Dean & Laura's Travel Journal
What does "touristy" mean

An attempt to define "touristy"

by Dean & Laura VanDruff

You hear the term often used in warning, as in: "Don't bother to go there, it is very touristy," and we all seem to have a vague sense of what is meant by this. But what exactly does touristy mean?

Being touristy does not necessarily denote a tourist-trap. A tourist trap is a very distinct situation where you are actually trapped in time or space with an intent to hustle. A place or experience can be touristy without having any tourist traps such as "glass blowing demonstrations" or "batik factory tours".

The best way to explain the more general term of being touristy, and what is so bad about it, is perhaps by a few imaginary (?) examples of how something becomes touristy.

Pathology Example 1: An Experience Ruined by Popularity

Suppose some daring couple decides to see England by renting a barge and traveling up and down the various waterways to get around. This turns out to be jolly good fun, and when they get back they tell others and many of their friends come the next year and do the same. Now one of these visitors has a lot of influence among people due to his/her well known discrimination and good taste, and recommends it to even more people, perhaps via a travel column. The barge owners see this surge and decide to market their barges more aggressively and raise their prices. Over time, the success steamrolls and more barges are added, but not more waterways. Thus, in our imaginary example, over time the barges begin to nearly cover all the available water space so that any movement at all becomes impractical. So, the barge experience evolves into staying hooked to a dock or neighboring barge and not moving at all. Still, people flock to come because perhaps "barging" in the ideal sense is featured in some movie with gorgeous stars having a jolly good time. But what had originally appealed is now long gone. Perhaps a theater is set up nearby to show a film in celebration of barging. Postcards showing barges in situations now impossible will be sold. Porcelain barge sculptures will be offered. Clowns dressed as barges will now dance in the streets. Barging will have become touristy.

Pathology Example 2: Fundamental Change

Suppose a particular place in a city turns out to be rather wonderful and people come to enjoy visiting it. Perhaps it is featured in a book or otherwise becomes popular, as in the first example. But in this case, rather than being overrun, the character of the place changes over time. Rather than cute little shops or cobblers or whatever it was that appealed to begin with, the focus turns towards the quick and easy tourist money. New shopkeepers move in from out of the area--and perhaps country--and the place loses its soul. The original charm is replaced by tourist-trash storefronts. An important harbinger is that the locals stop going to that part of town, and it becomes a sort of tourist ghetto, a cartoon of its former self. It is now touristy.

To be touristy, then, is to become trite, commonplace, overcrowded, overrun, overpriced, a fake; providing little or none of what is advertised. It is a place or experience gone-to-seed. It has become a parody of the original.

At its worst, a touristy place or experience can make you feel insulted to be human and sully your whole vacation with a distinct sense of being taken advantage of. Even in milder cases, you feel somehow debauched by brushing up against anything touristy. There is reason for this lingering perception, as we will discuss later.

There's a big difference between being tourist-friendly and touristy, and in fact they may well be the opposite. Being tourist friendly means adding facilities like trash-cans and bathrooms and providing adequate sidewalks and street-signs and you-are-here maps and generally expanding rationally with demand. But in some cases, as in our imaginary first example above, expansion is not realistically possible. In such situations, the only defense is to raise prices if the experience or place is to not become touristy. In the second example, the question is one of honesty. Will a community let its most attractive area be relegated to a stylized theme-park commandeered by outsiders, or will it retain an integrity of originality as it grows to take economic advantage of its newfound popularity?

But let us turn from how a place or experience can become touristy (or not) to the various types of touristy. Here it might be helpful to use some real-life examples in illustration. Since one person's touristy area might be someone else's favorite spot, the examples chosen might possibly raise some hackles. But even if you disagree with our examples you should still get the point, and if you can think of a better case, please let us know. Here, then, are four basic types of touristy:

The Touristy Thing to Do

These are the trite little "must do" experiences that turn out to be hollow, vapid, or just plain stupid; or in milder cases just don't live up to their reputations.

An example would be the Gondolas on the main canal in Venice. You have just got to do this, you know, because you saw an old movie where glamorous stars glided along in such a picturesque fashion. Well, that was then. Nowadays, the water is a bit choppier and these things belong on the small, narrower canals. But you will not find them there, as the tourists are on the main canal. So you will see seasick looking tourist-victims bobbing along with green faces. And plan on spending near 100 USD for a ride that will last longer than you will like. "Can we go back now? I will pay you even MORE MONEY!" Note that the Venetians never ride in gondolas; instead, you will find them on the larger and non-touristy Vaporettas.

Another example is waiting in line for two hours to ride a Cable Car in San Francisco. Hey, we've seen the Rice-A-Roni commercials since we were kids, and something deep within our psyche tell us says we must do this. Note that the natives are not in the lines, but rather jump on wherever or whenever the cable-cars aren't being swarmed by tourists.

Basically, these are things to do that nobody does but tourists, and you can see why afterwards. Still, the tourists flock in droves like lemmings.

The Touristy Place to Go

This is an area of town, or in some cases even cities or countries, that provide little real benefit, pleasure, authenticity or value except that you "must see" them. For all the hype, they just do not deliver.

Perhaps a controversial example we will use here is Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. To be honest, this was what I was thinking of when I wrote the "Fundamental Change" example of pathology. It is crowded, congested, and the locals avoid it like the plague. The place is basically a scam, a caricature of its former self. It should be called "Tourist Wharf".

Anyway, you get the idea whether you agree with the example or not. Other examples: what do you think?

The Touristy Icon

This is where a single symbol becomes inappropriately attached to the reputation of the city itself. Perhaps the best example of this is the Eiffel Tower.

A person who has gone to see the Eiffel Tower and feels like they have seen Paris has seen nothing of the sort. The appeal of Paris is when you get this out of your system and start wandering around and discover some magnificent little street or shop or precinct. What we discover will be different than you, and this is the lasting appeal of Paris. It is huge and varied and everyone feels like they have found the best area or restaurant or whatever. You can get this without ever wasting time standing in crowds to get near the Eiffel Tower, which can be seen just as well from nearly anywhere in Paris. Not to overly pick on the Eiffel Tower, it is an interesting structure and a handy visual anchor around town, but it represents a general type of the oddball tourist symbol run amuck. It has little to do with the real Paris, it just happened to have been constructed there.

Another example of an inappropriate icon might be the Statue of Liberty in New York. It must be galling to read "give us your poor..." if, for example, you have had any recent contact with US immigrations as an outsider, or live in New York. Perhaps we should change it to read, "Give us your degreed, your cash-rich, your politically privileged masses, and after grinding them through the mill we just might let them in..." The point is that the Statue of Liberty is a bit of a hoax nowadays and is misleading as to the sentiment of New Yorkers or life in the USA in general. Perhaps we should erect a statue of quotas?

The Touristy Shopping Area

This is an area that provides overpriced, basically useless tourist items and little else. Even if you are looking for a tourist souvenir like a t-shirt, this area would be the worst place to buy it. If you succumb, you will likely later see the same for less or better varieties in the non-touristy shopping area. As always, no locals would ever go there.

Examples of touristy shopping areas exist in nearly any mature tourist city. The Waikiki beach area is a particularly egregious example. Generally, you will rarely find a pure touristy shopping area, you will see a blend of real shops and tourist only. So, touristy is sort of gradated and relative when speaking of shopping areas. You will see the same high-end stores in these areas nearly anywhere in the world. The low-end stuff includes travel trifles and souvenirs that are astonishingly the same from shop to shop.

As an aside here, the touristy shopping areas are strikingly similar around the world; so much so that it leads to a sense of deja-vu if you travel a lot. It is incredible, really. While the junk being hawked is different in Jamaica than in Florence, when you enter a touristy shopping area you just feel like you have been here before. The people can be black or white; the goods could be wicker or glass baubles, but the ambiance and atmosphere has an essentially similar quality--at least it seems that way to me. If you know what I mean, you almost gain a sort of psychic sense of smell that tells you when you have entered into a touristy shopping area.

But back from these revelries to an important concluding point. By buying cheesy souvenirs in a touristy shopping area, you are contributing to the demise of the real culture and history of the city you are visiting. And typically, you will buy such from people who are foreigners as well. Is it not true? Just say no to touristy shopping areas and do your part to give tourism a better name.

For all our effort here, it is hard to define just exactly what touristy is, but everyone seems to know it when they see it.

As to why we get ensnarled in such, often what leads us to hazard into known touristy areas is Tourist Zombie Syndrome, which we have written up elsewhere. Other times, we just do not know until we get there what we are getting into.

Let us place a bit of the blame for the success of touristy things on travel writers and guides. For there seems to be some unwritten rule in this venue not to ever say anything negative. Thus, we go headlong into the touristy zone. What is needed is clear assessment and honest opinions from people who have gone before. If the word gets out, less people will flock to such places and activities and perhaps they would wither away. We can dream, can't we? Perhaps the internet will come to the rescue, as the politically correct travel writing environment we now have seems irredeemable. (This was written in 1999, and indeed the internet has made it possible to avoid the worst.)

To get the most out of travel, it is clearly best to avoid touristy areas and activities and try to find the real stuff. Buy something authentic from a native. Whenever the hype laden "must see" or "must do" with a commercial motive is trotted out ought to be a red-flag for sure. Get out and discover something unique, walk the road less traveled, ask local people for advice, forge your own experience suited to your own tastes and values, and see if you don't get a lot more out of your vacation than following the touristy scent trail.

Dean & Laura's Travel Journal