There seem to be more and more travelers these days who are eager to turn their backs on the famous tourist attractions in any city or region in favor of discovering new and previously-unknown places. These are the travelers who want “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Like the crew of the Starship Enterprise, they are explorers. Go them. Of course, it’s awfully hard to find those new places “where no man has gone before” in this day and age, but I applaud them for taking up the challenge.
I, however, gravitate to the well-known tourist attractions in every city I visit, even the ones often sneered upon as “tourist traps”. That’s not to say I don’t occasionally enjoy the lesser-known activities in a place. Or skip a really famous museum that doesn’t sound all that interesting to me. But I usually only have a week in any destination (sometimes less), so I have to prioritize my time, and often, those major tourist attractions are going to top my list. Why?
With a limited amount of time in a place, I really have to find ways to get the highlights of the region’s history and culture. Oftentimes, that means visiting their most prominent tourist attractions, especially museums, or taking a comprehensive tour. If I had a few months to live there, I might be able to get that same historical and cultural background naturally by spending time with people who live there, but with a week or less? That’s not likely to happen.
Tourist attractions are famous for a reason. They are churches, museums, landmarks and natural landscapes that have drawn millions of other people before me, sometimes for centuries. Who am I to say they’re not important when I haven’t even visited them yet? If the city promotes them, it’s because they want to show them off to visitors.
How would you feel if a guest came to your home and you proudly showed her your extensive collection of Balinese art that took you 20 years to collect, and she shrugged it off and said she’d rather see your garage? Just like you, cities have things they’re proud of. They want to show off the highlights of their culture, their history, their region. I’m willing, at least to a certain extent, to be a good guest and let a destination help me prioritize my time. If I wind up not being impressed, well, at least I can say I tried it. It’s not like I have to stay at that tourist attraction all day if I don’t like it.
On my upcoming trip to Honolulu, for instance, I’ll be visiting a number of tourist attractions, such as Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial, the Dole Plantation, the Polynesian Cultural Center and Iolani Palace. I’m also doing some other touristy things, such as climbing Diamond Head and taking a circle island tour of Oahu. I’ve selected these activities for a reason. Each one offers me a bit of Hawaii’s history or culture, or an opportunity to enjoy its great outdoors and natural beauty. Should I really avoid Pearl Harbor just because it’s a popular tourist attraction, when it also happens to be the site of one of the most significant events in US history?
But sampling the culture and history of a destination isn’t the only reason I love tourist attractions. Tourist attractions are a magnet for people from all walks of life. They represent an intersection of socio-economic classes, races, genders, and religious backgrounds. When I see a Japanese couple and a woman wearing a sari and some American teenagers all going in for the same photo opportunity at the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower, I can’t help but get a smile on my face. It’s possible that we have absolutely nothing else in common–from language to religion to politics—but in that moment, we have common ground. We are all visitors here.
At tourist attractions, you have the opportunity, in one condensed area, to meet people from all over the world that you might never have an opportunity to meet otherwise. You can meet people from China when you’re in France, or Australians in Spain. When I was in San Juan, Puerto Rico, I took the Bacardi Rum Factory tour one day—despite the fact that I’d read numerous reviews online slamming it as a “tourist trap”. I thought it would be interesting to learn about how rum is made and its history in Puerto Rico, and since it was free (with 2 free rum drinks to boot!), I could think of worse ways to spend my morning.
On the shuttle from the ferry landing to the “factory”, I met a nice couple from India, Naresh and Tejas, who were on the island to attend their son’s white coat ceremony (he was in medical school). We hit it off famously and wound up spending the majority of the day together. Back in San Juan, they showed me the lobby of the hotel where they were staying, and we had lunch together. Two years later, I still stay in touch with them via email. Having never been to India myself, there is no way I would have met this couple if we hadn’t all been drawn to this tourist attraction on the same day at the same time.
These are the reasons why I love visiting tourist attractions. But I’m open to debate. What do you think about tourist attractions? Do you avoid them in favor of offbeat experiences, or do you want to see what all the fuss is about?