Tourism from the inside and out

I’m an eager tourist. I often travel with a backpack and stay in strangers’ homes, I don’t go sightseeing all the time and I avoid tourist shops; I could probably show all of this as evidence that I’m ‘not a tourist, I’m a traveller’. Since backpackers do the same kind of tourism as everybody else, but often seem to think they’ve got a free pass on account of being marginally more adventurous, I prefer to be upfront. I’m a tourist, and I love it.

Now, being on CouchSurfing, as we have for the past two years, brings you a new insight on tourism. On CouchSurfing, as a host, you suddenly find yourself on the receiving end, being ‘the local’ interacting with foreigners. The experience can be extremely rewarding. Tourists can have a great many defects, but they can also be great people, and we’ve been quite lucky so far with the kind of folks we invited into our flat.

However, there is one particular thing that comes up every now and then with our guests. Some of them inform us that they want to see the city ‘as a local, not as a tourist’ (which is a bit puzzling, because just how do you expect to experience a place ‘as a local’ when you’re spending 24 hours in it, exactly?); and some others insist on spending a day in Marseilles, which is half an hour away on the bus, and which might not be the most rewarding city to visit compared to some others around the place. The argument they often make is that Marseilles is more authentic, and that they want to see a bit of the authentic France, not just the tourist parts.

And here we go again.

First things first: Marseilles is not the ‘authentic France’. Marseilles is Marseilles. It’s noisy, it’s dirty, it has more poverty and crime than many people are comfortable with, and as a rule, to like it, you need to have been born there or to go there on an occasional basis (preferably to the nicer, safer parts). You can find many things there, but none of them are representative of an ‘authentic’ France, whatever that might be. As for the grittier parts, most people tend to wish they were less gritty, and that work and safety were a bit more evenly distributed in the city. They may look exotic, but they’re not always fun.

Secondly, it’s always very surprising to hear that the place where you live is not authentic enough. I don’t know what that makes of its inhabitants—am I supposed to be a paid extra, or something? Aix-en-Provence is particularly well-groomed and privileged, but I call that ‘lucky’, not ‘inauthentic’. Is it that we’ve got pedestrian streets? A traditional farmers’ market? Old houses? These things have been around for the past few centuries. I’m pretty sure nobody put them there to please the tourists.

I’m being facetious, I admit. I understand perfectly well how my city may seem inauthentic. I’ve complained about it myself. Gentrification is never-ending, traditional shops close in favour of cloned fashion retailers, anyone not rich enough to belong is pushed back to the suburbs. But there’s one crucial difference between me and tourists saying it: I know what I’m talking about. I don’t care about gritty, or about authentic. I care about being able to afford a home, to buy everyday objects and foods on the street (I don’t eat designers’ handbags or jeans, sorry), to go out to venues that don’t charge half my salary just to get in. In short: what I want, and what I need, isn’t defined by what makes the city look interesting and authentic at a first glance. But of course, you have to live there to know about it.

Tourists used to judge authenticity based on the number of famous sights. Nowadays they do the exact opposite, but the process remains the same, and is no less problematic. You can’t arrive in a city and decide after two hours how real it is, based on whether or not the whole place was adapted to meet your needs, because places you visit are just not about you. It’s as intrusive and inconsiderate as judging the value of a place by its number of famous sights. Even with the best of intentions, it’s not okay. Don’t do it.

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