Why it's time to rethink what it means to be a tourist (2024)

ByKathleen Rellihan,

Why it's time to rethink what it means to be a tourist (1)Why it's time to rethink what it means to be a tourist (2)Kathleen Rellihan

A new book chronicles the power that travel has to transform places around the world, for better or worse – and asks us to consider that the label "tourist" can be a good one.

"There are so many tourists here," I scoff to my Italian American friend who lives in Rome as we squeeze past throngs of them a few streets beyond the Spanish Steps on a sticky night in June. This refrain, admittedly, I've repeated more than a few times while travelling.

For the last 20 years, I've identified as a traveller. Maybe many of you reading this also identify this way. "Be a traveller, not a tourist" was Anthony Bourdain's manifesto on his No Reservations TV show when it premiered nearly 20 years ago and tourists have seemed terribly uncool ever since, with their proclivity to search for the comforts of home, their tendency to travel in large numbers and their ability to annoy everyone simply by posing for a photo.

But in the post-pandemic travel boom – last summer in particular – tourists behaving badly seem to have reached a tipping point. Whereas in years past being called a tourist might have been a bit hard to swallow, the term is now it's associated with destroying the souls of cities and pushing out its residents, trampling natural wonders, defaming ancient ruins and even ramping up the warming of our fragile planet.

It took reading Paige McClanahan's new book The New Tourist: Waking Up to the Power and Perils of Travel, to fully accept that I am a tourist – but while it's a label to not take lightly, it needn't always be a bad one.

An American journalist living in France, McClanahan chronicles the ever-swaying pendulum of power travel has to transform places around the world – for better or worse. From the controversy (and opportunity) of last-chance tourism amidst our climate crisis, to how social media can both amplify diverse voices as well as fuel superficial skims of complicated places, she notes that tourism has the power to bring countries out of economic disaster (hello, Iceland) but too much of it can drive its very appeal to devastation as its nature and local residents are overburdened.

"Does tourism build up our world or tear it apart? The only answer to both of these questions is 'Yes’,” writes McClanahan in The New Tourist.

In the midst of another heated travel season, I chatted with McClanahan about the issues her new book tackles – from climate change to overtourism to social media overexposure – and why we need to shift how we view tourism, and tourists, now more than ever.

Why it's time to rethink what it means to be a tourist (3)Why it's time to rethink what it means to be a tourist (4)Getty Images

In your book’s introduction you nailed it: many of us are uncomfortable with being labelled a tourist as it's often associated with narrow-mindedness and clichéd, mass-market experiences. Yet you remind us that we are all tourists when we venture away from home. Why do you think it's important we accept this label?

There's so much stigma around the word "tourist" or around the idea of tourism, and I don't think it's helpful at all. When we think the tourists are over there and I'm over here, that distance doesn't invite any sort of self-reflection. It's way too easy to point the finger at those people "over there" who are causing the problems that we read about in the headlines. Whereas if we actually incorporate this identity of the tourist, to some extent, into our own identities, then we implicate ourselves, right?

We are tourists, and I hope the book will give people an appreciation for what a powerful and important phenomenon tourism is. It's not something that we should look down our noses at ­– tourism is important. And like any powerful force it can do a lot of good. And it can do a lot of bad. So if we acknowledge the fact that we're part of this huge force, then suddenly we get our power back and we become agents of change within that force of tourism.

If we think, no, I'm a traveller, and those people are tourists, then nothing is going to change in tourism because no one will feel implicated. We need to elevate our expectations of what it means to be a tourist. And in doing so, we can actually change the way this phenomenon works and the impact it has in the world.

You tackle last-chance tourism in one of your chapters and argue the managers of last-chance tourist sites, such as the Mer de Glace glacier in the French Alps, bear a responsibility to educate their captive audience. Tourists are ramping up their carbon emissions traveling to see these disappearing places threatened by climate change, but you suggest there's an opportunity to make these experiences more meaningful. How so?

Researchers on this topic of last-chance tourism are digging into visitors' intentions to change their behaviour after they visit these sites. While researching that chapter, I saw some early evidence that a visit to a disappearing glacier, if it's done under the right conditions, can inspire people to at least say (in a survey) that they want to be more environmentally friendly in their everyday actions and choices in the future.

Why it's time to rethink what it means to be a tourist (5)Why it's time to rethink what it means to be a tourist (6)Getty Images

The important thing is, it's all in the how. If you're having a quick, drive-by visit of a glacier, that's probably not going to have much of an impact. The way to maximise the chance that you're going to have an impact on the visitor's perspective and ultimately their behaviour is if there's two things happening: education, and an emotional connection of feeling implicated.

There's a big onus on the tourism operators to do their best to set up an experience that will lead to these kinds of things. And it's on us as tourists to educate ourselves and to spend some time in the place, not just coming to take a photo and leave. Then you might feel some sense of protection or link to the land that might inspire you in the future, long after you actually leave the place physically.

Another complicated topic you wrestle with is social media's effect on tourism. You suggest we all bear a responsibility to be more thoughtful when it comes to posting about a place. What power do you think social media has on travel?

I'm certainly not the first person to make the case that social media is the modern form of travel writing. If we look at travel writing over the last 100 years or so, it has been the domain of the wealthy, very privileged white male, with some very important exceptions. Now we have the power to become the narrator of our own adventures. We all have the power to tell our own stories.

That's a way that social media has positively influenced travel – it has exploded the diversity of voices contributing to storytelling in travel. The biggest challenge is on us to use this powerful tool with care and thought, and a sense of responsibility. And that comes for both those of us who mainly consume content on social media, as well as those of us who create it. And even those of us who don't have many followers on social media, we still have a huge amount of influence on our friends and family members who might follow us. For anyone who shares on social media, we all have a responsibility to be thoughtful storytellers. Are you depicting an honest representation of the reality as you experienced? Are you sharing nuanced content that's helping your viewers or readers or followers gain a greater depth of understanding about the place?

Why it's time to rethink what it means to be a tourist (7)Why it's time to rethink what it means to be a tourist (8)Getty Images

You argue in The New Tourist that it’s easy to blame travellers for overtourism – but governments need to manage tourism as well as educate travellers to help them make better choices. Who then is to blame for cities and tourist sites being overrun with badly behaving visitors?

It's really easy to blame tourists. 'Oh, my God, all of these tourists', because they aren't us. When we talk about tourists, it's always them. This is why we need to shift our understanding of that word.

We're all responsible for our own behaviour when we're travelling. But it's a much more nuanced point that in a lot of these places that are struggling with the challenges posed by tourism, the government worked hard and spent a lot of money to set up the situation that led to those problems.

For instance, Barcelona went really hard pushing tourism from the lead up to the Summer Olympics in 1982 all the way to 2015 with the election of Ada Colau as the city's mayor. In Europe in the '80s, Barcelona was a fading industrial port city. That changed with the Olympics; the government of Barcelona very explicitly made a big marketing push to make sure that it would not fall off the map after the Games.

More like this:

Antarctic tourism: Should we just say no?

The world's revolt against 'bad tourists'

10 sustainable travel destinations to visit in 2024

So then what happens? We start seeing anti-tourism protests and graffiti in Barcelona… a tourist bus gets vandalised. Barcelona pushed hard to promote tourism and did very little to regulate this industry and to protect its residents from the downsides.

Amsterdam is similar. It was pushing hard on its tourism marketing after the financial crash of 2008. They started marketing to tourists, including a video that I describe in the penultimate chapter of the book, "Come and have a messy night out here." Then years later they're coming up with a complete antithesis to that marketing campaign. Governments have accountability here – the city leaders always need to remember who elected them and prioritise the needs of their residents.

And we have a responsibility to educate ourselves and make informed decisions with this huge privilege of being able to travel.

Why it's time to rethink what it means to be a tourist (9)Why it's time to rethink what it means to be a tourist (10)Getty Images

There are many cases against tourism. But it's also a force of peace and connection – and 1 in 10 people worldwide survive on it for employment. Why do you believe travel is so important in the times we're living in right now and what is your case for tourism?

If we think about the challenges that our species will face in the years and decades to come – the big ones like catastrophic climate change, possibly a pandemic even worse than Covid, global thermonuclear war, runaway AI – every single one of these crises is completely blind to the idea of a national border, like Covid was.

So there never has never been a moment where it's more important for each of us to be able to empathise with people whose backgrounds are entirely different from our own. To solve the challenges of the future we will need to learn how to work with people who pray to a different god, who speak a different language, who live on the other side of that border.

It's never been more important for us to be able to communicate across cultures than it is right now. And tourism is the world's biggest mover of human beings – 1.5 billion international tourist arrivals in 2024. If each of those 1.5 billion people saw themselves as a citizen, a diplomat who's going out into the world, which is how I think of the new tourist – someone who realises they're an ambassador for their country and comes looking to make authentic human connections with people who live in the place, not to just consume and tick a box. Who don't see themselves as superior to the people, or the place they're visiting, who can come away from that experience with a degree of scepticism for their home country that might not ever have occurred to them had they never left home. This is the power of travel.

And this is what gives me hope.


This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

If you liked this story, sign up for The Essential List newsletter – a handpicked selection of features, videos and can't-miss news, delivered to your inbox twice a week.

For more Travel stories from the BBC, follow us onFacebook,X andInstagram.



Why it's time to rethink what it means to be a tourist (2024)


Why it's time to rethink what it means to be a tourist? ›

Whereas in years past being called a tourist might have been a bit hard to swallow, the term is now it's associated with destroying the souls of cities and pushing out its residents, trampling natural wonders, defaming ancient ruins and even ramping up the warming of our fragile planet.

What are the positive and negative impacts of tourism? ›

Tourism brings both positive and negative effects on the health of local people. The short-term negative effects are related to the density of tourist arrivals, traffic congestion, crowding, crime level, and other stressful factors.

Why do we become tourists? ›

We also feel a greater need to get away and switch off from everyday life, or to create an identity for ourselves through travelling. Other major contributing factors are travel marketing and how easy it has become to book trips yourself.

What is the purpose of a tourist visit? ›

Very often tourists are motivated by the need to relax and to spend quality time with family and friends away from the normal routine of work and home life. Most people just want to relax and spend time with their family when on holiday.

Why tourism matters to you? ›

Tourism means jobs, growth, thriving communities and sustainable development. It is the world's most powerful tool for connecting people, promoting respect, embracing diversity and protecting our heritage. Tourism matters.

How does tourism change people's life? ›

Social Impacts

Tourists will often gain a greater respect for the lifestyle of the people living in the area they are visiting. Increased tourism also leads to local communities improving their skills and improving their social status.

What is the real purpose of traveling? ›

Travel takes us out of our comfort zones and inspires us to see, taste and try new things. It constantly challenges us, not only to adapt to and explore new surroundings, but also to engage with different people, to embrace adventures as they come and to share new and meaningful experiences with friends and loved ones.

How do people benefit from tourists? ›

Tourism generates income and creates easily accessible training opportunities and jobs, as well as sales markets for services and local products.

Why is tourism so popular now? ›

Since the late 1900s tourism has grown and become an important part of economies all over the world. This growth has occurred because in more economically developed countries (MEDCs) people's lifestyles have changed. They have more money and there are many more opportunities to travel than in the past.

What motivates tourists to travel? ›

People want to see new places, experience different cultures, learn new skills, or gain new insights. Traveling can stimulate the brain, enhance creativity, and broaden horizons. It can also help people to appreciate diversity, understand history, and discover themselves.

Why is tourist attraction important? ›

They act as the highlights or special features of an area, pulling in tourists and bringing income to the region. These attractions have a big impact on sparking interest in visiting and can make a significant contribution to the success of tourism in a specific place.

What is the best answer for the purpose of a visit? ›

Just answer in two-three sentences which clearly explain the reasons behind your purpose of travel, whatever it is as: “For business purposes – to negotiate a contract.” “To visit my mother, who lives in the US.” “For medical treatment.”

Why do we need tourist? ›

It is an important part of a country's economy as it brings in foreign currency and creates jobs. Tourism also helps promote cultural exchange between countries and can help boost local economies by providing employment opportunities for locals.

What is the value of tourism? ›

It acts as a growth engine, stimulating investment in infrastructure, promoting sustainable development, and fostering the conservation of cultural and natural heritage. This multifaceted influence demonstrates how tourism is fundamental to global economic development.

What is so special about tourism? ›

Because tourism exposes the travelers to new places, new cultures and other peoples issues and benefits. When a destination is providing for tourism it is also improving the facilities for the good of the host communities, as example transport, restaurants. local shops and services.

What are the positives of tourism? ›

Positive effects of tourism

Amenities. built for tourists such as health centres or infrastructure. such as roads, water and sewerage systems. can also benefit locals leading to a higher standard of living close standard of livingThe degree of wealth and material comfort available to a person or community..

What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of tourism? ›

Generates employment in the service sector e.g. In restaurants, tour guides, hotels etc.Tourism income may help to conserve natural landscapes, wildlife and cultural heritage.
Tourists may disturb wildlife- i.e. Feeding and breeding cycles.Tourist developments may not fit in to the local environment.
3 more rows

Which of these is a positive effect of tourism? ›

Economic Growth and Job Creation: One of the most apparent benefits of tourism is its role in generating economic growth and employment opportunities. Tourists visit a destination and spend money on accommodation, transportation, food, shopping, and various services.

What are the positive and negative effects of adventure tourism? ›

"On one hand, adventure tourism can create jobs, support local businesses and incentivize people to protect natural wonders and resources," says Kristin Kastelic, Marketing Director of the Nantahala Outdoor Center. "On the other hand, it could lead to pollution, littering, and damage to natural habitats.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Nicola Considine CPA

Last Updated:

Views: 5842

Rating: 4.9 / 5 (49 voted)

Reviews: 88% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Nicola Considine CPA

Birthday: 1993-02-26

Address: 3809 Clinton Inlet, East Aleisha, UT 46318-2392

Phone: +2681424145499

Job: Government Technician

Hobby: Calligraphy, Lego building, Worldbuilding, Shooting, Bird watching, Shopping, Cooking

Introduction: My name is Nicola Considine CPA, I am a determined, witty, powerful, brainy, open, smiling, proud person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.