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Steven Lewis

On Looking Like a Tourist

By Andrew Harper Staff

The Harper Way | May 19, 2017

There it was again, one of travel writing’s most insidious clichés, printed in a large font at the top of page 32 of a glossy luxury lifestyle magazine: “NEVER LOOK LIKE A TOURIST,” it said in all capital letters, as if it were shouting at us. “ACT LIKE YOU KNOW WHERE YOU ARE.”

Few tourists have been able to avoid receiving this well-intentioned but misguided advice. Indeed, the very word “tourist” has become something of a pejorative (“traveler” is the term sophisticated tourists prefer to use). This advice presumes three things: that it’s possible to always look like a local, that locals will judge you if you don’t look like them and that the locals are right to do so.

First, you may be able to look like a local some of the time, but not even the most experienced traveler can look like a local all of the time. It’s an unattainable goal. If it’s your first (or even 10th) time in Paris, or Venice, or Tokyo, you might get turned around. There is no shame in looking confused and asking for directions. Even if you do it mostly in English.

Locals may very well judge you. But if you’re not acting like a boor, then the judgmental local is the one with the problem, not you.

Second and third, locals may very well judge you. But if you’re not acting like a boor, then the judgmental local is the one with the problem, not you. Only someone with no understanding of travel could look down on a person who becomes lost in an unfamiliar place. And only the most self-centered people believe that everyone, including people from other countries, should dress as they do. Just as the traveler should generally refrain from judging those with different customs and traditions, local people have no business judging travelers who are simply doing their best.

That said, there are those travelers who don’t put their best feet forward. I don’t attempt to look like a local in every situation, but I do like to be the best ambassador for my country that I can be. We travelers are all ambassadors, and everyone benefits when we present the best versions of ourselves, both in terms of demeanor and dress.

When you travel, the chances are that you will look like a “tourist” at some point. And there’s nothing wrong with that. To be a “traveler” worthy of the name, all you need is an adventurous spirit, a sense of humor and a well-chosen outfit. A person determined to never look like a tourist is a person who will never be my travel companion.

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