The fact that you are reading this section means, I’d guess, that you’d identify yourself as a traveller rather than a tourist. If I asked you to vote on the statement “It’s important to get off the beaten track”, I’d expect North Korean levels of unanimity.
The philosopher Julian Baggini recently wrote an article in which he delved into the assumptions behind Western attitudes to travel. They go all the way back to Plato, he argued, and the belief that our world is an imperfect copy of the “real” one and that the “true essence of things [lies] behind appearance”.
That’s why, when we travel, we are driven by the need to seek out the authentic, the “real” place beyond the postcard sellers and away from the selfie-sticked herds.
“If you stop to think about it,” Baggini argues, “there is no obvious reason why a culture should not cherish most the shared experience, the things that are open to all”.
I’ve been stopping to think about it a fair bit during my time living in Asia. Here, group tourism carries no stigma and you can cheerfully wander along the beaten track waving your selfie stick. As a Chinese friend explained, “if a place is really popular, then it must be good!”.
Which makes utter sense. The Empire State Building is good. St Mark’s Square is good. And on a return home last week, I wandered around central London on a sunny day thinking Covent Garden is good, Trafalgar Square is good; and why would you want to take a bus to New Cross, or wherever London’s latest hip hotspot is, when you can do an open-top bus tour of the sights?
The true traveller’s sense of the authentic is also more malleable and relative than we care to admit. You might not know Quito, so I can bore you for hours about the joys of the Old Town. To you I’m intrepid; to Ecuadorian friends, I’m in Covent Garden, a perfectly nice place that’s been spruced up for the tourists – but not exactly the “real” Quito. If you go to Cambodia you should avoid Angkor on the grounds that there are too many visitors. That’s what a pure traveller would do, even if your friends might think you’re weird.
Is there some kind of Protestant travel ethic at work here? If we put in the effort and deny ourselves the lazy pleasures and too-easy gratification of the “sights” we become better, purer travellers as a result. From there it’s a short and squelchy step to what Baggini describes as an “implicit sense of cultural superiority”. Still, enjoy your time in New Cross. There is a very fine fire station, I hear.