Thursday, 26 June 2008

On tourists

Tourists...we're a funny lot, aren't we? Like many a middle class Englisharian I am uncomfortable with the business of being a tourist - it so easily places you in a universe of tackiness and I take on board Jarvis Cocker's pronouncement that "everybody hates a tourist." Growing up in Cornwall has also given me a dread of being instantly identified with "the emmets" - the Cornish word for ants, so generously bestowed by the Duchy's natives on those who butter most of their turnips.

Yes, tourists are big business and places like Cornwall or Bath - both areas where I have lived and/or worked - would not prosper without them. At the same time, as Mr Cocker points out, tourists tend to be despised. Especially foreign tourists.

So here are a few observations on tourists I have made while sightseeing in France (main traps visited: Mont St Michel, Carcassonne, Pont du Gard); Spain (the Bilbao Guggenheim, Salamanca, Seville, Cordoba, the Costa del Sol); Portugal (Porto, Coimbra, Lisbon) and Italy (Rome, San Gimignano, Florence, San far).
1. Most tourists are German, Dutch or North American. Apart from on the Costa del Sol, where they're almost one hundred per cent British.
2. A large proportion of tourists only see these incredible cultural hotspots through the lens of their digital cameras.
3. Tourists are seen as fair game to be ripped off by everyone, from third-class, overpriced restaurants, to retailers selling souvenirs of gob-smacking poor taste, the hawkers with their counterfeit handbags, the buskers with their dreadful backing tracks and the (usually Romany) beggars. And let's not forget the living statues, no self-respecting historical centre should be without one.
4. There is a tourist uniform consisting of knee-length shorts, short-sleeved shirts, bum-bags and sensible shoes (usually walking sandals). It is worn by both men and women, who are often hard to tell apart.
5. Even if the above symptoms haven't been noted, the regular unfolding and peering at free city plans should give any hitherto unnoticed tourists away.
6. Most tourists want to experience something "authentic". But ironically, their own presence invariably leads to them getting the exact opposite.
7. Locals are usually most welcoming to tourists in places which receive the least.
8. When it comes to "doing the culture", tourists tend to be incredibly keen to learn as much as possible about the place they're visiting. Consequently, they love multi-lingual, pedagogic guides (especially the sort with commanding voices that stride purposefully to the front of long queues waving an easy-to-spot umbrella); audio guides (so they can wander from exhibit to exhibit with something resembling a large phone clamped to their ear); open-top tour buses (with pre-recorded commentaries) and guide-books.

Yes, I don't like being seen as one of the faceless visiting hordes - but I don't regret joining the throngs to see The Colisseum, The Sistine Chapel, Michaelangelo's David, Seville Cathedral, The Mezquita, Carcassonne citadel or any of the other places we've been to. In fact, I feel privileged, they're all amazing things to have seen. But I really could have done without the crowds, the queues and the con-artists.

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