Are you a tourist or a traveller? Not to be rude about tourists, because let’s face it we’ve all stood under the Eiffel Tower or some sort of equivalent, gawping and posing for photos; but if one travels to enough places there comes a time when one ceases to be a tourist and becomes something a little different.
I’ve probably been to almost every country that I’ve ever wanted to visit, but sometimes I’ve gone about it the wrong way. I’ve been a tourist. Over time I’ve learned that you have to show a destination the respect it deserves to fully appreciate what it offers.
I’m not talking about seeking out the obscure restaurant that only the locals know about, this is something that can apply to even the most famous places.
Perhaps it’s a sense of romance that you only find once you learn more about a place and its people. The key ingredients to any experience are people
Take the Sydney Opera House. Anyone who has been to Sydney – one my absolute favourite cities in the world – has stood in front of its most iconic building, probably taken a few photos, perhaps – these days – posted them on Instagram, and then they may have moved on to check out the Harbour Bridge or hopped on a ferry across to Manly.
Yes, they’ve seen the Opera House. Yes, they’ve got the trophy photo. But have they really got to understand the building? Have they taken time to appreciate its surreal, impossible beauty, so ahead of its time, so daring, and yet now so inseparable from the city and the country in which it sits? Have they taken the time to learn the story of its architect, Jørn Utzon, and the trials and tribulations of building this wonderful structure? What of its relationship and interactions with the city, its people and its identity? That takes a different starting point, a different way of thinking about things.
Perhaps this mindset is something you acquire with age. Unquestionably, one’s views on travel change as one gets older. There are things that I would have accepted and even relished twenty years ago that would either be intolerable or simply dull now.
But I’m not talking about, say, how much one spends on a hotel – although my hostel days are long gone I’m still perfectly happy with a clean and functional room – or whether I’m sampling fine dining in a Michelin starred restaurant. This is more about how one’s curiosity changes, and one’s mind makes different links and connections. Suddenly things that I might have overlooked as a callow youth now jump out at me – perhaps the way the sun sets in a particular way on a familiar old building, or how the neon lights of a skyscraper loom into a view as one crosses a bridge in a taxi. Perhaps it’s a sense of romance that you only find once you learn more about a place and its people.
In fact, that last aspect is perhaps the most important. The key ingredients to any experience are people. One of the most difficult aspects of travelling solo is not having anyone to share things with. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy and appreciate somewhere travelling alone, and there is plenty of fun to be had watching locals go about their business; but without any shadow of a doubt the most memorable moments I have enjoyed out in the big wide world have been those I have shared.
I vividly recall travelling to the magnificent Machu Picchu with my mother, taking in one of the true wonders of the world and sharing that privilege with someone as enchanted with it as I was. I remember my first visit to Paris, travelling with a group of friends and diving headlong into all the best the city had to offer together.
Even travelling with work, there are times when I get to view a place through the fresh eyes of a colleague who is seeing it for the first time, even when I’ve been there many times over. God knows I’ve been to Davos more times than I care to remember – but show me the face of someone who is riding the train up into gorgeousness of the Swiss Alps for the first time and it never gets old.
It’s not just about the jaw-dropping sights, either. Appreciating the different ingredients that go to make a place what it is – the historical, the cultural, the political, the religious or artistic – enriches the experience. Take somewhere like Berlin, which we visited for the second show of our series: there you have the city’s burgeoning tech scene and its deep and vital artistic culture, layered over history like the Cold War – all the different elements that, blended together, make it unique. Then there are the different characters that inhabit the city. What does the burlesque dancer or the graphic designer get from a city like Berlin, and what does Berlin give back to them? Those are the questions you only ask if you put yourself in the frame of mind of a traveller.
In fact, places I have visited many times always offer up a new discovery -if I’m prepared to look. In Berlin I was privileged to meet Margot Friedlander – a holocaust survivor, now in her 90s – and learn how she survived hiding in Nazi Berlin. Once you’ve heard her story the city’s wartime past comes alive, and its holocaust memorial takes on a deeper, personal significance.
Tourism is one of world’s biggest industries, and it is only going to grow larger. As countries such as China show a greater appetite for the rest of the world, and more of the world wants to satisfy their curiosity about countries like China, there are great rewards for those offering the right experiences. Increasingly the trick, I believe, will be to make sure those experiences are tailored towards travel rather than tourism.
Yes, people will always want to get away from it all, or tick the box of seeing the famous monument, and that’s fine. There will be a place for that, and sometimes that is all one is able to do on a visit. But more people also crave authenticity, they want to really get under the skin of a place and experience what makes it and its people tick. That is the realm of the traveller, and where the true wonders of the world can be found.
• The writer is anchor and correspondent, CNNMoney editor-at-large and host of a new CNN series called Quest's World of Wonder
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