On the purpose of tourism: from the front line of the industry

One of my favourite places for leading tours was always Damascus. With the slumping architecture bearing down upon us amid the labyrinth alleyways, I would begin my group’s introduction to the Old City by taking the winding path that leads to the Shi’a pilgrimage site of Saida Ruqqiyeh Mosque. Invariably, as we threaded our way through the medieval streets, we’d become caught up in the great tide of Iranian pilgrims who were all heading that way as well.

For many in my group it was an uncomfortable situation where we would end up separated from each other; thrown to the mercy of the crowd as it surged forwards, and backwards, and to either side in relentless waves of people. When we finally washed up at the end of the street outside the mosque my group would be sweating, slightly frazzled and usually all looking a bit dazed after this very Damascene version of crowd surfing.

What they didn’t know was that I could have avoided the crowds quite easily by taking another route but had deliberately guided them into the chaos. I didn’t want my clients just to see pretty monuments and nice museums. I didn’t want to keep them swaddled from reality in cotton wool but rather I wanted them to be able to get in there and smell the sweat of the crowds; to become part of a place, if only for an instant.

Cheaper, faster, now…

Like most people who’ve worked on the front line of tourism as a tour leader or guide, I have developed a healthy disrespect for the industry’s marketing jargon. For years there has been a very obvious disconnect between the tourism industry’s love affair with hyperbole and how it actually operates on the ground. The fluffy throwaway phrases in the glossy brochures offering clients ‘once in a lifetime adventures’, ‘off the beaten track experiences’ and the ubiquitous ‘responsible travel’ become hard to swallow when every year you see the trips get cheaper, more ‘extras’ squeezed out, and the itineraries grow ever more homogenized in the quest for competitive pricing.

The industry has been feeding the same line of ‘cheaper, faster, now’, for so long that we seem to have bred a style of tick-list tourism where clients demand more but pay less and see everything but experience nothing. On returning home a tourist may be able to reel off an impressively long list of sights they saw but did they stick around long enough to be able to describe to you the uncomfortable sensation of the layer of gritty sand that sandpapered their sun-parched skin in the desert. They can walk through an ancient, bustling souq but are so busy documenting their visit so that they can remember it later – their camera permanently glued to their face – that they fail to see the stall-vendor in the corner beckoning to them to come drink syrupy tea. Is this the style of tourism we want to be involved in? And more importantly, is this what clients want? I seriously don’t believe so.

As those involved at the top of the tourism tree become more and more focussed on pricing and marketing it’s now more important than ever for those down at the roots of the industry to realise the role we can each play in promoting a different ideal; an approach that, for me, is the true purpose of tourism. Seeking connections between people, places and cultures so that the tourist is no longer just a spectator peeping through the window into an exotic ‘other’ land but part of that world, if only for a minute, themselves.

By their very nature of packing in as much as possible in the least amount of time, it is difficult to do little more than scratch the surface of a destination on a tour. But a good guide or leader can make all the difference in helping to lift the lid off a place and allow tourists to travel not just further but deeper.

We need to foster a sense of inclusion where it’s not ‘us’ against ‘them’. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve overheard guides tell their clients to not talk to anyone in markets and at sights and on the street. If you dive into the market and are comfortable chatting to the vendors, your clients will feel that they can do this too. If you just walk through simply giving a spiel on the history along the way and ignoring everyone, that’s the way your passengers will act as well. For our groups we are the benchmark for how to behave and by using this responsibility wisely we can inspire our clients to go out and make local connections themselves.

Hello Iran…

There was this one time trapped amid the flow of pilgrims in Damascus, when a car insanely tried to navigate down the road and caused the crowd to suddenly tip madly to the side. An elderly Iranian woman, shielding her face from view by clutching the corner of her black shroud in her teeth, lost her footing and grabbed the wrist of one of my female clients in an attempt to regain her balance. This then caused my client to stumble and she in turn reached out and grabbed the shoulder of the tiny Iranian lady in front of her until it looked like it could turn into a domino effect of tourists and pilgrims tumbling endlessly down the street.

I heaved them all onto the narrow ledge of a shop front where I’d managed to shelter the rest of my group until the car to blame for all this chaos finished manoeuvring through the street. We all looked at each other and burst out laughing. There was no ‘us’ and ‘them’. No strange line drawn by different clothing or eye colour, religion or politics. We were simply some people who’d all nearly ended up face-down on the ground.

When the car finally managed to grumble past the Iranian ladies patted my client’s hand to say thank you. Then some young men pushed towards us through the crowd. The ladies waved excitedly back and beckoned them over and suddenly we were all waving madly into their video camera and shouting ‘Hello Iran!’ with the Iranian ladies beside us grinning broadly. We were no longer observers. Just fellow actors in this crazy carnival called the world.


The above article was first published as part of the ‘Tourism: What’s The Point?’ debate on the Conscious Tourism Blog.


7 thoughts on “On the purpose of tourism: from the front line of the industry

  1. I wish more travelers would learn to slow down and absorb the surroundings. I’m not always great at it, but I try. My best guided experience was in the Maramures region of Romania. My guide & I would drive to a village, get out of the car, and he would just start talking to people. Within minutes I was being invited into homes, helping peasant women build haystacks, sharing homemade alcohol…. it was an incredible 5 days. Best. Guide. Ever.

    I work in Denali National Park, Alaska, and I’m always sad when the tourists get too focused on what they did and didn’t see. “I didn’t see a bear today!” Yes, but you did see 10 moose, 20 caribou, 10 dall sheep, a porcupine, glaciated peaks….. and isn’t that pretty fantastic?

    • Your guide in Romania sounds great.
      I totally hear your frustration with travellers in the National Park! I wish everyone would put their tick-list away and just enjoy the moment.

  2. The problem maybe is that on a group of a guided tour, consist too many people. a group of 16 people is a bit too much to interact with the local and travel slower to absorb the sensation of being a local in a strange place like a real traveller.

    • See, I get annoyed with the ‘real traveller’ vs ‘tourist’ debate because it’s all travel snobbery really. I’ve run into plenty of independent travellers who spend the majority of their time in the hostel/hotel talking to other ‘travellers’ (or these days, spending all their time updating their facebook status and chatting with their friends back home) and hanging out only with other ‘travellers’ so I think it’s more an individual viewpoint on what travel should be about rather than an independent traveller vs group tour argument. I personally travel independently but I also worked as a tour leader for five years so can see both sides of the coin. The point of this post wasn’t actually to debate which style of travel is better but to talk about ways, as a tour guide/tour leader, that we could attempt to give our passengers a more authentic, local experience despite the faster nature of travelling on a tour.

  3. I just returned last night from 2 weeks in Arizona, with my second visit (both solo) to the Grand Canyon. I was so excited to get back there, and so deeply disappointed by the noise and crowds and stupidity of the people who — literally — were using sunset at the GC as a mere background (?!) for some stupid pictures of themselves posing. I really (naively) thought that they might pause, reflect, absorb the magnificence of place billions of years old, with a silence very hard to find anywhere anymore.

    I may indeed sound snotty, but if you are going to travel to the GC from across the planet (many foreign accents and languages), could you possibly shut the hell UP and sit still long enough to actually be there?

    Apparently not.

    • I don’t know. I’m kinda known for my excitability (and rather loud voice) at great sights. I guess everyone has their own way of experiencing things. I remember a time – in my tour leading days – when my group and I were standing on the summit of Mt Nebo looking over to Israel and Palestine and a group of Jordanian teenage girls, on a school trip, came over to practice their English. We all had a great time chatting and laughing together until a couple of French ladies told us off for spoiling their time with our noise. But really, who had the more amazing experience – the French ladies with their view, or us with the view plus a serendipitous meeting with the local girls? Reflection has its place, but so does excitement.

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