Shit I hate about travelers

As a traveler and, I guess, as a travel blogger I’m probably supposed to think that not only is travel awesome but that other travelers are awesome too. Mostly, I do. And yet there’s a surprisingly long list of things that I really dislike about many travelers – like when they pretend that they’re better than “tourists;” or when they talk about “the locals” as if they’re not people but just another attraction; or when they confuse rural with “real;” or use the word “authentic” like it means something. Those things are all modestly irksome.

But the thing I really detest is when travelers treat poverty and hardship as if it is something that needs to be preserved so that the rich can surround themselves with it while on vacation.

And if you think that doesn’t happen all you need to do is read through some of the tweets people unleashed after the U.S. announced it will normalize relations with Cuba.

Cuba Tweet 3 Cuba Tweet 1Cuba Tweet 2

I’ve never been to Cuba; as an American, I’m not legally allowed to travel there. But the idea that we should lament the opening of this island prison and maintain the horrendous policies that have kept its people frozen in time so that the more comfortable among us can go and gawk at their circumstances is a thought too awful to contemplate. And yet there it is, splashed repeatedly and unashamedly on Twitter as if it’s the most natural thing ever.

Now I’m sure the people who authored these tweets will object. They didn’t explicitly say they wanted to keep the Cuban people impoverished. They just want to keep Cuba like it is now, which just happens to be impoverished.

And that’s the heart of what I hate about these kinds of sentiments. You can’t maintain the “charm” of Cuba without also preserving its poverty and isolation. There is really no way to separate the two.

As soon as the Cuban people achieve some level of wealth and the ability to trade freely, they’ll start repairing that crumbling colonial architecture and replacing their 1950s automobiles. Hell, they might even want to eat a Big Mac every now and again. And who are we to say that they shouldn’t have that right?

Are travelers really that self absorbed to think that their desire to see things trumps a people’s desire to improve their lives?

Probably not. I’m guessing that most folks haven’t really thought through the implications of comments like the ones tweeted above. For many people travel isn’t about engaging in the real world, it’s something that’s done as an escape; kind of like going to Disneyland. Only the characters you meet in places like Cuba don’t leave the stage when the traveler goes home to his comfortable life. They stay behind toiling in the “authentic” conditions some folks like to witness but almost certainly wouldn’t choose for themselves. 

 

Correction: Our description of Cuba as “an island prison” was based on its fifty year long policy of restricting the ability of its citizens to travel abroad. On January 14, 2013, Cuba relaxed that restriction and now allows most of its people to travel freely.

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36 Comments on “Shit I hate about travelers”

  1. maristravels December 18, 2014 at 9:57 am #

    I’m with you on that one. I’ve been meeting these ‘travelers not tourists’ since the fifties when they were moaning about the loss of the ‘untouched fishing villages of Spain’ right up to present day Cambodia derided for its embrace of all things modern, including a Big Mac.

    Like

  2. The Hairy Housewife December 18, 2014 at 9:58 am #

    In many countries now, it seems that poor people are nothing but tourist attractions to be gawked at and photographed as though they were some kind of rare and unusual exhibit displayed to please the rich. It’s truly disgusting. If it were improving the lives of people living in slums then I’d think it was a good thing, helping them back to their feet after some terrible natural disaster or just from being victims of their government – but it doesn’t help them at all and shouldn’t be allowed. Thanks for bringing this subject up for people to reflect upon.

    Like

    • Brian December 18, 2014 at 11:03 am #

      Slum tours are apparently a new and growing travel trend. It’s not something we’ll be participating in though.

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      • The Hairy Housewife December 19, 2014 at 6:10 am #

        I knew there was a name for it – I just couldn’t remember what it was. Truly sickening and I can’t understand why people would pay to see how some people are forced to live 😦

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  3. Michael December 18, 2014 at 10:21 am #

    Reminds me of when you wrote that post about how awful American cuisine is and how superior European food is.

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    • Brian December 18, 2014 at 10:55 am #

      Glad you’re still with us Michael. 😉

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  4. Meredydd December 18, 2014 at 11:51 am #

    Bravo. People — and their economic plight or cultural differences — are not tourist (or traveler) attractions.

    And that’s true in the US as well as abroad: Native Americans in daily traditional dress (such as Navajo ladies wearing moccasin boots, long skirts and velvet blouses as they shop at Walmart in Gallup) are not “photo ops”. They’re people, and tourists who take their photos without their permission, or worse yet, ask them to pose, should be ashamed.

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  5. Madhu December 18, 2014 at 12:47 pm #

    Well said. Rather sick of that traveler/tourist debate. And it is what the Cubans want that should matter the most.

    But progress does sometimes lead to a loss of the unique character of a place, like in many towns in Asia, including my hometown in South India or even in Goa, where beautiful colonial architecture is giving way to ugly concrete structures. That would be a pity. I hope the Cubans can achieve the right balance. It is certainly long overdue.

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    • Brian December 18, 2014 at 8:12 pm #

      Yes. On that we can I think all agree, balance is important.

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  6. Travelling Coral December 18, 2014 at 1:00 pm #

    Ok British people have been able to travel to Cuba and while I have not been my daughter has as have many friends. She loved it. Love the building, the people the old cars. Yes it is impoverished. Will having McDonalds and Starbucks make it less impovererished? I don’t think so. Indeed I would go as far to say that it may make things worse. Tesco (a big supermarket chain in UK) have started to open up in Malaysia and Turkey, countries that have good food and good health. Introduce a westernised diet of Maccie Dees and Tesco white bargain bread and you introduce all the health issues such as heart disease and obesity to the people living in Cuba, Malaysia and Egypt and goodness knows where else. I understand that the best view of the pyramids is from a Pizza Hut. that is really sad. Yes those tweets were pretty dim, but, fast food is not progress and does not lift a country from poverty. Nor do 5 star All Inclusive hotels. A work colleague once said on returning from Africa that she was disgusted to see the people outside her hotel living in squalor. Not that she was disgusted in a sorry way, but that she had to se it, it offended her. We should be ashamed that tourism takes away water supplies from locals, and not that the hotel is a means to lifting them from poverty. I am recently returned from Tunisa and yes I was that tourist in the 5* hotel. And I hated it. It was a cheap trip to get some sun and I naively thought that I would be able to see more of the country but the tourist board want us in 5* prisons and the tour guides to fill our heads with propaganda. It shocked me and saddened me that all around there was litter and poverty and that tourists and travellers were seen as an opportunity to make a fast dinar. I really wanted to spend time and money there but struggled to do so. Is that my fault, the tour operators fault, the tourist board or the political instabilty of the country. I don’t know and I feel sorry for the Tunisians who are not benefitting from tourism at all. And that is the danger that faces Cuba. And no, I did not see a McDonalds or a Starbucks in Tunisia, so all is not lost.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Brian December 18, 2014 at 8:11 pm #

      I might agree on the first part if I thought that re-establishing relations between Cuba and the U.S. only meant opening a few McDonald’s in Havana. I happen to think it means far more than that.

      Like

  7. woodydude December 18, 2014 at 1:09 pm #

    Shit is a good word, but HATE is not!

    Like

    • Brian December 19, 2014 at 1:33 am #

      Plenty of bad ideas are deserving of hate.

      Like

  8. The Sicilian Housewife December 18, 2014 at 1:33 pm #

    I agree with a lot of the thoughts you’ve expressed here, and I heartily join you in condemning “poverty tourism” – we get that here in Sicily too, tossers who walk around the cruddy streets (we have some awful ones) then go home overwhelmed by their own intrepidity, telling people they are so tough they mingled with the Mafia and survived. And of course they never actually see the *genuinely* poverty stricken and dangerous places, where they would be lucky to emerge alive with no watch and no trainers on their feet.
    However I don’t necessarily equate a desire to see Cuba (or anywhere else) before it gets Americanised with a desire to keep poor places poor. Wouldn’t it be great if Cuba could become rich by developing its own fast food chains, its own brand of car and restoring its historical architecture to good condition?
    Sicily is trying to do that. The vast majority of Sicilians want Sicily to achieve the wealth of America, but keep the Sicilian character. It just might succeed if the tourists who come here want the same thing.
    What do you think?

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    • Travelling Coral December 18, 2014 at 1:58 pm #

      You managed to say what I was trying to say, but you said it better. Keep the character and healthy food, improve lives and life chances. America certainly haven’t got it right, nor has the UK. Food banks, rough sleepers and homelessness are nothing to be proud of and a Starbucks on every street won’t stop that.

      Like

    • Brian December 18, 2014 at 8:06 pm #

      While it’s probably not feasible for a country, especially one as small as Cuba, to try to recreate all the wheels of modern civilization I do think that places should make an effort to maintain their traditions, their language, their shared history, their cuisine, their art and their literature – all the things that are really important to a culture.

      Like

  9. ronmitchelladventure December 18, 2014 at 3:50 pm #

    World travel helps to dissipate feelings of hate and judgement for me. The immense diversity is humbling and beautiful. If I focus on other travelers who irritate me, I waste time that could be spent seeing things. Everybody, everywhere is entitled to their opinion, and nobody has the final word. Okay, I’m off the soapbox and preparing for three months of independent travel in South Africa!

    Like

    • Brian December 18, 2014 at 7:51 pm #

      Yes, and at the same time nothing is served in this case by keeping our mouths shut. There’s a service to be done in trying to get people to think about things that they might not have before. And that’s what we’re doing in this case.

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    • Emily September 1, 2015 at 10:48 am #

      EXACTLY. These two bloggers have a “holier than thou” mentality, though. They are immune to any sort of inward reflection on things they do themselves that contribute to dissension. I just told them the same thing in a private message after a FB post. I would have HOPED that world travel would have taught them to be less judgmental. It’s done nothing in this area for them, it is clearly evident. What a shame.

      Like

      • Brian September 3, 2015 at 8:33 am #

        No, Emily, you didn’t send us “a private message” you sent us six private messages. And those six, ALL CAP, cursing rants, followed one similar public comment on our Facebook Page and now this resurrection of a nine-month old blog post to use as a forum to disparage us. So eight in all.

        I hope all that made you feel better

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  10. vastergotland1 December 18, 2014 at 4:09 pm #

    Brian,

    you have traveled extensively. Can you really see no alternatives to being impoverished and being Americanized? Would it be possible that the sentiment expressed in the tweets cited above express, not a wish to keep Cuba poor but rather to keep its distinctiveness as it gains affluence?

    Paris and London are two cities which draw large numbers of tourists. Would it be desirable if they were culturally equivalent to New York? If the only reason to go visit one of them as a tourist rather than another, is whether one wishes to see Versailles, Brittish Museum or the Metropolitan?

    Like

    • Brian December 18, 2014 at 7:47 pm #

      When I’m feeling extremely charitable I can read these tweets and other similar comments in the way that you suggest. But if we’re being honest rather than charitable it’s hard to draw that conclusion. The most distinctive thing about Cuba and the thing that people most want to “see before it changes” is the way Cuba’s isolation has turned it into a kind of time-capsule country. That distinctiveness can only be preserved by the brute force of the Castros from within and the American embargo from without. When those things crumble, so too will Cuba’s time-capsule.

      And when it does, if Cuba is smart, they’ll preserve the outward appearances of this period for tourists to enjoy. They’ll have an “old town” where people can see how Havana looked in 2014 as well as in 1960. But that won’t please the travel snobs. They’ll complain about how it isn’t authentic; how it’s too Disney and too commercial. We know that because we hear the same complaints about Hoi An in Vietnam, a country that similarly normalized relations with the U.S. in the recent past.

      And when we hear those kinds of complaints from travelers about every city or town that was once poor and is now less poor it’s hard to be charitable in our reading of what is really meant by these all-too-common complaints.

      Like

  11. Jason December 18, 2014 at 5:23 pm #

    I hope the Cubans adopt the Gross National Happiness model: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gross_National_Happiness
    When you travel to Bhutan it will be interesting to see if you guys think that model is working for the greater good.
    My hope is that rampant capitalism runs second place to ensuring all have access to lifes necessities, including good affordable health care. If they have freedom of thought, freedom of belief and kindness to fellow countrymen ( and travellers…) and they may have the most successful country on the planet 😊

    Like

    • Brian December 18, 2014 at 7:25 pm #

      Agreed. I have no specific insight into Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness measure but I do think that cultural priorities like that play an important role in keeping societies balanced.

      Like

  12. hermitsdoor December 18, 2014 at 5:31 pm #

    Ironically, Havana was a hot place back in the 1950’s, akin to Las Vegas. The stars all went there. The mob was there. Those activities that crossed the lines in the States were allowed. But, this rich-and-famous playland was contrasted by the lack of wealth of those who served and entertained them. This is part of what brought on the Cuban revolution — drive out the party-life and criminal influences. Our knee-jerk reactions (anti-communism) has probably kept them their since. There is a difference between chain-store franchizism and allowing for freedom of travel and commerce. Let us know your impressions if travel to Cuba becomes reasonable along your route.
    Oscar

    Like

    • Brian December 18, 2014 at 7:22 pm #

      Thanks for your comments. We do plan to go to Cuba, as soon as our government sees fit to allow us to do so.

      Like

  13. Shikha Kothari December 19, 2014 at 6:04 am #

    Another fantastic and eye-opening blog post!

    Like

    • Brian December 19, 2014 at 8:09 am #

      That’s what we’re aiming for. Thanks!!! 😀

      Like

  14. digger666 December 19, 2014 at 12:32 pm #

    Reblogged this on digger666 and commented:
    Leaving aside the question of whether Cuba is an island prison (we know at least one little corner of it is, but that’s run by the US), this bears some discussion on principle. Tourism is often a controversial activity which distorts local economies. Properly undertaken, it can have some benefits for local people and native flora and fauna. So, what are your thoughts?

    Like

  15. Debra Kolkka December 19, 2014 at 4:03 pm #

    I have been to Cuba and I hated the conditions the people are forced to live in. It is not exotic and wonderful, it is just plain awful. I hope if the economy gets better some of the magnificent buildings can be saved before they crumble forever and that the people have a better life. The only thing good about Cuba was the music and the spirit of the people. I don’t find destitution attractive.

    Like

    • Julie Cao December 21, 2014 at 3:46 pm #

      I was in Cuba this July also and I have found that the economic sanction the US imposed on Cuba is destructive. Cuban are struggled to live, and ere is only one place in Havana that I can get pills when I was sick, and I cannot imagine how people live in 45 degree everyday without AC at home, It was painful.

      Speaking of normalizing relations with Cuba, it will largely improve their quality of life, I just dont want to see parts of natural beauty of Cuba become another Cancun.

      Like

  16. Coolpams December 22, 2014 at 6:37 am #

    Hi Brian , I have nominated you for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award. You have very interesting blog and your photos are great. Keep inspiring. https://everycornerofworld.wordpress.com/2014/12/22/i-am-honored/

    Like

  17. PaaqaviINC December 25, 2014 at 2:04 pm #

    Very interesting to read about the ‘other’. I am the ‘other’. I represent a native american tribe, the Hopi who have lived on the american continent for a very long, long time. We
    tolerate the ‘tourist’ because we know they will keep comming.
    Our villages, homes and life are still living cultures. We try to maintain some sense of privacy where the tourist will not be able to see certain aspects of our lives. All we ask for is respect and privacy.
    Now if there are human beings who are travellers that have been taught or learned from their own cultures that we are all of the same human race on this small planet called earth, we can learn from one another.
    So I appreciate this dialogue and self examination of those who are thinking through your role in changing the dynamics of a culture just by being there as a participant or observer.
    Please see our blog at paaqaviinc.wordpress.com

    Like

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