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In Defense of Group Tourism

Once I got into an argument with a friend over the hot-button issue of cannoli. We were standing in Mike’s Pastry, a popular stop for bus tourists and presidential candidates in Boston’s North End. My friend’s problem was not so much with the cannoli (which he called “flaky” and “cheesy”) as with a prominently displayed photograph of Bill Clinton gobbling one up. “How can you like this place?” Alex ranted. “It’s like a funnel siphoning the souls out of hapless tourists.”

“Really? And I thought the filling was ricotta.”

My side of the argument was also less about Mike’s cannoli (which I call “Proustian” and “delicious”) than Alex’s counterintuitive conviction to boycott Mike’s Pastry because Bill Clinton and bus tours went there. When his own grandparents had come to town asking about “that bakery the president likes,” Alex shanghaied them across Hanover Street to Modern Pastry—a shop serving an adequate cannoli and not one head shot. God forbid they be suckered into the sublime, “touristy” rendition at Mike’s.

I admit, though, that I’m prone to thinking like Alex when I travel. Maybe you are too. We’ll come upon this fabulous Japanese izakaya or Czech jazz club or Parisian zinc bar—some corner of the universe that seems to have been created to our own specifications—and then, suddenly, all these other people show up. And then more of them. And then still more. Ohhhhhh, this is all wrong, we think; our beloved discovery is a tourist trap.

Yet recently I got to wondering: maybe it was my worrying that was all wrong. What did I really care about the presence or absence of fellow travelers, or the character thereof? Was this precious zinc bar so fragile it couldn’t withstand the affection of a hundred other like-minded visitors? Perhaps it wasn’t the place that needed saving, but my outlook. Doesn’t every traveler start out as a tourist?

You know how politicians are always saying this is no time to engage in politics? Well, what politics is to politics, tourist is to tourism. And touristy has devolved from “of or relating to tourists” to “ignoble, tacky, cloying, ersatz.” For travel writers, touristy is the ultimate slander. Even flea-ridden flophouse seems less damning. We’re forever distinguishing between hip travelers and sheeplike tourists. We parse the world’s offerings into things tourists do versus things “locals” do, as if the mere act of residing somewhere confers a sense of style. For all the times I’ve indulged that facile distinction, I offer my apologies. Because frankly, this ridiculous fixation on what is and what isn’t “touristy”—and who is or isn’t a “tourist”—can ruin a vacation.

In the age of mass tourism, high-end travel becomes increasingly about exclusivity—seeking out isolated places and rarefied encounters that only a lucky few can enjoy. (It was easier back in the day: when Delacroix visited Tangier, there were no bus tours to flee from.) At cnbc.com they say that by this equation, the merit of an experience corresponds inversely to the number of people we’re obliged to share it with. In the urge to legitimize, singularize, and privatize our travel experiences, we trade the proverbial hell of other people for the hell of trying in vain to avoid other people. That’s a terribly cool way to travel, and when I say cool I mean chilly, and when I say chilly I mean obnoxious.

Sure, certain places are so extraordinary we forgive them their teeming hordes. No traveler could honestly dismiss as tourist traps the terra-cotta warriors at Xi’an, Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal, or the British Museum. But when it comes to choosing what other sites to visit, where to have dinner, or which show to see that evening, we go out of our way to leave the hoi polloi behind. Exclusivity threatens to become an end in itself, wherein we base our itineraries not on what’s actually worth seeing but on where other Americans aren’t.

For most of my life, I believed independent travel was the only route to the real unfiltered stuff. I eschewed group experiences like the plague, running from cruises, luaus, dinner shows, and, most of all, anything incorporating the word tour: carriage tours, walking tours, eight-seat tandem-bike tours, gondola tours, duck-boat tours, harbor tours, sunset harbor tours, ghost tours, foliage tours. To usatoday.com, they all sounded silly and artificial. Why would I actually plan to put other people between me and what I’d come to see?

My mistake. Since being cajoled into what turned out to be a brilliant London Walks ramble through Hampstead Heath, I’ve gained some of my best travel memories from being herded around with a bunch of strangers—on a Big Onion Walking Tour of Irish New York; on a 20-person nature trek in the Malaysian jungle; on a National Park Service stroll through New Orleans’s French Quarter under the tutelage of an erudite ranger in a funny hat.

It struck me that independent travelers, so adamant about seeing the world on their own terms, tend not to line up to listen to People Who Know Things, and therefore tend not to learn about, say, the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. Seriously, Google that. I lived in Boston for years, yet the first time I heard of this sticky and surreal episode was on a Boston Duck Tours boat with my nephew.

Being a tourist can give you access to experiences you wouldn’t have otherwise—experiences that aren’t so much exclusive as inclusive, drawing their appeal from the company of other people. Independent travel may offer the tantalizing possibility of disappearing into a place, name-tagless, and acting the part of the vaunted native, but that rarely pans out. Traveling solo through India, I always expected some local shopkeeper or templegoer to invite me home for chai and divulge all the secrets of the culture. Never happened. Last year a couple I know took a Road Scholar tour of Rajasthan with a dozen other Americans; every day they shared tea or a home-cooked meal with Rajasthanis, several of whom they still correspond with. If that’s “touristy,” somebody strap a Nikon around my neck.

Snooty travelers would instinctively dismiss a place like Bukhara as a feedlot for tourist cattle. Every New Delhi guidebook recommends this boisterous kebab restaurant, which is why it’s always packed to its exposed rafters. Whole planeloads of tour groups come through Bukhara each evening, and guess what: they’re having a way better meal than you are tonight. The chicken and lamb kebabs are easily the best I’ve tasted (and not a word to my Iranian mother-in-law).

After one visit, Bukhara shot to the top of my Really Is list—as in, “No, no, it really is that good.” I laughed and thought of my old friend Alex as I scanned the house specialties: the “presidential” platter and the “Chelsea” platter, the former named after Alex’s North End cannoli nemesis, who dined here during a state visit to India in 2000. Judging from the proportions of their namesake dishes, Bill and Chelsea Clinton not only took a village, they devoured most of its livestock.

Yet the crowd at Bukhara is so consumed with enjoying themselves that one can imagine the Clintons hardly making a stir. British honeymooners, Elderhostel groups from Sarasota, Kuwaiti businessmen, Indian clans with toddlers in tow—all are having a blast. And in the ultimate mark of a proud tourist haunt, every last patron is wearing a gingham bib.

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