This Place is Too Touristy

January 11, 2014 by | Filed Under: Hot Topic, Regional News, Responsible Tourism

Throughout my travels there seems to be a running theme about destinations – are they “touristy”? There are always complaints about a place being too touristy, or a constant search for the “real” [insert the country name here]. After hearing a very detailed conversation back in Inle Lake, Myanmar, from a guy who complained that every place he went to in Southeast Asia was “too touristy” I started to think, what does this mean?

Tourist Destinations

There is generally a reason why a place attracts tourists in the first place. There is something unique or beautiful to see – a quaint European village, a giant Buddha, ancient temples, a volcano, or a perfect beach.

Once this place is identified and tourists start to visit, development occurs, which makes it easier for tourists to visit the spot. Simply put, tourist resources are developed, including transportation, hotels or hostels, restaurants, and often English speaking staff. Along with these resources come souvenir stalls and touts. Often the local or national government will pour resources into the spot to encourage more tourism, and increase revenue. All of this development provides jobs for locals.

The Tipping Point

There is a tipping point, though. Once a town or village has been saturated with souvenir stalls, touts, and restaurants that serve spaghetti Bolognese, pizza, hamburgers, and banana pancakes, it certainly will lose whatever authenticity there once was to the spot.

The locals and the government can’t see past this tipping point to the real effects of the growth. They can’t see a lack of authenticity or the destruction to the environment. All they can see is increased growth, more tourist dollars, and the ability to feed their family. And, you can’t blame them.

"Bali should work to attract more Australian tourists" -- Seriously? More Australians to Bali?

Ubud, Bali, is one such spot. Ubud was originally an artist mecca, with creative types flocking there to be inspired by the incredible spirituality of the place. Although the surrounding villages, like Peliatan and Mas retain some of that, Ubud is simply over developed. There are only 3 main streets in the village, and they are jam packed with tourist focused restaurants, massage parlors, souvenir stalls, and even a Starbucks. Although construction continues, I can’t imagine what the fast paced growth will lead to. The growth extends away from the main roads into the once fertile rice paddies, which are increasingly turned into hotels and spas. A few fellow travel bloggers who recently traveled to Ubud really did not like it, and I don’t blame them.

Siem Reap, Cambodia, is home to the famous Angkor Wat temple complex. Angkor Wat has been firmly on the tourism trail of Southeast Asia for years. It is struggling with increased development in the surrounding areas, to the point that there is concern about the future of the temple complex. More immediate, however, are the many touts in Siem Reap, a town that I am sure looks nothing like it used to 10 or 15 years ago.

Stories like this pervade in places like Venice, Hoi An, Heidelberg, Xi’an, and Luang PrabangHow do locals and governments protect against these results? What can tourists and travelers do to help the situation? I just don’t know.

Off the Grid

Visiting towns like Ubud, Antigua, and Siem Reap often leads tourists, like this one in Myanmar, to see the next up and coming destination, to go off the grid, or to try to seek out the “real” Bali, or the “real” Cambodia.

In some respects, though, it is the chicken or the egg problem. The places that are the most real, are difficult to travel to, and often leave travelers complaining about how there are no services available, like ATMs, wifi, transportation or English speakers. Whereas the ones that have the services available are deemed too touristy.

We love a small city, Dong Ha, Vietnam. Very few tourists make their way to this town about 2 hours north of Hue. We initially visited to volunteer with Global Community Service Foundation. We have returned twice since then, and will go back soon. I love it in Dong Ha because we have met wonderful people there, and have had a glimpse into the “real” Vietnam.

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But, this glimpse comes at a cost. It is hard to get money from an ATM there. There are few restaurants or places to eat for lunch because most people eat at home. There are few places where typical tourists could find “clean” eating establishments or hotels of a decent standard. Bathrooms have a lot to be desired there, particularly for women, and can sometimes be a hole in the ground.

There are no traditional tourist sights to see, as it is merely a jumping off point to see the former DMZ. Dong Ha is the type of town that many people would be likely to complain that there was nothing to see, nothing to do, and no services. It is not easy to get to. It is not touristy in the slightest, but no one makes their way there.

But, it has one of the most traditional markets I have seen in the region. It has a river front where you can have ice cold beer and Vietnamese seafood and fish soup, dining next to a table of uniformed Communist party officials, while watching bathing water buffalo. There is something about it that I simply love. If you want to see the real Vietnam, I would suggest heading to Dong Ha, just don’t complain about being bored there.

The New Frontier?

There are plenty of places to travel to that are not touristy in the slightest. Just don’t complain that there are no tourist services available.

It is almost always possible to find a non-touristy experience, even in some of the most touristy places. It is also possible to find entirely non-touristy destinations. But, unless you are truly an intrepid traveler, with a real sense of adventure, expect some difficulty and discomfort along the way. It is increasingly difficult to find authentic experiences when traveling, so when they do happen, it can be magical. Treasure it. Appreciate it.

What is the most touristy place in Southeast Asia in your opinion?  What is the most authentic destination? 

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