In search of authenticity: what's the difference between a traveller and a tourist?

In an age of unprecedented foreign travel, tourists get quite a bad rap, not least from tourists themselves.

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Some years ago I was walking past a café terrace in the Marais when I saw an American cast his arms out wide and say to his companion: “This is the real Paris.”

The terrace he was sitting on was by night generally populated by vaguely glamorous young lesbian couples; on weekend mornings, when those couples were presumably sleeping off their hangovers, the occupants were usually tourists, like this gentleman.

His was an irrefutable statement: the neighbourhood he was gesturing about was indeed in Paris, bedecked with all the familiar street furniture of the French capital – the green cast-iron benches, drinking fountains and Morris columns – and its upkeep was, and still is, the responsibility of the Ville de Paris.

This fellow, however, might be a bit disappointed if he were to return to the Marais now, which is in the process of being transformed into a high-end open-air shopping centre, as longstanding gay bars and Jewish delis give way to designer brands and the streets are pedestrianised on Sundays for the benefit of strolling shoppers. Very soon there will be little left in the neighbourhood but jeans stores and crêpe stands. But, like in many other parts of the developed world, consumerism in Paris is the real Real.

Even so, tourists are often looking for a different real than local residents are. When someone I know is in town it means I pay a trip to the sort of traditional French bistro that I only go to occasionally these days; the no-frills Asian restaurants I more usually frequent aren’t what foreign visitors are looking for.

Some people ask me to direct them to non-touristy restaurants “off the beaten track” even though there is not really any such thing these days in a major world city like Paris. While some parts of town clearly cater more to tourists than others, even far-flung formerly modest neighbourhoods are now on the radar of the New York Times, the Guardian and Condé Nast Traveller.

You’re not really going to elude your fellow travellers anywhere in town. If you really want to do that though, I would suggest going to see a film or a play in unsubtitled French (which will be genuinely Parisian but most likely thoroughly alienating too) or simply taking a bus, which is the last domain of public space here untouched by tourists, who generally find the bus routes a bit too difficult to navigate.

In an age of unprecedented foreign travel, tourists get quite a bad rap, not least from tourists themselves. Of course, many high-minded people would scoff at the notion that they are tourists, beholden to the same vulgar taste as the travelling masses, even though, as we shall see, that hierarchy is not a very convincing one.

Though the vast majority of tourists are reasonably well-behaved there are some who clearly are not; some cities, such as Berlin and Barcelona, have tired of tourism and started taking measures to mitigate its impact. Even the better behaved tourists, by dint of the numbers they travel in, can have deleterious effects, on both the environment (as in the case of Macchu Picchu) or on housing for locals (the city of Paris is quite reasonably fearful that the Airbnb boom is pricing ordinary Parisians out of the rental property market).

Even the atmosphere at football matches is said to suffer, as more and more fans from distant shores attend big games. They might have plenty of enthusiasm but they usually lack the intimacy with the club’s fanbase, including its chants and traditions, and are more passive spectators. But few countries can afford to turn their noses up at tourists, least of all those hit particularly hard by recession in recent years, such as Ireland, Greece, Spain and Portugal.

Lisbon has witnessed an explosion of tourism in the past five or six years and parts of the city centre are as clogged with tourists as Venice or Barcelona; some spaces are almost entirely the domain of transient foreigners and though Lisboetes remain friendly and welcoming to tourists, grumbling has begun at municipal level at the invasiveness of the phenomenon in residential areas and the City Hall is expected to intervene to keep tourism sustainable.

Further north in Porto, one of the city’s most celebrated bookshops has had to change its entry policies to deal with the waves of tourists. Livraría Lello’s regular appearance on listicles of “the most beautiful bookshops in the world” has drawn huge numbers of visitors but most are more interested in Instagramming the gothic wooden interior than in the books (most of which are in Portuguese). These pictorial homages don’t put bread on the table so the bookshop last week started charging non-paying customers a small fee to enter.

One can imagine that they were also losing local custom, as Portuenses might be unwilling to brave the masses to browse for books, especially as there are plenty of other good bookshops in the city to go. Shakespeare and Company in Paris – another stalwart of those same online picture galleries – hasn’t started charging people to enter but it does regulate the number of people in the shop at busy periods and signs ask visitors not to take photographs though these are invariably ignored.

The rush to witness the “authentic” ultimately alters the reality, in a kind of behaviourist butterfly effect. A couple of recent tourist phenomena in Paris also bear this out. First there was the mania for planting lipstick kisses on Oscar Wilde’s grave in Père Lachaise cemetery, something which, according to Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland, started only around the time of the biopic starring Stephen Fry in the late Nineties.

Then there was the rage for attaching padlocks to the Pont des Arts (and several other Paris bridges) as a supposed sign of everlasting love by young couples. This started in around 2007 or 2008 and was soon dangerously weighing down the bridge’s grilles. The city of Paris stepped in to remove the locks, just as it and the Irish government had done to clean up Wilde’s grave, which was in the process of being irreparably damaged by lipstick chemicals.

The lovelocks were largely reviled by the general public, though, oddly, the damage done to Oscar’s resting place escaped such opprobrium, perhaps because of its literary connections (the lovelocks, by contrast, appeared to have their origin in an Italian teen novel). These different reactions encapsulate the high-minded distinction between ‘tourist’ and ‘traveller’ that many people like to maintain.

The traveller will try to absorb as much of the local flavour and atmosphere as possible and will avoid the heaving masses (however impracticable this might prove to be). They will heed sage advice from food blogs and travel guides, such as not eating in restaurants that have menus in multiple languages (something that might be a good rule of thumb in France, Spain or Italy but far less pertinent in countries where more obscure languages are spoken).

They will wander off the beaten path in search of local colour and adventure, but not too much, as even the most enlightened of travellers will draw the line at putting themselves in danger. Sometimes the fondness for the picturesque can be delusional, even in developed countries.

The New York Times a couple of years back published a piece by an American writer bemoaning the gentrification of the area of Paris south of Pigalle, which he had lived in for a whole two years. The risible lack of self-consciousness aside, what really jarred was the writer’s lament for the area’s rapidly disappearing hostess bars. While they might seem romantic to a recently arrived American, those places were in fact the very sort where people like him, having wandered in the door out of curiosity, were promptly shaken down for a €500 bottle of champagne in exchange for a look at some female breasts.

There are many people who have no complexes about being tourists, nor pretensions to being anything more. The hundreds of thousands who go on beach or resort holidays are such. It’s easy to sneer at them but they are often operating on a budget (particularly if they have families) and not everyone should be expected to devote their hard-earned holidays to anthropological observation and high culture.

Many Chinese visitors to Europe travel in tour groups that do whistlestop tours across the continent, reminiscent of those of an earlier age among Westerners. This is also understandable enough – few of them enjoy generous annual holidays to stay longer, and many lack English to negotiate Europe on their own. 

GK Chesterton remarked in his characteristically concise way over a century ago that, “the traveller sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see”. You might argue though that the simple tourist, trusting their instinct (or stomach) rather than the weekend travel supplements when dining, is as given to serendipitous encounters as the confirmed traveller.

They are also just as prone to finding something in their destination charming or ersatz. And the idea that a traveller or a tourist (let’s persist in this distinction one last time) is capable of fully comprehending more than a tiny fraction of what they experience while travelling is an illusory one.

The reality of any locale is constantly shifting, according to what is introduced to it or withdrawn from it – the presence of visitors is no different – and the best any visitor can hope to extract from a place is a distillate of the environment and culture, helpfully mediated through their own language, or at least one they can speak.

And, remember, to the locals, especially in countries that are less well off, there will be no doubt as to your status as a visitor – for a Greek or Portuguese person getting by on €700 a month, you are a tourist above all else, your pretensions to greater awareness notwithstanding. That is about the greatest measure of authenticity of the place you are visiting.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.