it shouldn’t be about bragging rights: why going outside tourist routes is important to Educational Travel

31 Oct

Going to non-touristy places isn’t a backpacker achievement: Its a necessary part of knowing a country.

There’s a lot of cliche, overused phrases and terms in modern travel writing that can be used to describe places: “authentic” , “exotic”, and “mix of modernity and tradition” are a few examples. It gets old fast. But by far, probably the most common and celebrated is “off-the-beaten-track”.

Somehow, westerners are seen as brave and accomplished for visiting places that many tourists don’t visit. The assumption is that going off the beaten track is a great thing because the less-touristy places are not “contaminated” by the influences of western tourists.. To some extent, this can be true. But it’s not just that Western Culture takes over these heavily-touristed locales. It doesn’t just refer to the McDonalds outside Florence’s train station, nor does it only refer to the fact that there are more KFCs in Beijing than in Manhattan. These are obvious examples of western influence, but they aren’t the only examples.

Many souvenir shops and businesses in touristy places, including ones that are locally owned, try to make money by selling packaged souvenirs, food, or activities that reflect the way the locale is portrayed in American media. Many American tourists to Germany know that Cuckoo clocks are a famous item from Germany, and so, German stores in heavily touristed areas tend to sell them. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. It’s a great way for local businesses to make money and support their communities.

But from the perspective of a traveler looking to understand a culture, this only gives a tourist-oriented impression of what the country’s culture is, that wouldn’t be too different from its pavilion at Disney’s Epcot theme park (if it has one). To understand a culture, it is important to go off-the-beaten-track. And it’s not just about seeing rural areas. Some of the the biggest cities in some countries are not heavily touristed. Now, I’m not suggesting that you spend all of your time in the US in Columbus, Ohio. But if you’re on a road trip and you want to stop over for a night, don’t feel like its a waste of time to check out places like that. Even in these places, you can find downtown enclaves with some degree of local charm.

When it’s used to describe populated places, the term “off-the-beaten-track” is not a good term to use. When we say this, we’re suggesting that only the actions of tourists can influence this populated “beaten track”.

That being said, there is still often more value in going to touristy places. After all, they often have better sights and are more geared for tourists. If you don’t go to non-touristy places, it’s not a crime. But, please, don’t act like you know much about the country. And if you do, don’t act like its an achievement. It’s really just about getting the education travel should provide. People treat it as a bragging right. It’s not. Plenty of people live and work everyday in the places you describe as “off-the-beaten-track”.

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