Travel Compulsions: What Makes a Place Important

Tourists are under a lot of pressure. Financial concerns, travel logistics and unforeseen problems all contribute to a traveler under stress. The most common stressor without a doubt though are travel expectations.

Most normal people plan their vacation months and sometimes years in advance. During this time they consume everything they can about their intended travel destination and undoubtedly listen to hours of advice on what to do and not to miss.

I hate conversations like these.

I hate them because so many times well-intentioned advice from articles, guidebooks and friends leads to great expense in terms of money and more importantly time for experiences that frankly aren’t worth it.

Part of the problem is the effort it takes, particularly for Americans, to travel. Cost is a major issue, but so is time. On average, if we’re lucky, the average American gets a couple of weeks a year of leave time to relax or take a vacation. This puts amazing pressure on the trip planner to make sure their time is not wasted and that they get a chance to see all of the “important things.”

Over the years, the global travel knowledge base has been filled with places and activities that someone, somewhere at sometime deemed to be important enough to label as not-to-be-missed.

Let’s look at some examples. Now, you can disagree with me about the ones I have selected, but that’s sort of the point. What the “experts” have deemed as the most important tourist sites is a very subjective opinion.

The Mona Lisa. Paris has a lot of items on the must see list, many of which are certainly deserving. A visit to Paris is hard to deem complete without a stop at the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame. Over time, the Louvre and more specifically, the Mona Lisa have also been lumped into this category.

The Louvre is one of the most impressive museums in the world, no doubt there. There are hundreds of thousands of pieces that would take a lifetime to fully see and appreciate. Out of all of its treasures though, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa has assumed top billing. The problem with a visit to the Louvre just to see this one painting is that:

  • You have to pay to get in
  • Everyone has the same plan, so it’s a mob scene at the actual Mona Lisa portrait
  • The painting isn’t really that impressive

Yes, if I were an art historian I’m sure there are some qualities that I would drool over, but I’m not. I’m a normal person who frankly has a low tolerance for art museums as it is. When everything is said and done, at least an hour if not more of my day has been consumed, I lost money and all I got out of it is the ability to say I saw the Mona Lisa. So what? No one anywhere will care that I saw this painting, it’s definitely not a unique experience, and it’s something I didn’t enjoy either. But I was COMPELLED to see it because everyone told me I had to.

Most often guidebooks are the culprits in leading the innocent tourist to these compulsion places. Perhaps it’s because they have always been in the guide and no editor dares remove them, but I would much rather see a guide devoted to things that are actually interesting and provide a look at the city or country. I know to see the Eiffel Tower when I’m in Paris and I think everyone in the world knows the same thing. What I need to know is how to EXPERIENCE the city and not just see it.

This brings me to the topic of landmarks. What is it in us, and I am absolutely guilty of this, that we are attracted through travel magnetism to iconic buildings and structures. Why did I spend two hours in Singapore trying to locate the Merlion? (a statue of a mythical creature I might add) Why did I feel visiting my one gazillionth royal apartment or cathedral would result in a moment unique from any of the other previous ones?

Some landmarks around the world are absolutely worth the time. They exemplify either an architectural or historical moment of importance and frankly, they’re famous for a reason. But so many other features in guidebooks are not at all worth the time. They are there and everyone is told they are important and so we all go. I have never enjoyed touring royal apartments other than Versailles (palaces are different, I like those) and I’m at the point where I really don’t need to see any more Roman bath ruins ever again. I was in Masada in October and came across yet another ancient bath complex and you know what? It looked JUST like the ones in Bath, the ones in Turkey, the ones in Italy, the ones in Greece, etc. Maybe I’m jaded, but I don’t need to see another one. Ever. I’m good.

I know that certain sites and guidebooks stay generic for a reason. They need to appeal to the lowest common travel denominator and make sure they have their bases covered. But I would love for them to move past the standard itineraries that everyone expects and instead provide the traveler with the knowledge needed to experience the city or country. My fear, and I’ve seen it happen, is that people travel to these destinations, tick off all the items on their list and leave without ever really SEEING or getting to KNOW the place.  In addition to the normal guidebooks, we need to somehow arm ourselves with experiential travel guides to move to the next level of tourism.

The tag line under the LandLopers logo says “Experiencing the World on a Budget.” I was very careful in choosing the word experiencing, rather than traveling or seeing. That’s because to me the most important aspect of traveling is experiencing a new place; learning about its people, culture, history and food. Sightseeing is absolutely a big part of this, but it is just one aspect. My best travel memories are not of large buildings or tourist infested sites; they’re of wonderful people I’ve met or great moments with loved ones. That’s what matters most when seeing the world, actually seeing it.

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

5 thoughts on “Travel Compulsions: What Makes a Place Important”

  1. Great post Matt. This is a conversation that we have all the time – having realistic expectations AND thinking critically (and not just when traveling, but that is a different post I suppose). For example, we have not gone to see the Mona Lisa – despite visiting Paris several times – for the very reasons you mentioned. In fact, we have walked to the Louvre and enjoyed the grounds and the architecture but did not feel like – for us – there was a lot of value in going in. Of course, it could be totally different for someone else. But that is the point, isn’t it?!

    I do think a lot of people feel like they will forever regret not seeing the [insert monument, work of art, ruin, etc.] and allow that to drive their entire “vacation.” Of course, that is no way to have an enjoyable experience. It is essentially trying to have a good time whilst acting out of fear. Yuk.

    Oh, by the way, if the picture of the Merlion on Sentosa Island is supposed to represent something you shouldn’t waste your time on, we couldn’t agree more! =)

  2. I really enjoyed this post! Still being fairly new to travel, I tend to get lost in the guidebook recommendations and the notion that I want to see everything since I’ve put so many hard earned dollars into the trip. I do find often that I’m disappointed or that I leave a place only wanting to go back and without really knowing what kind of advice to give to future travelers.

    I don’t have any desire to visit most museums and most famous monuments, because A. the longer I’m in Europe the more I realize that these museums and cathedrals are everywhere and B. I’ve usually gotten a pretty good idea what the monuments look like through the millions of photos floating around and they look shockingly the same in reality.

    I enjoy more the views, sights, and feelings of the city and there are some touristy activities I will participate in to experience them; sometimes climbing a tower for a view or eating at a famous but still touristy restaurant but like I said, I still have a lot to learn about travel and myself and how to really soak up a city.

  3. Great post – I agree completely. I also tend to focus on experiencing a place and the people there, rather than visiting the “important” parts. Sometimes that experience includes museums and famous landmarks and sometimes it doesn’t, it all depends on where I am. By focusing on connecting with a place, rather than checking off all the tourist spots on a list, I know I’ll have great memories to take home with me that will last a lifetime and be unique to my time in each place I visit.

  4. Wow, I couldn’t agree more with what the best part of traveling is! My fondest memories are not of the things I’ve seen, rather the people I’ve met. :)

  5. I love this post. I actually just wrote about the Mona Lisa in my blog today and how I for went seeing it for the same reasons you mentioned, and opted for a picnic in the gardens in front of the Louvre instead!

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