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Types of Tourist Towns

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 [...]

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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.

Nonexistent Tourism

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.

Moderate tourism

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.

Rising tourism

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. 

Developed tourism

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.


Filed under: Tourism

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3689 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Papa Bay, Hawaii

7 comments… add one

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  • David April 11, 2012, 1:56 am

    What a interesting and handy graph this classification could make… Given it is dynamic, up to date, and with world wide coverage… 🙂

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    • Wade Shepard April 11, 2012, 2:18 am

      That would be interesting. A slightly large undertaking but I think it could be done. I’ll consider doing it. Thanks.

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  • David April 11, 2012, 3:21 am

    Something along this line is:


    I.e. Tourism Receipts per country.

    If you could somehow drill down per country/town, now THAT would make for interesting route planning… 🙂

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    • Wade Shepard April 11, 2012, 7:33 am

      That’s a real cool site. Thanks for the link. Will look into this. Unfortunately, as the makers said, these maps are only in dollar amounts which can be skewed with international income disparities. One thing that would be interesting would be to map number of tourists to number of locals in various localities. Thanks for the suggestions on this.

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  • David April 11, 2012, 3:24 am

    Though the interesting statistic would be dollars/capita from tourism, I guess..

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  • Jason April 14, 2012, 3:55 am

    Nice article Wade and I enjoyed the read and obviously written by someone who’s seen many variants of towns and cities over the years. It’s funny how things slowly evolve and change. Many places that are now seen as developed or rising as per your descriptions above had basically minimal (if any) tourist infrastructure 15 to 20 years ago when I passed through many places such as this.

    On the other hand you have places like the Phillipines, that were seen as the place to be int the 70’s and 80’s, but then fell out of favor with the tourist world. Only to make a recovery again in the last few years.

    I’m with you and most of the time enjoy places that are allot quieter in relation to tourism. More often than not, these places are harder to get too. Although at the end of a tough trip to some far off destination. I do enjoy kicking back at one of the more toursited places to recharge the batteries.

    All the best to you and your family in China. Safe travels…..

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    • Wade Shepard April 14, 2012, 9:40 pm

      Thanks Jason,

      It’s great to hear from you again! It also feels good to be back blogging too. Yes, it’s real interesting how places change, adapt, rise, and crash with the introduction/ deterioration of various industries — not just tourism but any big industry. The sheer rate of change that places (almost all places) go through constantly is absolutely staggering. It’s real hard to see from a single visit, but going back to places that you’ve visited a decade or two in the past is usually an awesome experience. The thing about tourism is that it can pretty much disappear without a trace. I remember this from traveling in the Balkans a few years back — or what I read of parts of Africa in colonial times. A shut down factory town leaves behind big rotten relics of buildings, but a fallen tourist town leaves next to nothing. A global survey of the ebbs and flows of tourism over the past 200 years would be interesting to read.

      Right on, man, I love those no name towns and cities that you can only end up at through happenstance, but the booming tourist destinations are good too if you get into the mindset to enjoy what they have to offer.

      Thanks for the comment.

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