Tourist wisdom

There was an article recently published on Aix, my native city, that featured interviews of foreigners, and what they liked and disliked about it. By "foreigners", I mean, of course, mostly tourists, or wealthy foreigners who came here for a good job. I don't think anyone cares for the opinion of recent immigrants from developing countries anyway, unfortunately…

Foreigners, it seems, love this city, because it's beautiful, sunny, close to the sea and the mountains, very safe, and all the usual arguments. They dislike two things mostly: it's permanently dirty, and the locals are unpleasant. Case in point: café waiters on the Cours Mirabeau, the main avenue, are particularly rude at the best of times.

How can I phrase this politely. You're a tourist, you come to a foreign city… surely you'll realise there's something wrong with saying "It's nice, but I'd like it better if they took the locals away" before you blurt it out, right? I mean, people with half a brain do realise that it's a little bit arrogant and rude and wrong to visit a city for a couple of days and then bitch about how its inhabitants didn't go out of their way to figure out how to be nice enough to your taste and standards… am I completely out of line here?

There's that sense of entitlement about tourism which, I think, is perfectly exemplified in the fact that so many people find it's normal to make that kind of statement. Tourists don't visit places: they buy them. And then they assume that clients are kings. It doesn't take much thinking to figure out that your personal experience is limited, that cultures differ, that you may have unwittingly been rude to someone (I know lots of English-speaking people don't mean it, but approaching a stranger on the street and talking to them in very fast English without even asking first if they understand you is considered impolite in France–acting impatient when people don't respond is, of course, terrible behaviour). Yet that rule doesn't seem to apply to tourists. Although it's now common to try to travel "differently" (meaning, just like everybody else, but not quite like your grandparents), experiencing the local way of life and seeking interactions with locals, one basic thing hasn't changed: the country you visit owes you a good service. And that includes people who don't get any benefit from tourism at all.

Tourism is a large economic sector, yes. It creates jobs, yes. But even in a tourist city, not all jobs are created by tourism. "Good for the economy" doesn't mean "good for every single person in the country". In fact, there may be a surprisingly small number of people who actually benefit from tourism in some places, and there are always people who are actively harmed by it. More tourists often means higher prices for everybody; it can also mean changes on a deep scale in the structure of a city. In some parts of the French countryside, for example, people are not allowed to steer herds of cows through villages anymore, as the tourists complain about the smell. In Aix, local shops were gradually replaced over the years by clothes and handbag stores, because of a combination of higher rent prices and demand from outside visitors. And yet again, I'm talking about the situation in a rich country, because that's what I know best; bear in mind that the exact same mechanisms that cause prices to increase here cause shanty towns to be destroyed, property to be confiscated and livelihoods to be ruined to build sea-side resorts or hotels in parts of India, South-East Asia or Africa. I'm not complaining about my lot here; I'm just trying to use an example I know well to illustrate that it's just not enough to say that tourism helps the economy. That can very well go hand in hand with causing disturbance or harm to people.

It's past time everybody who's privileged enough to travel abroad start reflecting that you don't buy a whole country. You're a guest, not a customer. Locals make changes in their own way of life to accomodate you, and few of them actually reap the benefits: consider this a favour and show appropriate gratitude. And if their welcome was not up to your taste, please ask yourself what you did wrong before smugly complaining to a mainstream magazine. Or just move on.


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