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.
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.