There are various classes of places in the world in terms of tourism: from places that have rarely ever seen a foreign face to places where there seems to be more tourists than locals. A good traveler needs to adapt their strategies to meet the parameters and get the best out of all types of places, all types of tourism at any particular time.
It is often said that travel is an art form, but this is not true: travel is a game. As with most games, travel demands quick strategy changes to match varying situations: what you expect is sometimes not what you will get, and observing and adjusting to an array of circumstances is the first rule of this game. Travel is a kaleidoscope of experience, everything is always changing, rotating, churning, and no single set of protocol works well in all situations.
What follows is an overview of four different types of places in terms of tourism, and how this effects the travel game plan. Tourism is defined here simply as the accommodation, eating, and entertainment infrastructure that is in a place for temporary visitors.
Most places in the world have next to no tourism industry, the commercial focus of these places are on local interests. Not much of an economic game is made out of visitors here, and an outsider will use the same facilities as the locals and not really have another option. These are usually everyday, normal, run of the mill places that outsiders have generally never heard of before, that have never been mentioned in any guidebook, have no major attractions, and provide little support for visitors. These places represent a country in the raw, they show what a country is really made of.
All too often you need to be riding a bicycle, walking, or engaged in some other form of complete path travel to visit many of these in between, out of the way, “no name” places, as more than often you will never know of their existence until your arrival. These are the towns you blow right through on buses from Tourist Destination A to Tourist Destination B. These are the places that I like best, as it is often easy to make friends and acquaintances and see into a deeper side of the country your traveling in here.
Most backpackers would find these “no name” places boring, but I often find them to be the most interesting: give me a highway or border town, an indistinct mountain village, a coastal fishing town and I’m in my traveler paradise. But these non-existent tourism places are also sometimes the most difficult to visit for more than a few days at a time, as there is often little or no facilities for the visitor. That which makes these places attractive for the traveler is also their undoing, they are a Catch-22 of world travel. Hotel rooms in these off the path places can either be super cheap due to lack of demand or relatively expensive due to a lack of supply. These are the hit or miss places of the globe for the traveler, as they can be extremely hospitable, welcoming, and friendly at the same time hard to be in due to a lack of support (food, shelter, entertainment) for visitors. I travel well prepared with cooking gear etc . . . but even I sometimes find my rig to be lacking for long term stays in places where there are no restaurants and have a severe lack of suitable food options. A traveler can never be as prepared for living in a place as a local, and the places which don’t know tourism are 100% set up for locals.
Foreign and/ or domestic tourists visit the place but do not run the show. There is a comfortable ratio of tourists to locals, and only a slight percentage of the commercial interest is paid towards visitors. The town is not dependent on tourism, but it is obviously one of the commercial pursuits. There is roughly as much demand for tourist services as there is supply.
These are the kinds of places that often serve as expat or long term traveler epicenters, as there is enough support for visitors to live comfortably while still maintaining local integrity. Places with moderate tourism provide the best of both worlds for the traveler: good living, adequate accommodation, entertainment, enough competition to keep prices low, and a few faces of your fellow countrymen for culturally familiar companionship.
A place that has been recently included on the backpacker/ tourist circuit, the trendy, cool places to be. There is a great scramble for tourist dollars in these places, infrastructure for visitors is being built at a rapid pace, and new businesses heavily compete for your business. Retirees begin visiting on package tours which are often sold as the height of cultural immersion, risking danger, exploration, or some other gimmick. Visiting these places feels like your part of a plague ever devouring the very thing which you sought.
If you want to find these places use a Lonely Planet guidebook.
Of these four classifications this is the only one that disagrees with me. It’s my impression that rising tourism pretty much disagrees with everyone (just listen to the disappointment and discontent on the SE Asia backpacker circuit if you don’t believe me). If you hear the name of a place spoken at a hostel by 20 year olds with stars in their eyes you know that its a place that has just embraced mass tourism, and that it very well could be an annoying destination to step foot in. Expect touts, vice, inflated prices, gentrification, lies, misleading brochures, slack tours, tourist agencies scrambling to match supply to demand, and a free for all of young Westerners embitter by the fact that their “off the beaten track adventure” just lead them to the same place as everyone else.
I remember the mad scramble in Laos in 2005, I think of parts of Colombia last year, and I know that places that are rising in tourism are ones that will not leave a good taste in my mouth. The trendy, the new, the next thing is not what I’m after. But I do go to these places knowingly. Why? Because they allow me to observe a phenomenon that has swept the globe first hand: the youth of the class A passport world descending upon places in droves, beating the trail down wide enough for their fat parents and grandparents to follow. To know is the prime pursuit of travel.
A place that had its tourism boom a decade or so in the past and is no longer trendy to visit. The tourist droves have been arriving for a long time, the location is now well known to even the khaki clad crews on package tours. The kind of places that backpackers brag of avoiding or like to complain loudly about. These are places where the tourist infrastructure often has far more supply than demand, places whose tourism industry has plateaued and matured.
I don’t mind fully developed tourism. The nature of economics often allows me to get cheap flights in and out of these places as well as fully stocked rooms at bargain prices. I usually use these locations as entry or exit ports into a region or country. In the old days I use to go to them for good internet, but now this is generally no longer necessary as the internet is now getting close to global coverage.
The world is vast, full of different types of places that are in perpetual flux. A no name place today could be the hit location of the backpacker circuit tomorrow; a week later it could be chock full of geriatric tour groups and operators selling fantasy. I go to all the places above with little desecration, putting together the pieces of this global puzzle for myself.