I'm hooked on Netflix's brilliant and slightly flawed series Narcos. When I arrived in Bogota, Colombia in 1996 Pablo Escobar had been dead just 3 years and the country was still reeling from his legacy. Paramilitary and guerrilla groups (like AUC and ELN) added to the instability. The value of your life felt flimsy, and fear constantly hummed like a fridge. More than one person told me, "If a stranger approaches you downtown it's 100% a setup." They were mostly right.
Despite precaution I need both hands to count the number of incidents I had in 9 months, though I got lucky every time. Once, in a rapid mugging, the only thing the thieves successfully extracted was a fake bill in my back pocket (recently acquired from the currency museum). In my greatest escape I ran across a thoroughfare, in a serendipitous gap of traffic, to evade 5 thugs in hot pursuit.
I found one silver lining to all this danger: Tommy and Tiny the Tourists did not want to come to Colombia. This was certainly a devestating blow to the vendors, hoteliers, and travel agents in the tourism industry. I was a blooming off-the-beaten-path traveler and it suited me just fine.
Who is Tommy the Tourist? The idea of travel is to go someplace different, but Tommy wants the destination to take a few steps towards him and meet closer to the middle. He'd like to have TV channels from home in the hotel room. He'd like to frequent familiar coffee shops and fast food chains in the small towns. He'd like his menu in his native language so he doesn't have to learn any of the native one or fuss with translation.
Tommy is usually a sucker, paying more for an experience/product/meal than he should. He never bothered to look up average prices. Because of this, his presence will bend the environment to his needs. In a world where money talks Tommy and Tina the Tourists carry much more weight than Trevor and Tasha the Travelers. When Tommy discovers a destination it's on a countdown to doomsday.
The one thing Tommy the Tourist can't abide is danger. You wouldn't find Tommy in Times Square at night before Rudolf Giuliani cleaned it up, and you certainly wouldn't have found him in Colombia in the 90s. When I traveled Syria in 2010 I didn't see Tommy once.
Naturally I'm not advocating violence. I want our planet to continue moving towards safety, and the evidence says it is. So how can we keep the world's diverse neighborhoods from losing their flavor? Leonid Bershidsky, who wrote a great piece on the subject of tourism backlash, concludes that tourists themselves must be accountable: maintain a low profile, don't overspend, behave as if you are part of a community. Just as shortcutting switchbacks erodes a mountainside, flashing loose cash in a neighborhood deteriorates its ecosystem.
Another possible solution is legislation from localities with a tourism flow. In the Cambodia episode of Road Less Traveled, we explored this concept. The government, aware of how tourism can chew up SE Asian destinations, entered into a pioneering partnership with an NGO to preserve the integrity of what makes their country special. Santa Monica, CA is also following this route with a controversial crackdown on Airbnb short term rentals. Here is Mayor Kevin McKeown's rationale: "When a landlord or other property owner takes a unit off the housing market and uses it for vacation rental, there is no permanent resident on the site, we've lost that part of the fabric of our community."
Finally, countries that dispatch tourists across the globe could provide a modicum of cultural sensitivity training to anyone seeking a passport. After a handful of embarrassing incidents, China has taken serious steps to make their tourists more cosmopolitan. In America one needs to pass a test to drive on our roads. Should an aspiring traveler not also prove a certain worldly knowledge before navigating the globe?
If all else fails a handful of FARC combatants or narcotraficantes extradited to frustrated Barcelona and fed-up Berlin would certainly keep Tommy away.
I'm Jonathan Legg
The road has been my greatest teacher.. challenging stagnant beliefs, disarming prejudices, and developing understanding of others. I hope the content on this blog will bring a sliver of that juju to you.