Tourists. You either love them or hate them—and, at some point, you probably are one. But what does it even mean to be a tourist these days? Is everyone still running around in a local t-shirt, taking pictures of everything in sight, all while never venturing beyond the comfort of familiarity when it comes to food and experiences? Absolutely not.
Tourism has become a buzzword across a plethora of industries, from food tourism to voluntourism to experiential tourism. If it’s not in your local community and it’s fascinating, someone’s figured out how to turn it into tourism. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, especially since we’re an experience-hungry and “new, now, next” consumer culture.
Where the problem lies is that we’ve gone from just caring about the “bucket list” to always wanting to create something more. It’s not enough to just go somewhere interesting in and of itself, like New York City, where you can hit Broadway, Times Square and get to the Statue of Liberty. Now, we’re adding in things like “the best dive bar in Hell’s Kitchen,” or “that one park they show in Russian Doll” to our lists. All because tourism has become an industry of passion points—not just sightseeing.
As people begin to navigate their own tourism experiences, armed with technology and a mindset of exploration, cities are now finding that some of their big draws aren’t just the landmarks and classic icons. The big draws are what you personally love, and through a combination of technology, social media and pop culture, the self-enabled tour guide has evolved into being.
And no, that doesn’t mean that the person walking down 49th and 7th isn’t going to stop gawking. We’ll still see New Yorkers dodging those who have stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to admire a building. However, while that stuff is still going to happen, there’s a new level of local awareness that many travelers are embracing beyond the traditional checklist of tourist traps, and it makes them fit into the local culture in unexpected ways.
The biggest change is that the tourist, in more and more cases, is just as savvy as the local. They now know where to go, how to get there, where to avoid, and what’s worth doing in a city they may or may not have ever been to—all by curating information. YouTube travel channels and city advice content, review platforms, social media recommendations and discovery platforms are all helping tourists blend in a little bit more.
I’ll never forget the first time I went into a dive bar in Chelsea and took a picture. One of the barflies looked up at me and said, “I didn’t know this place was on tourist maps,” trying to make a jab at me. The bartender looked at him and replied, “We were all tourists once;” that statement has resonated with me ever since. The bartender knew they were being touted as a secret hotspot—and welcomed the new wave of tech-enabled smart tourists.
So, go ahead, walk up to the pig in front of Rudy’s Bar and take that selfie. Go ahead and ponder why there’s a line out the door at an Olive Garden when there are at least ten local Italian places a block away, and sneak off to try the pastries at that little bakery down the street you saw last night. It’s okay to shamelessly take selfies, create memories, and celebrate being somewhere new. You can even Instagram your route for your friends to someday follow.
Be a tourist. It means you are taking in all that our culture has to offer. It’s okay—healthy, even—to get lost in the excitement of being somewhere different—and it’s also okay to go in armed to the teeth as a tourist in disguise.