinations only to meet and spend time with other backpackers. It can be an insular world and in order to break out of it—in order to break the bubble as it were—one must reconsider both the travel industry and, more importantly, their own mindset.

In our opinion, the easiest way to break the bubble is to find out where other travelers are headed—and go in the opposite direction. Stan Sesser, of the Wall Street Journal, shares our view:

My own solution requires two words: Be counterintuitive. When conventional wisdom tells you to do A, consider doing B. In practice, this might be something as simple as eating food from a street vendor or as heart-stopping as going to a country when everyone else is fleeing it. Counterintuitive thinking inevitably gets me out of the bubble, and even though it might provoke some anxiety, it usually works out fine.

In order to fully escape the bubble, however, it’s necessary to seek out and engage the local population (interaction) in a manner other than a standard tourist (transaction). That, however, is easier said than done.

khaosarn How to Burst the Tourist Bubble
Khao Sarn Road, Bangkok

Whilst traveling through Asia, we quickly learned that the majority of solo travellers are on the lookout for other travellers to socialize with. Of course, you’ll be tempted to move in very tight social circles with other backpackers and ex-pats as you travel.

Hence, we believe it’s absolutely essential that you go out of your way to make local friends while travelling. Indeed, you’ll learn a lot more about the country in which you find yourself from a local. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself hanging out at hostels trying to impress other backpackers with random factoids plucked from some dog-eared Lonely Planet guide.

Before the backpacker can expect to develop relationships with the local population, they need to see the value in having them in the first place. While you might value you independence as a traveler, it’s hard to escape the fact that we’re all social creatures. And as social creatures, we rely on each other for help.

How to find friends

As with any endeavour, building a friendship—no matter how transient or fleeting—must begin from a solid foundation. As travelers, our desire to build a relationship should not be based on what we may get, but rather what we can provide. Often what we can provide is simply an ear. However, we’re conditioned by the tourist bubble to shut others out. Our wariness of being duped or seen as just another wallet can sometimes be misconstrued as preoccupation and self-absorption by others. It’s impossible to make friends this way—there’s no substitute for being friendly. Sometimes you just need to let your guard down. If you are to make friends with the locals, you must value the need for them!

There’s no secret formula to winning friends, other than being friendly. However, there are measures that you can take to ensure that you don’t let an opportunity to develop a friendship pass you buy.

  • Eat local. Don’t be afraid to eat cooked foods at roadside kiosks. Not only do you enjoy the added benefit of eating cheaply, you’ll be sure to be eating alongside locals. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you should eat at more ‘westernized’ establishments.
  • Sit down. In a new city, you may be tempted to order takeout or head to the local market and retreat back to your hotel room, guest house or hostel. This is especially true if you’re travelling solo. Instead, consider eating by yourself in busy local establishments as often as possible.
  • Read. You might feel a little self-conscious eating by yourself, but it carries with it some important benefits—you’re much easier to approach when you are by yourself. While people may be afraid of interrupting you or being rude if you are in a conversation with someone else, you are much more approachable by yourself. If you feel self-conscious, bring a book or a newspaper to read—or bring a journal. Writing in public always seems to attract the interest of other and will give others an excuse to start a conversation.
  • Bring props! A number of years ago, we spent a month backpacking though China, and found that the easiest way to break the ice with locals was to pull out a picture of our family—ours was a shot of our parents on the front lawn of our suburban home. It was a great tool—and we’re glad that we had the foresight to have it laminated before we left as it was passed around a lot (usually at dinner time). It served us well beyond China, too—it’s not difficult to learn the words for mother, father, brother and sister in any language. Indeed, family serves as a common interest regardless of where you find yourself. Moreover, the picture had a very humanizing effect—transforming us from a ‘tourist’ to a ‘neighbour’ in a matter of minutes.

In our estimation, the realization that we’re all neighbours is an essential condition of escaping the tourist bubble. The theory that almost everyone on Earth is connected to anyone else via a small number of acquaintances seems to hold true for backpackers, too.

Taking it online

The rapid uptake and access to the world wide web has helped people become better acquainted with their world—and with one another. As the technology has evolved, it has brought ordinary people with common interests together from different parts of the world to make it, in some respects, a smaller place. We now share in global tragedies, global responses and global parties—to use a threadbare term: the ‘global village.’

In the years following our trip to China, a number of online services have sprung up to illustrate this interconnectedness and help fellow travelers escape the tourist bubble. Chief among them is the CouchSurfing project. And while members use the site primarily as a means of coordinating home accommodation, it is also an excellent way of escaping the tourist bubble.

The service is not just about finding a couch on which to crash. Intrepid traveller Gary Arndt—on the road now for two years—uses CouchSurfing not for the accommodation, but for purposes of sharing information and occasionally meeting up for sightseeing. (One of the biggest questions that people tend to ask of such programs is “how safe is it“? Check out our featured piece on the dangers of CouchSurfing).

In conclusion

So, bear in mind the words of Charles Caleb Colton. When changing your climate—change your customs, too. While breaking the tourist bubble requires an open mind and some counterintuitive thinking, recalling that we’re all neighbours will have you enjoying mind-expanding interactions in lieu of pocket-emptying transactions. And you’ll return home with a traveled body, and a traveled mind.

So, how do you escape the tourist bubble? Or bridge the language gap while travelling? If you could offer one piece of advice to a new traveler, what might it entail?

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About the Author ()

For nearly ten years now, Daniel of Two Go Round-The-World has explored how travel captures our imagination and engages our deepest emotions. One half of the duo that maintains the widely read Two Go Round-The-World blog, Daniel treats his subjects not only as works of art but also as symbols of the cultural and political forces that inspire them. His latest book, The Physics of Flocking, gathers his favourite writing featured over the past two years on Two Go Round-The-World in columns like 'Looking Back' and 'The Whole Picture'—along with new reflections.

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  1. How to Burst the Tourist Bubble | Global Bloggers Network | February 24, 2010
  1. Alexandra says:

    Very interesting article, especially because of the theoretical base.
    One possible way to “burst the tourist bubble” is to try to arrange for dinner at the house of locals. This can be set up via various websites that do dinner exchanges, or by simply socializing with locals when you’re at your destination, and hoping they will take you home.

    • Daniel says:

      Thanks, Alexandra. As a couple, the social aspect is what we’re most interested in. The difficulty arises as travelers because we are so transient by nature. Dinner exchanges are a great idea, and we’ve been putting together a post for tomorrow on other hospitality exchanges; so if you happen to know of any that we should check out in advance of tomorrow’s posting, let us know!

  2. Jason says:

    This is an excellent article highlighting the most rewarding aspect of travel, experiences of meeting different people from different cultures. As you point out, it’s easier to remain in the tourist bubble, but it won’t be as much fun. We expect Couchsurfing to be our key to unlock that door.

    • Daniel says:

      Cool, Jason. In doing a bit of research today, we’ve been overwhelmed at the number of hospitality organizations. And find that they comprise networks that transcend general interest and cater specifically to women, teachers, and the gay and lesbian community. There’s lots out there!

  3. Thanks for an excellent and thoughtful piece.

    One of the best ways I have found to break the tourist bubble is by traveling the way they travel. (This may be obvious to backpackers, but other tourists forget.) Forgo the sightseeing lecture with lame jokes on the tour bus and take the local. Ride the train instead of renting a car. WALK!

    Another way is to avoid the restaurants mentioned in any guidebook–by the time you get there thousands of others have read about it and hundreds have found it (Seemingly on the day you get there). Instead, look for where the locals are eating. As a matter of fact, we find restaurants that way in the United States when we are on road trips–look for the place with the most cars around it with local licenses.
    In non-English speaking lands, we avoid restaurants with English language menus.(Traveling with a tiny menu translator book–there are plenty of them–certainly helps.)

    • Daniel says:

      In full agreement with you. We found that some of the best interactions that we had while traveling through China (and India) were found in trains—travelling hard seat. Sure, you might arrive less than well rested, but the experience is worth the loss of sleep! Met a lot of people travelling third-class through the subcontinent, too.

  4. Keith says:

    Thank you for this excellent, well-articulated article. I like mixing with both locals and fellow travellers but I usually make my own plans and go my own way, instead of hanging out with fellow travellers (though I do occasionally enjoy it). Indeed, one great way of breaking the tourist bubble is to walk (as Vera recommends) or taking public transport. If I’m staying in a certain place for a while, I tend to return to the same restaurants and bars and after a while, contact is established with the locals who frequent the same places or who work there.

    • Daniel says:

      Thanks for the comment, Keith. Public transport is key. It’s often not the easiest path, but it certainly can be the most educational!

  5. Akila says:

    Well, you know what my solution is going to be given the theme of our site — but I completely agree about eating local. The easiest and fastest way to meet locals is to ask them where they suggest we eat. Food (and, to a lesser extent, drink) is the great equalizer: we all must eat to survive and nearly all of us appreciate food.

    I am wary of eating at roadside stands because I have gotten sick too many times in India; instead, we seek out the “fast food” options of the specific country. In Venice, for example, we went to the bacari — bars that serve cichetti (or Italian tapas) for 1 Euro per serving — and found ourselves in the back corners of Venice, hanging out with soccer playing kids and wrinkled old men.

  6. Anil says:

    This was a great post. I’d say that it’s important not to be too self-conscious and just put yourself out there by eating locally, and the other tips you mention. Lots of travelers worry about ‘looking stupid’ or not being cool or whatever and it really limits your experiences.

    I try to be observant as well with the little things that I find different. How do people walk, what mannerisms do they use, etc. Watching others (and not yourself the entire time) is a great way to learn and blend in.

  7. Hmmm.. the tourist bubble. I’ve yet to be caught in this state of oblivion (unless it was my quest to be – and yes, there have been those DAYS, if not those TRIPS). I enjoy traveling alone, and not seeking out others traveling alone, because it causes me to shed all self-consciousness. I’m braver, more forward in meeting people, love taking meals alone and then interacting with the waitstaff or the chef or the table next to me. Stretching my comfort zone limbers my spirit. Self reliance makes me vibrant! I try to travel slow and not cover too much ground. And I try to learn the highlights from the guidebooks, but then go/do/see as much by accident as I can. And when I don’t travel alone? The same applies. My partner is equally laid-back!

  8. A nice, thoroughly-researched piece!

    So what is a ‘tourist’?

    I take your point that by sitting on the kerb drinking out of buckets on Khao San Road for a week doesn’t give you the best idea of what Bangkok is really like however it’s still a fun place to spend a few hours of an evening exchanging stories and tips (like many travel bloggers do via their laptops). I agree that the point scoring that goes on can be tiresome but I am sure we are all guilty of doing this whether it’s in a hostel or back home when somebody brings up the subject of a particular destination.

    If a person claims to have got more out of a trip simply because they avoided so-called ‘tourist’ areas sounds just as much as point scoring as the person in the hostel counting the number of countries they have been to.

    You would clearly be a fool to avoid all of the popular tourist destinations as you would miss out on the Grand Palace in Bangkok or Tower Bridge in London. Similarly, claiming to live like a local when travelling is all well and good but you would obviously draw the line at experiencing life as a local in the terrorist-rich areas of southern Thailand and parts of India.

    I’m a firm believer that you get out of travel what you put in and the important thing is to be yourself and come back with no regrets. The things you chose to do or not do should and the reasons behind it should be personal choice; One man’s dream is another man’s nightmare.

    A ‘tourist’ is simply one who travels for pleasure. It’s a bubble I’m happy to be in!


    PS – great tip about taking photos & props. Always a brilliant ice-breaker when meeting people.

  9. Daniel says:

    In full agreement, Andy. And I stay on Khao Sarn every time I’m in Bangkok. That’s the irony in a way—these places are popular because they often are fun! Tourist areas are touristy because they are worth visiting.

    I try to not make much of the traveler/tourist distinction, as I really believe they are similar—if not the same. But I try to be cognizant of the walls that the travel industry puts up in order to keep me in a certain area and slowly chip away at my travel funds!

  10. David says:

    I hate to tell you this, but many “locals” eat at places like MacDonalds. I went to one in Shanghai when I was craving some French fries. I met some cool Shanghai natives who ended up taking me to some underground clubs. It was wild. I know it’s correct to disregard anything “Western” when traveling abroad. But the locals–especially the ones who can speak English–often don’t share that disregard.

    • Daniel says:

      Hi David. Thanks for the comment! I hope that you didn’t read any anti-western sentiment into the above post; that wasn’t the intention. It’s all about context — a McDonald’s restaurant located on Khao Sarn Road is quite a bit different than one located elsewhere in Bangkok, or Shanghai for that matter. In my mind, the post was more about the definition of space than it was about anything else. It just happens that a lot of western restaurants tend to congeal around the main tourist arteries—and that’s what shapes interactions. That was my original intent with the post.

  11. Don Nadeau says:

    I agree with Akila about being careful about where you eat.

    In South Africa, with its population enjoying a national health care scheme, with its safe town and city water sources, etc., you can eat just about anything, including salads, anywhere.

    India, as Akila mentioned, is another story. If only the very poorest people dine at a place, you may be wise to avoid it.

    Unfortunately in striving for an ‘authentic’ experience, some western travelers insist on always saving the maximum amount, and they get sick.

  12. Janos says:

    Interesting article. I’m travelling for five month now in the middle east and I’m really thinking about and experiencing this “tourist-problem”.
    I like this “do the opposite”-thing but still…

    When you’re in a country, as a foreigner, just for travelling, then, in fact, you’re a tourist. Even if you worked your way out of the bubble, you’re within a greater bubble andthis is something to think about and reflect whilst idolizing oneself as the “super-individual-almost-local-traveller”…
    It may be a ideal of travelling to gain “authentic” experiences, to be off the beaten paths, bla bla. But to be honest: is that possible?

    Maybe your purpose is/was to show the first way out of the big bubble, but then I see a lot of more bubbles and I think some of them are just natural…

  13. Tam says:

    Hello i am kavin, its my first occasion to commenting anyplace,
    when i read this post i thought i could also create comment due
    to this brilliant piece of writing.

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