In Defense of Tours
You often hear people talk about the difference between travellers and tourists. In my mind, the distinction tends to be a little pretentious with those calling themselves travellers seeing their presence in a destination as somehow elevated because they’re not just checking off a list of touristy experiences, they’re there to truly immerse themselves in a local culture. To me it’s all semantics. If you’re a foreigner visiting a place for the purpose of pleasure, you’re a tourist, regardless of what your intentions are.
Despite having embraced my tourist status more than ever this past year, I still felt an aversion to taking tours lasting longer than a few hours. I guess the image of of a bus full of people following around a tour guide holding up a sign on a stick while pointing out local landmarks still makes me feel a little confined. Doing a sailing trip around the Croatian islands had been on my bucket list for quite some time however, and if we were going to make it happen during our year off, I knew I’d have to come to terms with my long-tour phobia. So when we saw a group tour with a great itinerary that happened to be on sale for the dates we planned to be in Europe, we jumped at the opportunity and braced ourselves for the potential weirdos we’d have to share a boat with for the week!
In short, it was the best decision ever. Spending a week at sea on a 52 ft sailboat, surrounded by the impossibly blue Adriatic, discovering the history and beauty of an incredible new island every day, was nothing short of a dream. I loved every minute of it. Unless we’d forked out the cash to charter our own boat and hire our own skipper (which definitely was NOT in our budget), this isn’t an experience we would have had if we hadn’t booked a tour.
When I compare this week in Croatia to so many of the other places we visited on our trip, I also feel like we were much more connected to the country’s history and culture because our skipper (also our guide) provided so much insight into local life. We learned all about the extreme rivalries between Croatian football teams, the intricacies of cooking with Peka (an outdoor Croatian oven made up of a bell-shaped dome and hot coals), and the humbling reality of what it was like for our skipper to grow up there in the 90’s amidst Croatia’s War of Independence as the country fought to break free from Yugoslavia. As someone who knows very little about Eastern European history, it was eye-opening to say the least. I found myself reeling in more than one Wikipedia spiral as I tried to wrap my head around how his teenage years could have looked like that while mine (occurring simultaneously) were spent worrying about which boy at school might like me and what Green Day song to include on my next mixed tape.
Although we were only there a total of 10 days, I could write more about Croatia than any other European country we visited. I feel I know more about their culture than Portugal’s where we spent an entire month and that is largely thanks to this tour. If that makes me a tourist, I’m okay with it!
A Traveller’s Reckoning
It’s no secret that Barcelona hates tourists. The city is actively trying to dissuade people from visiting with a moratorium on new hotel builds and restrictions on Airbnb rentals, but people just keep on coming to the tune of 32 million tourists (~20x the resident population!) in 2017 alone.
Although Barcelona in peak season was probably not the best choice of places to visit near the end of our trip when our budget was starting to feel about as tight as my jeans after a big bowl of paella, I think we still got a sense of what all the fuss is about. Just walking down the street surrounded by history, looking up at the incredible architecture feels like a cultural experience in itself, even if you are surrounded by a million other tourists.
So what’s the deal? Is Barcelona just being greedy trying to keep all that gorgeous Gaudi architecture all to themselves?
Around the time we visited Spain, Mike and I read this article in The Guardian that helped me empathize with their perspective and made me think about the impact that I have on the local population when I visit a city. The article talks about why Barcelonans prefer to welcome refugees rather than tourists – an opinion that contradicts the news coming from many other European and North American cities at the moment with anti-immigration sentiment on the rise.
The more I read, the more it made sense that if the choice were offered, locals would prefer to welcome those planning to build a life in their city and make it home rather than tourists stopping by for a brief visit to use up a bunch of amenities and then leave. Sure, visitors bring a ton of money and jobs into the local economy, but they also take away public space, apartment rentals, seats on transit and tables at restaurants. When visitors reach a critical mass, they start to take away from the culture, community and everything special that made the place enticing to tourists in the first place.
It made me wonder, when I visit a city like Barcelona, am I taking more than I’m giving? In most cases, the answer is probably yes. When Mike and I were discussing this he said, “I guess that’s every traveller’s reckoning”. It’s up to us to decide if we’re willing to inflict our presence on the local population purely for our own gain. To decide if we’ll go anyways, even when we know we’re not wanted.
Does this mean we’ll stop travelling after this trip? No way! But it will make us more mindful of the places we choose to visit and the trade-offs that come with travelling for pleasure.
Bonus: More Slovenia Pics
If Croatia (mainly Dubrovnik) was an overcrowded disappointment in many ways, its Northern neighbour, Slovenia, was the complete opposite. Once you get outside Bled, it’s an undiscovered paradise, especially for nature lovers who will fall in love with Triglav National Park. For two introverts trying to escape the hoards of European summer tourists, this was the ideal place to go. We went on so many amazing hikes, did an epic canyoning tour (that involved sliding, rappelling and a zip line!) and took our first ever car train through a mountain. Don’t worry, we didn’t know what that was either until we took one!