I am sure you have probably had a conversation about restaurants in which you or someone you are speaking with dismisses some eatery as being “for tourists.” That means it is probably overcrowded and overpriced. What’s more it is somehow not authentic because its patrons aren’t locals.
That attitude toward tourists, what they do and where they go, turns out to be nothing new. In fact it is as old as tourism itself. In an earlier post (Americans Discover Vacation: Overcoming Our Heritage), I included a quote from James Kirke Paulding describing traveling as “the most exquisite mode of killing time and spending money ever yet devised by lazy ingenuity.” Paulding was a member of the early 19th century American literati. He dipped his pen into various types of writing that included a novel, comedic stage plays and a satirical periodical. These were different times and such writings apparently qualified him for a number of government jobs that eventually ended up with an appointment as Secretary of the Navy.
John F. Sears, author of the Sacred Places, the book where I found Paulding’s quote, describes his writing as “poking fun at the hurry, pretensions and superficiality of the tourists.”
That was from 1828. Travel at the time was slow and expensive. Only the country’s elite were participating, which was the case for a good part of the 19th century. Middle-class Americans at the time were religiously conservative, moralistic and generally preached industriousness. Anyone with the time and money to travel was viewed in much the same light as the European aristocracy. They were thought to lack not only endeavor but also sufficient moral rigor.
Writing in Working at Play, Cindy S. Aron notes that “by the last half of the nineteenth century writers and cultural critics were offering parodies of tourists and noting the inauthentic quality of tourist attractions.” In the same book, Aron quotes a 1975 New York Times article about the bathers at Cape May, suggesting that their primary pursuit was “flirting and gossiping.” That wasn’t intended as a compliment.
And then there were the folks who were active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries promoting the American West as a travel destination. They showed their disdain for “easterners” who chose to travel to Europe.
So when vacationing was confined only the country’s elite, most of their countrymen were quick to criticize. But as travelling became something that involved a broader segment of Americans, the tables were turned and the elitists didn’t view these new tourists that kindly either.
In discussing the reaction of some to the fact that a more economically diverse group of Americans started to visit Niagara later in the 19th century, Sears writes. “…the excursionists who arrived after railroad fares declined usually visited Niagara Falls only for a day. The genteel tourist regarded them as less cultivated. They appeared more eager for exciting diversions than the better-off tourist, less inclined to the quieter pleasures of a sylvan walk.”
Out West, similar sentiments were being expressed by John Muir, an author who was an advocate for wilderness preservation and became a founder of the Sierra Club. Because of his role in petitioning for the legislation that established Yosemite as a national park he has been referred to as “father of the national parks.” But he was no champion of the common man as tourist. According to Sears, “Muir detested the ordinary tourists who made a quick tour of Yosemite’s points of interest and then left.”
The promotion of the national parks focused on comparing the authentic experience of nature as compared to “the crass concerns of commercialism and cheap amusements of common tourist attractions,” according to Marguerite S. Shaffer, author of See America First.
Sears sums it up like this: “Tourists as a species have a bad name; they are regarded as superficial, crass, insensitive to their surroundings.” Aron offers a similar view: “Tourists, both popular and scholarly wisdom contend, are vulgar, superficial, provincial, gullible, and entirely lacking in taste or sophistication.”
The attitudes of these 19th and early 20th century commentators was only the beginning. In more recent times, Hollywood chipped in with some classic movies portraying family vacationers as laughable, bundling boobs. Once the growth of global travel sent Americans around the world and brought visitors from every continent to the U.S., our inherited attitude toward tourists mixed with ethnic stereotypes and prejudices to produce even more vitriol to be hurled at the people who stop by and throw some cash into the local economy.