The Tourist Stereotype and Why You Should Give a Crap

| January 8, 2012 | 17 Comments
africa The Tourist Stereotype and Why You Should Give a Crap

Africa—just one of the destinations you'll never forget.

“Never get behind old people” warns George Clooney at the outset of Jason Reitman’s adaptation of the novel Up in the Air. He is, of course, referring to the ubiquitous line-up faced by all travellers when getting through airport security. He continues by invoking a stereotype: “Old people’s bodies are littered with hidden metal and they never seem to appreciate how little time they have left”. When told off by his companion for being so reductive, he replies: “I’m like my mother, I stereotype. It’s faster.”

"You'll Never Forget It."
From North, Central and South America to Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East, G Adventures most recent campaign documents everyday travellers who challenge the tourist identity, as they explore and journey around the planet, uncovering many of the world’s awe-inspiring natural and manmade wonders.

earth The Tourist Stereotype and Why You Should Give a Crap

In December, Amanda Williams over at A Dangerous Business, wrote a piece entitled “The Traveler vs. Tourist Debate and Why I Don’t Give a Crap”, which examined G Adventures recent You’ll Never Forget It campaign (in which I’d played a part in helping to produce). In her article, Amanda bristled at a few brash and tongue-in-cheek declarations that “tourist season was over” and that it was time to “take travel back from the cookie-cutter, socks-and-sandals tourist crowd.” In the ensuing comment stream, her piece provoked a dialogue that elicited some very strong reactions. At issue? The stereotype of the tourist.

What are they doing?

These reactions were not unexpected—stereotypes tend to do that. They are never neutral—and they are highly charged with the feelings that are attached to them, which is exactly why the crew at G Adventures believed the ‘tourist’ stereotype to be ripe for its latest campaign.

In this particular instance, the irony is more than a little pronounced. Here we have—by its own admission—a small group adventure travel company implying that one can shed the ‘tourist’ mantle by choosing to travel with it. So what the hell are we up to? With this post, I wanted to take a crack at explaining why we created this campaign.

The origin of the ‘tourist’ label

First—let’s examine why the tourist gets such a bum rap. Negative views of tourists prevail in literature and in popular writing; the pejorative tinge associated with being a ‘tourist’ is nothing new. It’s a negative perception that dates back to at least the mid-nineteenth century and was rooted in, interestingly enough, classism. Writes Nell Leiper in her article The Framework of Tourism: “In the 1800s, privileged tourists were upset by what they perceived to be an intrusion of the new middle class into a domain that was once elite.” Still, to this day, applying the ‘tourist’ label evokes a sense of travel snobbery. The implication is that the socks-with-sandal wearing crowd is unsophisticated.

As this middle class grew through the twentieth century and commercial air travel ushered in an unprecedented mobility for a greater number of people, an industry sprung up around these new tourists. Historian Daniel Boorstin contends that this fledgling industry sought to insulate its passengers from the local population through carefully planned, designed, and implemented guided package tours that restricted their freedom. Writes Boorstin: “Artifacts were gathered in museums and attractions were reproduced for their convenience. Tourists were there to confirm their expectations developed through mass media and guidebooks rather than to discover and understand. The whole experience was diluted, contrived, stripped of authenticity and passive.” In essence, Boorstin is describing what a number of people today call ‘the tourist bubble’. And here’s Boorstin’s most important point—the fault doesn’t lie with the socks-and-sandals crowd, it lies with the travel industry. It’s his contention—and one which I share—that the industry created the stereotype of the tourist—and is invested in perpetuating it.

Exit through the gift shop

The way I see it, the travel industry has embarked on a deliberate crusade to convert the tourist from the traditional values of mindful travel to a consumer. This hasn’t occured spontaneously, nor was it an inevitable by-product of a greater number of people having the means to travel. I’m probably breaking some unwritten code by revealing one of the sacred principles of the travel marketing profession here; however, the truth is the industry believes you are not interested in learning anything new or that might put at risk your preconceived view of the world. They have a vested interest in ensuring that you remain a ‘socks-and-sandals’ wearing tourist in order to contain, idealize and commodify your experience. After all, standardization increases profitability—but does little to increase the fullness and uniqueness of your travels. What they really want you to do is to confirm what you already believe by feeding it back to you under the guise of a “cultural experience”, hoping that you visit the gift shop on the way out.

Amanda over at A Dangerous Business would dismiss this as nothing more than a “narrow stereotype”—but I disagree with her assessment. I believe that it’s scope is greater than that and that it encompasses an entire travel industry. Ultimately, considering how the tourist label emerged and has been transformed by the industry is key to understanding it.

Stereotypes: A dangerous business

So why would G Adventures wade into the murky stereotype of the tourist? In order to stand out from the noise in which it finds itself, advertising must tap into the reservoirs of social and cultural knowledge shared by its audience. In order to make an impression quickly, this reliance on shared knowledge becomes even more critical. Given the few seconds that a person is likely to pay attention to an ad, advertisers pretty much have to use what exists in the imagination of the target audience—and stereotypes are ripe for the job. Like George Clooney’s character in the above-mentioned movie—we do it because it’s faster. But that’s only part of the equation.

The strategy of G Adventures take on the ‘tourist’ stereotype lies in an active resistance to the status quo in the travel industry. The campaign seeks to challenge the legitimacy of the stereotypes that define it. In short, we’re out to change the way people think about small group travel. The target of this campaign isn’t other travel companies—but instead, the public’s perception of the industry. We want to change how the world thinks about small group travel in hopes of defining an altered stereotype. G Adventures has thrown down the gauntlet to the industry to return the act of travelling to the individual—where being a tourist is less about being a consumer and more about passion and purpose. In short, the company and its people are seeking to usher in a post-tourist age.

With this campaign we sought something with an edge, that was able to communicate to the audience that the company is different than others in the space—and provide something that challenges people’s expectations in an unexpected way. In my opinion, a good advertisement needs to find and do something that is a bit edgy, that is polarizing—that provides some water-cooler conversation.

Tourist season is over

Which bring us back to the article over at A Dangerous Business, which I think misses the spirit of the campaign. I don’t take issue with Amanda’s interpretation—after all, everyone who views an ad does so based on their own agendas and preferred interpretations based on their history and experience. They arrive at an interpretation of the ad that makes sense to them, serves their needs and fits their personal history with an industry or a brand.

No, it’s not that I feel Amanda’s wrong— it’s that she casts the campaign as one predicated on travel snobbery. She does so by invoking the age-old traveller vs tourist debate—a debate that’s a popular topic among travel bloggers. (In fact, even I’ve written about it.) To wit, the campaign wasn’t concerned with the tourist vs traveller debate—it has its sights set on a different target. As outlined above, I feel it’s engaged in more of a debate between the tourist and the travel industry. When the campaign invokes the words “I’m not a tourist”, the phrase isn’t directed at the travelling community—but rather toward the industry itself, ie “I don’t fit inside the definition the industry has created for me”. The same goes for the aforementioned warning: “Tourist season is over”.

This ain’t your typical travel company

Which is why I threw my lot in with G Adventures—it’s a different kind of travel company that sees its customers as important decision makers that aren’t just passive consumers but proactive partners. Many of the elements of travelling with them—utilizing local businesses, getting off the beaten path, etc—are at odds with the industry norms. Using small-scale lodging, local transportation, supporting locally owned businesses and incorporating community-based projects into itineraries are some ways G Adventures works with local communities to encourage and develop tourism in a sustainable manner. The company seeks to support and empower local people to become business partners by including activities, meals and overnight stays in communities in which it operates.

One last thing…

…and this is a small but important distinction. Doing touristy things does not a tourist make. I mention this because the comments that Amanda’s post elicited were more concerned with the ‘how’ of travel than the ‘why’. I believe that’s because her readers were responding more to her argument than they were to the campaign. G Adventures doesn’t advocate forgoing popular tourist attractions like the Forbidden City, the Grand Canyon or the Eiffel Tower in order to shed the ‘stigma’ of being a tourist. They do, however, offer a different way of approaching them—the freedom to do what you want while on a small group trip.

Enhance your life through travel

In my opinion, if you’re travelling to experience what a place is really like—to be active, to discover and understand in earnest—then calling yourself a ‘tourist’ is simply applying a misnomer because you are already drawing outside the lines of the travel industry’s colouring book. At the same time, one must keep in mind that the tourist (and I use this term as synonymous with the traveller) is complicit in determining how they are represented—through the choices they make about where and how they travel. While there might be no ‘right’ way or ‘wrong’ way to travel, where you stay, where you eat and what you do when abroad do matter. Indeed, they matter very much.

The truth is, like Amanda, I don’t care what ‘group’ you identify with—or if you travel independently or on a big bus tour. The aim of the campaign is to reveal a different way—one that offers a viable, more sustainable alternative to the big bus, cookie-cutter tours on offer today. The most important principle that I can leave you with today is that the power of stereotypes rests not in what others think about you, but in your own perception of yourself. No better way to close off this post than by quoting veteran vagabonder Rolf Potts when he writes: “The value of travel doesn’t come in comparison to other people, but in terms of how it enhances your own life in any number of ways.”

Disclosure: At Two Go Round-The-World, we value the conversation that exists between us and our readers—and the trust on which that relationship is based. Here we’re committed to creating an environment informed by that trust. In the interests of full disclosure, Daniel works with G Adventures. That being said, the opinion contained herein should not be construed as representing those of his employer. For more information on disclosures and relationships, please check our ‘About Us‘ page.

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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.

Comments (17)

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  1. Amanda says:

    This is so great, Daniel, and I sincerely mean that. It’s well-written and well-researched, and you make some very valid points. Also, I think this is the first direct rebuttal I’ve ever gotten to one of my posts! I love it. We need more of this in travel blogging.

    I sincerely hope nobody at G Adventures is looking at that post of mine as some sort of attack or slight aimed at them, however. I only used the “I am not a tourist” slogan/campaign to jump start my own discussion about the traveler vs. tourist debate, which has raged on for decades – even into academic literature about tourism, believe it or not! While the slogan still does rub me the wrong way, I do understand why you chose it (I mean, hell, I clicked on the links just to figure out what it was about, too). And I do fully support that G Adventures is trying to change the face of small group travel. The company’s focus on sustainable tourism (and not just the environmental side of it) is fantastic, and I am totally behind you on that.

    As for those “narrow stereotypes” about tourists, they actually extend all over the place, though it is definitely interesting to look at them in terms of being perpetuated by the travel industry. They’re often also enforced by locals who aren’t at all familiar with the tourism industry or the traveler vs. tourist debate. Did you know that in many Asian and African languages (and especially in villages that don’t see a huge amount of tourists), there’s really no word for “tourist”? The word associated with “tourist” for most of them is the same word that means “white person.” … Try dissecting that one!

    Thanks for this post! I’ll be sure to link it from my own.

    • Daniel says:

      Thanks for the nice note. You needn’t apologize, Amanda, for being critical of advertising — that’s what I’d expect from a media savvy audience. And you shouldn’t care whether you’ve ruffled feathers, I believe that’s our job as independent journalists and bloggers! While I might work a G Adventures, I’m still a blogger. If anything, we view the kind of engagement that the debate provides as evidence that we’re on the right (or wrong) track. That kind of engagement—be if positive or negative—provides absolutely valuable insight into what we do. In this case, I think it’s great that it can intersect with a wider debate (one in which the blogosphere is invested).

  2. You’re right, doing tourist-y things shouldn’t give anyone a negative stereotype. It’s easy to get hung up on not wanting to do tourist-type stuff, but if you go to far, you can miss some gems!

  3. aaron says:

    It’s always best to fit in where ever you are. Standing out can bring all the wrong attention in unfamiliar places.

  4. Sam says:

    Interesting piece, I enjoyed reading it despite not having seen any part of the G Adventures campaign to date; but I’m sure it’ll bring new meaning if I do come across some of their advertising.

  5. Kate says:

    Interesting and well thought out post. I’m not sure if I think that the travel industry is simply trying to sell us dumbed down experiences because they think we are not interested in learning anything new, I mean consumers show what they want by how they spend their money and in the majority of cases traveling is going to involve some form of consumerism. By it’s nature, it just is.

    Shouldn’t the responsibility be on the traveler? I mean, if you are going to buy dumb downed experiences, then why should you expect anything more? And who says one of those vanilla trips to the Grand Canyon isn’t going to result in an amazing life changing experience for someone.

  6. David Urmann says:

    Great post. As the founder of I gave this debate a lot of thought before choosing our brand. Tourist or Traveller we hope both will join our community but perhaps the name might turn off a few people who would otherwise enjoy our website and what it has to offer (I hope not). I spend most of my time living in Asia and I have noticed that locals here are not making this same distinction.

  7. Excellent post, well written and well researched. The short history of the tourist label was particularly interesting. I couldn’t agree more about big bus tours being careful not to disrupt their “consumers” or participants preconceived view of the world. While I won’t tell anyone how they should travel, I sincerely hope that travel doesn’t lose itself to the tourism industry. I hope that tourists that venture abroad in a packaged group still come to their destinations with an open mind and challenge their own stereotypes about what they will find when they arrive because that is the magic of discovering a new place. Often times you find it is nothing like what you had thought it would be. When you stop being just a tourist and get out of your comfort zone a little that’s when a destination can really come alive.

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