Following three days in Prague and four in Berlin, I found myself back home in Madrid, unpacked, freshly showered, a load of laundry completed, and ready to catch up on a week of The Internet — emails, Google Reader, Twitter and beyond. During this media frenzy, I came across a documentary called “Bye Bye Barcelona,” which chronicles the ways in which rapidly-expanding mass-produced tourism is turning the city into a theme park for tourists rather than a place for people to live.
(If you wish to be spared my reflections on tourism and travel and simply want to check out photos from my trip, scroll to the bottom of the post).
The problem, it says, is that we are creating touristic habits that are “iterative and no longer connected to the essence” of a particular city, which in turn changes “the notion, essence and idiosyncrasies of the city itself.” Barcelona, they say, has lost all of its charm. Tourists no longer travel, they add. They “consume destinations.”
The documentary is fascinating, and can be seen here (English subtitles are available). Its goal is to explore mass tourism’s impact on locals, an extremely important discussion to be had, though one I will not explicitly pursue in this post. Instead, my viewing of the documentary on the heels of my recent jaunt through the Czech and German capitals accelerated my existing reflections on my priorities and degree of authenticity achieved when I travel.
Towards the end of the film, Santiago Tejedor, co-director of the Masters program in Travel Journalism at the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona, outlines the differences between tourists, travelers and voyagers. A tourist, he explains, books a prefabricated itinerary from a travel agent; a traveler allows for some improvisation and freedom when planning a trip; and a voyager seeks genuine, authentic and unique experiences.
There is no doubt in my mind that I am not a tourist. I occupied this category once, when I went on an all-inclusive trip to Morocco in 2010; I was hesitant to book the trip in the first place, and my experience, although comforting in a third-world country, only confirmed my doubts about the value of such a cookie cutter trip. Having never gone down that road again, can I say I am all the way on the other end—a voyager? I’d like to be. But can one really be a voyager on her first visit to a place, when she only has three or four days to take it all in?
When planning this trip, I sat down with my travel buddy and asked her where she wanted to go. We both had a few locations on our travel wish lists that were not feasible this trip for various reasons, so when it got down to choosing a destination, anywhere and everywhere in Europe was on the table. A whirlwind of searches for affordable flights plus map consultations to see which cities could be combined into one trip led us to the selection of Prague and Berlin.
There are two sides to this coin:
On the one hand, there’s the romanticized idea of spinning a globe with your eyes closed and traveling to wherever your finger lands (just technologically updated with Google Maps rather than an actual spinning sphere). There’s the freedom and sense of adventure that comes with living in Madrid and having Europe at your fingertips. There’s the beauty of globalization and low-cost airlines that make it all possible. And there’s the magic of going to a new place with little background knowledge and subsequently learning, first hand, about parts of the world you barely knew existed.
But then there’s the idea of “consuming destinations” — of spending a few days visiting the most famous sites of a new city which you previously harbored no long-standing desire to see.
Tourist, traveler or voyager?
I’ve developed a reliable MO when planning my travels since living in Spain. Once I choose the destination, I research the different neighborhoods of the city and then search for an AirBnB apartment in the most bohemian-and-centrally-located area, preferably with a host whose reviews note his or her willingness to share insider tips about things to see and places to eat. I then conduct a Google search to find the most important sites and monuments, and once I have a list of them with basic information about schedules and prices, I go deeper, searching for expat bloggers and other locals who share more authentic experiences and suggestions for ways to enjoy the city. And of course, if I’m lucky enough to know someone who lives there, has lived there, or has recently traveled there, I suck them dry of any and all tips they can muster.
Tourist, traveler or voyager?
One of the developments that the locals in “Bye Bye Barcelona” lament is the loss of neighborhood spaces that have become “prostituted” due to mass tourism. La Rambla, Barcelona’s central pedestrian avenue, is no longer a place to buy a newspaper, have a cup of coffee, and chat with neighbors; instead, it is full of tourists, souvenir shops, chain restaurants and street performers. La Boquería, Barcelona’s famous food market, is no longer a place to go grocery shopping for your family. The streets around La Sagrada Familia have become impossible to walk down, even for those who live on them.
I am part of that problem. Just as I did in Barcelona (and Paris, and Rome, and…), I checked all of the key sites off my list in both Prague and Berlin. I fought with crowds of tourists to snap a photo of Prague’s astronomical clock, and I waited patiently to get a shot of my favorite segments of the Berlin Wall.
I could feel guilty for contributing to the phenomenon of neutralizing a city and stripping it of its true essence and charm. But can you really take someone seriously who goes to Rome and doesn’t see the Coliseum? Can you really blame someone who visits Paris for wanting to take a picture of the Eiffel Tower? No. You can’t. I’d imagine that voyagers, too, would want to have these experiences and for this reason, visiting top sites doesn’t automatically strip you of voyager status.
A voyager, to me, is then one of two things. It could be someone who visits small, lesser-known cities or rural locations, where experiences are unique by default because mass tourism has yet to reach them. Or, it could be someone who has the flexibility to spend a significant amount of time in any of these places. In the latter scenario, the voyager is first a traveler for a few days, seeing the top sites, and subsequently graduates to voyager status as he steers himself off the beaten path, seeking out the authentic musical, gastronomical, artistic, linguistic, or any other variety of experience to truly gain insight into how life functions in a particular part of the world. Being a voyager takes the research, time, maybe even a little bit of luck, and the right spirit. You need to know where, what and who to look for, something that is easier said than done.
So…tourist, traveler or voyager?
If one looks at my 1.5 years in Madrid as a trip, then I am comfortable branding myself with the gold-standard label of “voyager.” But that’s up for debate, since I live here. Madrid excluded, I think I fall safely in the traveler category. Perhaps in the future, with more time, more funding, and experience under my belt, I will be able to graduate.
But for now, as a traveler, I steer clear of prefabricated tours, chain restaurants with photos of each dish posted outside, cheesy souvenirs, and large hotels. Instead I stay with locals via AirBnB, and I soon hope to use one of the new websites that allows visitors (be they travelers or voyagers) to eat a home-cooked meal at a locals’ house or apartment. I seek out the neighborhoods and streets that are best for wandering aimlessly, and I take any recommendation any local is willing to give me.
Navigating the delineations between tourist, traveler and voyager is delicate, and it’s different for various stakeholders. What’s best for a city is not always the same as what’s best for its visitors. What is scaleable is inauthentic, and what is unique loses its singularity as soon as it is expanded.
It seems, then, that we are left with more questions than answers. What category do you think you fall into? How and why has travel changed over the years? How can we continue to move about the world without destroying local culture and inconveniencing locals?
Anyway, without further ado, photos from my trip:
Called a “theme park” in “Bye Bye Barcelona,” it was described to me prior to my trip by many friends and coworkers as “a fairy tale.” Perhaps somewhere in between the two, there was certainly charm remaining in its beautiful architecture and quaint Easter Market.
Initially put off by cold rain, a blistering wind (strong enough to turn inside out an umbrella that survived three years in Chicago!), and general enormity (in area, street width, building size, and height of locals), I came to enjoy Berlin and wish I had more time to explore it. The city is brimming with history in a way that is extremely unique when compared to other European metropolises I’ve visited (i.e. the Coliseum wouldn’t have looked much different had my parents visited it when they were my age, but the Berlin Wall would have). Plus, the abundance of street art and funky clothing, home decor, jewelry and bookstores give the city a distinctively “cool” and inspirational vibe.