Why I hate tourism

It should have been the perfect trip. I had been recommended the venue by my host family who were convinced that I would love it, and after doing some research I felt sure that I would too. I went early in the morning hoping to avoid all the crowds. Yet when I got to the temple in Japan known as Miyajima., I couldn’t wait to leave again. There was nothing wrong with the place, but the crowds of mostly Japanese, but also Chinese and American, made me feel that I was being led down a particular path, forced to follow a pre-ordained journey. Why is travlleing so ofen like this? Instead of allowing us the freedom to explore new places at will, we are sent along narrow paths and forced to buy particular food, watch a certain display and stop for photographs at such and such a stop. The feeling of being a tourist was so over-powering that I couldn’t breathe properly and it was only when I got back on the boat that I started to relax again.

I’m not saying that all tourist sites are bad, just that they tend to indulge in a kind of un-thinking mentality that is encouraged by eager tour operators wanting to squeeze as much money out of visitors as possible. Or maybe it’s Japan’s habit of being particulary rigid in its mandating of what you should do and see, where you should eat and so on. I don’t single out Japan here. I’ve been to many places which would benefit from being more relaxed, letting people decide for themselves what they would like to see and do.

I’m not sure I actually like travel all that much. I find myself doing it because it’s something one feels expected to do. To travel well is not easy because you have to spend so much time planning where to go. I’m sure that there are people who love spending hours reading guidebooks, then painstakingly finding accommodation and packing everything they need. Then there are people who go out and buy new stuff because they are going travelling and want to look nice in the photos.   There’s nothing very satisfying about seeing new places for me, because a new place means getting lost, confused and is usually a place where I don’t know anyone. I don’t know if that’s bad or not. I also don’t really enjoy meeting other travellers. Maybe I should. But there’s something very tiresome when other travellers tell me about all the places they have visited and look down on me for not having visited them myself.

Here’s the thing: I have a fairly low impression of most travellers, yet as a traveller I always expect to be treated well. I’m aware of the paradox here I’m ok, it’s all the others who are the problem. IF I go to a particular place where there are lots of visitors, my enjoyment is compromised by the amount of travellers. Simply put, I don’t enjoy being around tourists. It’s not that I dislike them, I’m just afraid of becoming absorbed into the mass of tourists, losing whatever autonomy and freedom I would usually have in my own country.

Countries that have a lot of tourists must try to work out whether the influx of crowds is a good or bad thing. Tellingly, even once tourist-friendly countries are now limiting the large groups of travellers. Chinese tourists in particular have come in for a lot of criticism. For example, the government of Jeju in South Korea took the unusual step of banning all large groups of Chinese tourists for one year.

Right now I’m travelling in Japan and, most of the time I can enjoy the luxury of being one of the few foreign tourists. When I meet some Caucasians, it’s all I can do to cover my eyes until they disappear. Pretending that someone isn’t there is not easy when they’re overweight and are carrying a backpack the size of large child, however.

I also find it hard to imagine why someone would want to leave their home and go somewhere else to live.  If I did that, it would have to be because of something that made my life very difficult in my home country.

Also the thought of having to cram all of my belongings in a small case, with the risk of losing treasured items is enough to put me off travel for good.

Not only that, but I’m going to have to get used to new surroundings, unfamiliar diets, and weather.

Neverthless, there are still a few things even I can appreciate about foreign travel. For example, airplanes. For many reasons, flying is sexy when other forms of travel aren’t. A train is probably most likely to be associated with comfort, long distance and scenery. Although you can’t necessarily find comfort or scenery in many flights, the comfort and elegance of first class is what gives flying its appeal. The act of flying is enough to change the body, so that senses become heightened. The lack of oxygen is enough to increase the amount of alcohol in the bloodstream. The feeling of flying in a storm is scary and perhaps exciting in equal measure. As is both take-off and whenever the plane lands. Its almost as if the actual experience of flying is more exciting and so our body is made to feel the sensation more intensely. The possibility of a crash, is also something that makes air travel more exciting due to the possibility of death.

Hotels can also be a good reason to travel. Surprisingly they come in for a lot of backlash because they are perceived to be not good value for money. It all depends of course on what you expect to be able to have when you go on holiday. Being able to check in late, with 24 hours concierge, is one of the many benefits. The fact that hotels are often centrally-located is another benefit. Although with this comes the possibility that they will become too busy being on the main tourist track.

I think in general the tourism insustry has a lot to answer for, I really do. A lot of the time, you have people visiting places where they aren’t even sure why they are there. I know that for some people, they go to a country with a specific destination in mind, but most of the time tourists are wandering gormlessly from one site to another, ticking off a checklist as they do so. Most places that have signs, plaques and maps are of a little interest to me because I don’t require everything spelled out. If I’m looking at a beautiful tree or a mountain, I don’t need to be told that I’m looking at a tree or a mountain. But conversely, most tourists wouldn’t know what they were looking at or why they were there if it weren’t for signs and plaques informing them of the great significance of a particular monument, temple or building.

It’s telling that the majority of tourists want to visit places that they have seen featured on Instagram profiles, or in books such as ‘1,000 places to see before you die.’ These are not really personal reasons at all, more the idea that there are places that you have to go to because of something inherently special about them. The idea of ranking places, whether they are monuments, sites of interest or simply natural features strikes me as a fallacy. There is no reason surely why one place is somehow better than any other. My reaction to a place is based on how I feel when I am there, an entirely subjective response that could be affected by so many diverse effects. If I visit a place where the weather is fine, the people are welcoming and the food is wholesome, I naturally have a favourable opinion. Yet I could be less fortunate, finding that when I am there the weather is bad, the people are grumpy and I am given barely edible slop.  

There are many reasons why people want to visit a particular country.  A lover classical music might be happy to go Vienna, or a football fan to Madrid. These aren’t my reasons, and they aren’t necessarily mine. For example, I know plenty of people who visit Japan because of the ancient temples and beautiful scenery. Yes, Japan has these. Then again, you might just as well go to Japan because of the sushi. Or you simply love, adore and revere Japanese women and you want to be near as many as possible.

I am happy to visit many countries, but before I decide to go there I want to feel an emotional connection with a place. I want to make up my mind if I like it or not without being railroaded down a particular path of thought. Being told to go to a restaurant by a tourist is not always appreciated. I might go there and find that I am disappointed. In that case, have they then wasted their energy in suggesting that I should go there in the first place? On the other hand, I don’t want to have so many suggestions that I can’t possibly do everything, leaving with a sense of failure at missing out so many ‘must-see’ places. 

If you visit a shrine in Japan, or Temple in Thailand, your reaction will depend on whether you subscribe to that particular religion, or if you understand anything of what that religion means for its followers. If you don’t, it can seem that you aren’t sure why you should be there or why so many people find it so important. I don’t need to be a muslim to understand that the site of Mecca is of such importance to followers of that faith. Yet, I have no desire to visit Mecca. Funnily enough, I don’t want to visit many places, outside of my country there aren’t too many countries I can imagine being comfortable in. I’ve been to Japan, and that’s because of a few particular things I can only do in Japan. I’m pretty sure that such things are not possible anywhere else, The minute they are, you can bet I won’t be going to the effort of taking time off work, packing and buying a whole load of new stuff.

Observations of Japan. March 2019

Every trip I make to Japan I start to see new things that I hadn’t really thought about before. For example, the level of politeness. I always knew that Japanese have a sense of courtesy to others that is at a higher level to other Asian countries. But the extent to which they use politeness can make life less easy when it comes to practicalities. For example, it’s quite hard to express strong disappointment or to say something negative here. (I know that it’s not common to complain about bad food or service). For example, I noticed when I was in the Izakaya that they added a 500 yen cover charge to my order. And because I had drunk alcohol, I think they added another tax. This was on top of the 8% service charge that I had already been charged. So the final bill was a good 1,000 yen dearer than I had expected. Of course, I really wasn’t happy about these stealth charges, but at the time it was easier to pay the total amount, rather than argue about it. Is this why there are so many extra charges in restaurants, because no one wants to speak up and complain? The fact is there are many restaurants which don’t engage in stealth charges, but you won’t know this until you receive the bill. Whilst Izakayas are no doubt the worst offenders, I have found myself paying well above the odds in many places. For example, at a maid cafe, where I expected to spend 500 on a coffee but was charged more than 1000. The dreaded cover charge, again. The frustrating thing is the money they charge like this does not have a possible reason for being there except as a way to wring as much money out of the customer as possible.

Again, when I was checking in to my hotel, I found that I could not get the wi-fi working. This could have been a really simple problem, but it was exacerbated by the fact that the receptionist was completely unwilling to acknowledge the fact that I was unhappy about the situation. In fact, when I attempted to talk with the manager, she attempted to deflect this by telling me that she didn’t understand English. I’m beginning to wonder if anyone actually says what they think when there is a problem?

Then when I was waiting for my JR rail pass, it was at least an hour’s week to get it printed. And by the time I had joined a separate queue to enquire about a booking, I was told, rather incoherently, that a tree had fallen on the line and there were no trains. This was actually sorted out and I was eventually able to take a later train that got me to my destination at the exact time I needed to, after waiting uncertainly for two hours. Another point is the issue of reserving a seat for a train journey. Of course, there is nothing wrong with sitting on an assigned seat, but if half of the seats are usually empty, is there really a need for having allocated seating? Especially when people board and get off the train at different times anyway, so the whole idea of having reserved seats seems a bit pointless.

The other funny thing that I’ve seen happen is bill sharing. Actually I don’t really mind this one, but it’s interesting to see that even on occasions where it might be sensible for one person to pay the bill, it’s still split evenly based on who ordered what.

All this is to say that I really do love Japan a lot, I really do. But there are times when it can be difficult to understand the reason why things have to be the way they are.