Travel Stereotypes: Why They’re Important


A couple of weeks ago I met with a tourism representative from a large city in Scotland. (There aren’t many, so you should be able to figure this out) She spent a lot of time showing me photos of new museums and cool restaurants and why her city has become a European center of all things hip and cool. I don’t doubt her either, it certainly appeared that way. But I couldn’t help thinking to myself, that’s not what my fellow countrymen want to see when they visit Scotland. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the first time visitor from the U.S. to Scotland wants to see kilts, whisky and haggis. A hairy coo or two thrown in would be nice as well. That naturally prompted some deep thought and I began to wonder whether or not it’s ok to buy in to travel stereotypes.

People constantly harass Americans for not traveling overseas enough. And when we finally do manage to travel internationally, we get harassed for being bad tourists; it seems that we just can’t win. What some people don’t realize is that it’s expensive to travel abroad, even to Europe. For many of us a trip to the Old World is the culmination of years of pining and saving enough money to make the trip. When we do finally visit we have certain expectations and we frankly want to see them met. Do those expectations match reality? Well, sort of.

On the whole, many Americans don’t keep up with international pop culture or news, certainly not to the degree that the rest of the world does. (Don’t bash me, it’s true) It may be an increasingly shrinking world, but our media sources remain frustratingly parochial. As such, we don’t know what Eurovision is. (Calm down, some of us do) We have no idea that World Cup qualifying matches are going on. (Are they?) And we certainly don’t know and don’t really care which city is the European Capital of Culture for 2014. As such, I think that as a nation our perceptions of foreign countries are necessarily rooted in stereotypes. In perceptions that may no longer be true, but it’s just how we conceive them to be.

Like all stereotypes, ours are of course rooted in truth. When we visit Scotland we do want a heavy dose of traditional Scottish culture and heritage (e.g., bagpipers in kilts); and while some in Scotland may scoff at this as being fodder for tourists, it is of course based in truth. Now do I think the average person in Glasgow goes to work with a sporran? No, no I do not. But I do know that when my countrymen visit Scotland they want to learn as much about the culture, history and heritage as they possibly can. And golf. And drink whisky. Preferably all at the same time.

Eiffel Tower Paris

The same holds true for every country: in Paris we want to see the Eiffel Tower and eat a baguette in that order. In Germany you better have pretzels and massive steins of beer ready for us. In Italy we want endless pasta, gelato and Roman ruins, all the time every day. These are our first and most lasting perceptions of these countries. Are they representative of the modern nation-states? Eh, no, not entirely. But I don’t think that really matters and here’s why.

You will never encourage my fellow Americans to travel to Malmo, Sweden because they hosted Eurovision. Not.Going.To.Happen. Now you WILL get them to visit by highlighting how beautiful the city is and how all of West Sweden is a great place to explore independently. While there they will expect, and receive certain Swedish staples but it won’t end there. Travel by its very nature is an opportunity for everyone to learn and grow as people. This can mean emotionally but it also means intellectually. We learn a lot when we travel, silly little things like even train station pastries in France are better than anything we have at home. But we also see the cities and overall cultures for what they are. Yes, in Scotland we will get that photo opp with the piper, but then we may wander over to Glasgow and see first hand what makes it a dynamic and very modern city. That wouldn’t have been motivation enough to make us cross the ocean, but once there we come to appreciate and understand the city for what it is.

Tourists are citizen ambassadors and always have been. By increasing cross-cultural experiences and communications, we invariably eradicate false perceptions and stereotypes. This is nothing new, but it is increasingly important. The countries of the world are interlinked in ways that have never been seen before in the history of the world. It is no longer enough to simply tolerate each other; we have to learn how to respect each other. Travel is the best and perhaps only way to make this happen.

I wrote this in reaction to a friend who made fun of Americans in Scotland who only wanted to see what he termed corny and stereotypical Scottish things. He was wrong to say that. Everyone, NOT JUST AMERICANS participate in this behavior. Europeans flock to New York and Las Vegas in droves because it’s what they see in the movies. Do they explore the small cities of New England or the emerging cities of the New South? No, but once they get here they might learn about them and visit them next time. This is how it all works. Travel stereotypes aren’t only tolerable, they’re beneficial and ultimately are what keeps everyone traveling in the first place.

So on your next trip please do not feel bad if you want to go see corny tourist things and do stereotypical activities. They’re popular for a reason, they are awesome. I ALWAYS visit the Eiffel Tower when I’m in Paris because for me, it IS Paris. What is important though is to go beyond these sites. Take some time and look around, read newspapers, watch the news and talk to people. Try to see what’s going on around you and learn from it. See how the cities are changing and take that knowledge home and share it. DO show off your pics of the bagpiper, but also share your photos of the new museums in Glasgow and just how metropolitan a city it is. This is how we change the world, by individual and small steps that at first may seem inconsequential, but like a small wave can end up changing the world.

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.

19 thoughts on “Travel Stereotypes: Why They’re Important”

  1. Well said Matt. I actually wrote a similar post (or rant) a few weeks ago about German beer halls and why travellers shouldn’t fret about finding the authentic. In the end we travel because it is fun and when I take a trip, more than anything I just want to enjoy myself.
    PS. I’m Australian but I still get excited when I see a kangaroo in the wild. I’m such a tourist!

  2. I LOVE this post! I moved to Scotland this year from Little Rock, Arkansas and after three months I still love bagpipes and whiskey! In fact, last weekend I was in Edinburgh and heard bagpipes on an early morning walk around the city and it made my whole heart swell! I love that I am learning all about Scotland by living here but I fully expect everyone who visits from the US (after they scrimp and save to get here) to want to visit a castle, eat haggis and drink whiskey. And I don’t think any of those experiences disappoint! I would be so sad if someone from my hometown in the states was mocked for enjoying one of those classic experiences after they made the effort to travel here.

    Also, I have yet to meet a European who has been to Arkansas! You’re right. It’s all New York and Vegas. For me the best of America is the backcountry and National Parks. Give me the Colorado Rockies over the lights of Vegas any day!

    Thanks Matt for this thoughtful post!

  3. Bravo, Matt! And you’re right, it’s not just Americans who expect to see the stereotypes. People come to the U.S. to see what they picture the U.S. is like based on Hollywood movies. Who cares what brings people to your country, so long as they keep an open mind once they get there and are willing to see and appreciate what’s there beyond the stereotypes. Frankly, I’m happy anything makes people want to travel and see another country. Now, how they behave once they get there is another story….

  4. I think Americans get a disproportionately bad rap for being tourists when just about every other nationality does the same touristy things when visiting a new region. That said, touristy things are that way for a reason. The bucket list sites like the Eiffel Tower are that way because they are beautiful, or historically important, or interesting and unique things to see. I see nothing wrong with wanting to do stereotypical things when traveling. Sure, you might be missing out if you never go beyond the most touristy things, but to most people it would be silly to travel to Paris and NOT see the classic sites, or to Scotland and see no kilts!

  5. This post is straight on, I love it. And I’m 10000000% behind you on travel being the only thing that can create understanding and empathy between two cultures, it’s the biggest motivator I have to see new places. I never thought about whether stereotypes were good or bad, but now after reading this you’ve definitely pulled me over to your side.

    Though if this is the case, then Korea will have to do a lot better than kimchi to get people to start visiting… haha.

    1. You’re right, Korea does have a lot of headway to make in the US market at least. A majority of their tourists from the US are their for 1) business or 2) because of a family connection. The story of that there is to see and do there still hasn’t been told.

  6. FANTASTIC post. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to get the message across to my readers the importance of travel, and this is a good start. EVERYONE, no matter which country they call home, has a stereotypical idea of places they’ve never been. And since stereotypes are always based in a nugget of truth, they make an excellent motivator to getting people there. The key is to get tourists to see other parts of the country that subvert the stereotypes.

    Ah! This has gotten me so motivated! Thanks!

  7. Absolutely loving this post. Such a great reminder that it is ok to enjoy these things as well as learn new things :) Can’t wait to put this to good use in Europe next month!

  8. This is like a brief summary of why people should travel. We learn new things, and unlearn false things. It’s a positive experience for everyone involved.

    I remember meeting a guy who was speeding through things as he went, because, just like you describe, he had saved up for years, and it was his first time there. He knew exactly what he wanted to see, had been looking forward to it for years, and he didn’t want to deviate from the plan to see a new restaurant or whatever. Which I think is just fine, if you know exactly what you’re getting into. Sometimes wish fulfillment can be a positive experience. But he knew Italians aren’t all mafia dons, and so on and so forth.

  9. Great writeup on travel stereotypes. I was very fortunate to have a friend who lived in Paris, so I saw it from the inside out, my favorite way to travel. It took a trip with my sister to hit the sites. Thanks so much for this well written piece.

  10. Great insight. I like your perspective on stereotypes and how it helps tourism. I’m actually writing a piece on stereotypers of travelers debunked and found this while seeing what was out there on stereotypes and traveling.

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