A trap fashioned by Viet Cong for US soldiers near the Cu Chi tunnels
The tourist trap. Everyone who has journeyed to a locale without the aid of local friends falls into one at some point another. Nearly any feature that attracts tourists has an economy of traps surrounding it, from blatant false advertisements to operations that simply have a greater interest in extracting money from tourist wallets than providing a product or service.
Plenty of us walk into these traps willingly, when a historical attraction’s heavy marketing and cultural significance baits us into a scheme that’s sadly light on substance and heavy on the gift shops. Sometimes we realize we’ve been had, slowly, over the course of a day tour, when the itinerary’s reality does not match our expectations. The worst, in my opinion, is when it’s unexpected. When you do your research, talk to other travelers, read all of Trip Advisor, and invest in an experience that’s disappointing, dangerous, or just…not worth it.
We all have different travel styles and opinions on what elevates a tourist attraction to trap status. Having traveled with friends, these differences become clear: Andy’s distaste for any attraction warranting more than a paragraph in a guidebook, my reluctance to enter areas with aggressive hawkers, Justin’s relief at a cab driver’s mistake that relieved him from going to a khantoke dinner. If you find yourself in a tourist trap, there’s no reason for your day to be ruined or for your opinion on a place to change. Sometimes a perspective shift or a bit of planning can make a seemingly busted experience memorable.
I. The Gift Shop Shuffle
This woman yelled out a cheerful “give money!” as we passed her boat on one of the Mekong’s waterways.
The most obvious of all the tourist traps in its blatant disregard for your experience, the gift shop shuffle most often occurs on tours wherein a group of sightseers on route to some attraction find the tour stopping again and again at shops, often in high-pressure sales situations. Our recent Mekong River Delta tour was the perfect example of a gift shop shuffle: nearly each stop on our tour was intended to extract money from the group, whether it was the insightful candy factory, the aggressive push to buy honey at a “bee farm,” or the rowers on a short boat trip saying “give money” to every boat full of people passing by.
How to Enjoy It
My expectations were low before going on this tour, given the very small price tag, but I could tell others on the boat were a bit disappointed. On the other hand, a group of Japanese tourists in our group were having a blast the entire time, just by being so enthusiastic and gung-ho about the entire experience. Their willingness to just be the cheesy tourist inspired me. I bought a conical hat, snapped pictures of anything set up for me to photograph, asked questions, participated in the tour, and tipped the singers, dancers, rowers, and tour guide. While independent types from the US and Europe might gripe about having a scheduled day, the Japanese embraced it, and they had the best time.
II. The Let’s-All-Point-Our-Cameras-At-Each-Other Mega Site
Ruining each other’s shots at the Reunification Palace
This is Andy’s least favorite thing. If something about a specific tourist attraction warrants more than a paragraph of writing in a guidebook, he doesn’t want to go on the basis that these types of features are generally expensive, isolated from the local culture, and jam-packed with people and their huge cameras. It’s inherently disappointing to visit a place meant to move you when screaming kids and long lines evoke a feeling of theme parks over cultural inspiration. Even if the attraction itself is not an expensive, gift-shop-happy pitfall, chances are a virtual village has popped up around it that more than makes up for the feature’s great management.
A good example of this is Bangkok’s Grand Palace, whose beauty inspires a nation. Unfortunately, scams have popped up around the entire perimeter, making it difficult to even get inside. Many grand European attractions also fall into this category. I’ve not met a soul who was entirely happy with a pilgrimage to the Mona Lisa or who has photographed St. Peter’s Basilica without fanny-packed families obscuring the shot.
How to Enjoy It
Even though Andy had his share of complaints at the Grand Palace, the picture I took of him in front of the glorious gilded columns remains his social media avatar to this day. Face it, the professional photographs of the lauded sites are not taken by tourists competing with others—they’re done with private access. Instead, focus on enjoying (and documenting) the small-scale details you’re not going to get without having been there. At Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto, that meant wandering out of the complex and into an abandoned, beautiful cemetery completely absent from the guidebooks. If pictures are what you want, bring a book and settle into the area for a while, waiting for people to clear out.
Another strategy is to plan visits to these large attractions in the off-season. I’ve not yet been, but I’m certain I’ll get more out of Angkor Wat in the peaceful, people-clearing rainy season than I would have in the high season. Scams are also less likely to be so concentrated and intense in the low season. In any event, educate yourself about potential tourist predators first, and take steps to avoid being caught. Yes, sometimes this means avoiding locals in near these places, but you’ll be venturing elsewhere, too, right?
III. The Tour that Turns Into Summer Camp
Taking a breather in Ha Long Bay.
Every once in a while, you find yourself on a tour with a strict schedule of activities that feels more like a summer camp than a vacation. When I’m given 35 minutes, exactly, to try my hand at traditional calligraphy before snack time, I feel like I’m 12-years-old again. This hustle and bustle pace isn’t a traditional tourist trap, but it can make the independent traveler feel trapped, which is sometimes a worse fate. The trekking companies near Chiang Mai are notorious for this kind of programming, and unless you book a booze cruise, you’re likely to end up with a tightly packed itinerary on Ha Long Bay, too.
How to Enjoy It
This one is easy. Make friends with your tour guide. Not only will you have made a connection with someone who is well-versed in the tourism trade and the local culture you’re exploring, your established report will make it easy for you to essentially ask which activities are “worth it,” without being an asshole. An Australian woman with a bad hip on our tour of Ha Long Bay essentially did just this, saving her body’s strength for the essential elements while just sitting on the deck of a ship with a beer for the less fun trips around the bay. It’s the tour guide’s job to make sure everyone has a fun time, which often manifests in an enthusiastic speech before every activity. This can make those of us who are eager-to-please engage in activities when we really just want to relax. Remember, the tour guide wants satisfied customers (and tips!) more than he or she wants you to watercolor for a half hour. Your tour guide will also likely be an educated people person, who will be more than happy to chat with you about life and culture in the place you’re visiting.
IV. The Inauthentic Cultural Experience
A water buffalo chained in a field outside a restaurant solely for tourists to snap photos.
Also described as a Disneyfied experience, the inauthentic cultural experience tourist trap attracts visitors with a promise of a peek into traditional culture, often through entertainment and education. The khantoke dinner mentioned briefly above was designed in Chiang Mai specifically to entertain foreign tourists with a dance and theater over a food local to northern Thailand and the ancient Lanna kingdom. While the food is inspired by northern fare, it has generally been modified to suit the western palate through the removal of hot peppers and a focus on frying. Additionally, while the dancing and theater performance stem from older practices, the whole package of food and dance wrapped neatly into a thing called “khantoke” is a manufactured tradition. Just like New Yorker’s do not regularly take rides in horse-drawn carriages through Central Park, northern Thais do not take part in the khantoke dinner scene.
How to Enjoy It
Many folks can enjoy an experience or tour that has been modified to meet the tastes of the anticipated audience without trying. Like a trip to Pioneer Farms near Austin or the Plymouth Rock Plantation, these productions generally have bits of truth in them, but have been made more entertaining to keep the educational purposes from being dry. Generally, these inauthentic experiences have kernels of truth to them that can be helpful in identifying items of cultural importance throughout your trip—cling to this notion if you’re feeling ripped off or hoodwinked. Sometimes what these shows and attractions choose to feature (or leave out) can tell you a lot about the culture you’re visiting.
For instance, Just Khao Soy in Chiang Mai sells bowls of a traditional noodle soup only available in parts of northern Thailand and Burma for about four times the price of most vendors throughout the city. I get upset out of principle in cases like this, and I did feel indignant as soon as I discovered the price discrepancy. However, this restaurant provides a wealth of information on the history of the dish and its culinary significance. It’s not as spicy as the version made for Thai people, and it’s certainly not traditional to use a cloth napkin or order a fancy wine along with your peasant’s food, but you learn about the purpose of the array condiments served alongside. I certainly felt more confident the next time I ordered a bowl outside the tourist district.
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