Four Ways to Avoid Being a Tourist

By Nomadic Matt | Published September 11th, 2008

Tourists with the front facing backpackNo one wants to be a “tourist.” Bermuda shorts, fanny pack, huge camera, giant map - you know the type. The target for thieves, scammers, and ridicule. Yet by the very nature of travel, we are all tourists. We are all strangers in a strange land.

But I believe there is a “slight” difference between a tourist and traveler. A traveler immerses themselves in the local culture and spends longer in a destination; a tourist is just there quickly.

As an avid traveler, I’ve developed a good nose for who is who. You can spot those who are just there for the photo, and those who are actually interested in the culture. But more importantly, you can spot the “tourist” a mile away. They are the ones wearing the big “scam me” signs on their backs. They stand out.

Here are some tell-tale ways to spot tourists (and ways to avoid them):

“The Wrong Way Backpack” – There’s no better way to spot a tourist than by seeing those who are wearing their backpacks in front. They are so worried about being robbed that they end up highlighting the fact that they don’t belong, therefore making it more likely that they will get robbed. Moreover, the wrong way backpack sends the message that “I’ve never been to your country before but I already think you are thieving, untrustworthy people.” Are the locals wearing their backpack that way? Nope! Getting robbed is a reality in any city. You just have to learn to be smart. Wearing your backpack on your front shows you don’t belong and makes you more likely to get robbed — or at least scammed. So do as the locals do – put the backpack on your back. That’s where it’s supposed to go. As long as you act cool and keep your head, no one is really going to try to rob you any more than they would back home.

“The Fanny Pack” – Just like the front backpack, the fanny pack screams to the world, “I’m not from here! I don’t know what is what! Please rip me off!” Salespeople around the world see this and go, “Yes! Easy target.” Not only does having a fanny pack make all your valuables accessible to the ardent thief, but you also look like a large dollar sign to everyone you come across. Put away the fanny pack. Put your money somewhere else. Act cool. Act like you know what you are doing. You’ll be less likely to be scammed or ripped off. Additionally, that fanny pack is very 1980s. Come on. Get with the times. At least wear a money belt.

“The Giant “Where are we?” Map” – We all get lost on the road. We all need maps. I’m not saying don’t ever bring them out, because I use them all the time. However, standing out on the corner with a lost look on your face will lead to someone coming up to you and asking if you need help. A lot of the times they are genuinely trying to help, but many times you get people trying to point you in the wrong direction and lead you astray. Grab your map and fold it up into little parts so when you do need it, you simply take out the little bit, look, and move on. Or take it out when you are sitting down for lunch or coffee. The goal is to be inconspicuous.

“The “I love….” T-Shirt” – I know you love the city you are in. You just bought the shirt to prove it. Just don’t wear it in the city while you’re there. How many New Yorkers wear the “I love NY” T-shirt? How many people in Rome wear that one? London? Not many. It can be a fashion statement but combined with doing the things above, it becomes obvious you aren’t wearing it to be fashionable, you are wearing the shirt because it’s a cool souvenir.

Avoid being seen as a tourist by making an effort to blend in. Act like you belong, and avoid the tell-tale tourist signs whenever possible. Locals will know you’re a foreigner when you begin to speak anyway. Yet by not screaming silently “I’m a tourist,” you hide yourself from the thieves, scammers, and touts who prey on clueless visitors.

You came all this way to enjoy the culture. At least make an effort to blend in. Not only will you avoid sticking out, but you’ll begin to soak up the culture a bit easier, too.

comments 35 Comments

Matt-

I could not agree more with trying to blend in!

Love the map thing too! I am a fan of folding it to make it much smaller, because standing in the middle of the street with the entire map spread out in front of me makes me REALLY obvious to everyone else that I have NO idea where I am. I usually pick a spot behind a tree or sit down on a bench real quick, open up my (small) map, see what I need to see, and then return it to my bag, safely, where it belongs :)

There is no need to walk around with it open, flapping around while I am not using it.

I must add, I do like to go off the track a little every now and then because I always find such surprising things.

Safe travels to you!

so…on my first trip to India, I went to the Red Fort in Delhi. I was approached by a woman asking for donations for a local school (my opinion on this is a whole other topic)…I declined but she did successfully get donations from several others. The kindness of a donor was rewarded with a little paper Indian flag pinned to your shirt…I didn’t think much about it at the time….man, talk about putting a blaze orange target on you that says “sucker”…I began to notice that anyone who was wearing a pinned on paper Indian flag was mobbed by touts and beggars.

You really targeted all the flashing red signs for tourists but you forgot a few of my favorites:

Socks with sandals, preferably black

Sloppy shorts stuffed with a flashy camera, binoculars and wads of cash

Swim wear worn while flouncing around town

I’m sure these get-ups provide constant entertainment for the locals!

oooh big groan on the “I Love..” shirts. I spent a week in NYC before moving to Seoul, and every tourist I saw with the I <3 NY shirt made me die a little inside. Wait til you get home to put it on, seriously. :)

So true! So true!
My little map hint is that we rip the maps out of our guidebook, fold it up, and stick it in our bag. When we are lost (often) the paper is so much smaller than a regular map, you can almost palm it when folded up, and look a lot less conspicuous than with the full guidebook or full size map.

I disagree with the backpack. I see people all the time here in Nanjing with their backpacks in front. Actually, the only people I see around in these parts wearing their backpacks on their back are the foreigners.

I do wear my backpack frontally quite often – for solid reasons:
-helps protect against potential theft from behind
-I can put my camera in and take it out whenever I want
-my back gets tired sometimes and by wearing it frontally helps rest my back

…and there are several more reasons, but I won’t go into all details now…

NomadicMatt

@jessica: I love getting lost too. It makes things fun. I usually only bring the map out when I am really really lost. Other than that, stumbling around is a great way to get to know a place.

@will: great story! haha

@fly girl: very true! in bangkok, you see all the tourists wearing bathing suits like they are at the beach!!

@Alicia: I love how you phrased that! excellent! I couldn’t agree more!

@dawn: great tip!

@matt: Nanjing seems to be exception because where ever I go, I see the opposite.

I think the fanny pack thing used to be the biggest flashing red light that you were a tourist. But then I moved to Greece, where I learned that fanny packs are a fashion statement. Every Greek guy between 15 and 35 wore one…usually a black leather one that hung loosely off their hip. It was so odd.

I’d add “walking around with a Lonely Planet” to the list.

Sometimes it’s hard to blend in i.e. as a gringo in Latin America or Asia but absolutely agree you should try not to be too conspicuous as among other things you become a target for crime

Not being loud and obnoxious helps too. So many tourists are oblivious and loud.

Great site, by the way!

I’d also add “obsessively frequenting Irish pubs while not traveling in Ireland” to the batch.

Its funny and true..we have tried to blend as much as possible when we travel..both in india and abroad..and I have seen so many tourists and its sometimes quite annoying to see the way they behave

Anthony

Oops…

My friend and I bought these Adidas jackets that said “I love Barcelona” before we even got to the city. We decided that if we don´t go around repping our town, why would we go repping someone elses town? Left them at home.

Travel snobs. :)
Embrace your inner tourist.

Ant

How to tell an American traveller? You hear them say “fanny pack”! haha, that word is far more uncool than the frontal-backpack or the gormless map glancers! Saying that, I wear my day bag on my front when I’ve got my main backpack on, does that mean I’m a tourist?

I really think the whole ‘tourist’ vs ‘traveller’ thing is elitist and opinionated. What research is there to say the lost woman wearing an ‘I love Fanny Packs’ t-shirt doesn’t immerse herself in much more culture than the bar full of ‘travellers’ she’s stuck outside? Give her a break, mate – you as an American should be well aware of the consequences of wrongly labelling people because of how they dress or act.

Monna

Hey Matt!
This post has got a lot of people talking! Cool! I really appreciated the comment about not speaking too loudly. I know that in Barcelona, people who speak really loudly in English rarely receive a warm welcome!
After I read your post this morning I was inspired to write about the pressure on tourists to “blend”. I think you’ll like it.
Thanks for the inspiration.
Cheers!

Ant,
Well put. I didn’t want to whip out my map, camera, or dictionary for fear of being a tourist at first, but then I realized I was stopping myself from learning the language, sharing memories, and figuring out the lay of the city I’ll be living in for the next year.

And there’s no way I can escape being considered a tourist – the pink skin, marble eyes, and big nose give it away in Nanjing.

We work with a number of people living the expat lifestyle, eschewing the tourist attractions – but I feel like they miss out on learning about the country’s history.

But we’re in a city that loves foreigners – I suppose it might be harder in a less friendly area.

NomadicMatt

@quickroute: very true! Living in Bangkok, everyone knows I’m not from here but people can quickly figure out I live here. It’s all how you carry yourself.

@nicole: thanks! Good to have you here!

@anthony: good move!

@ant: I think the english call it something else but I forget what my friend told me. Bum something….

But to the larger point you raise, and timely one too as I have a post in the works addressing this issue-

I agree with you on the elitist part. Traveling, especially in SEA, you meet many people who go off on tourists and act as though they are better than others since they are spending only 2 dollars for a place to stay. But as I have said before, anything that gets people traveling is something I support. (I am a supporter of organized tours). Yet what the opening was more focused on was that many people travel just to say “I’ve been to….”. Travel as a checklist is worthless travel. You don’t actually learn anything about the place you visited.

I’ll address this point soon but the point of this article was to give people tips on how to blend in with the locals more as a way to absorb the culture of people as well avoid being ripped off.

@Monna: I’m glad I’m an inspiration to someone! :)

Hey Matt. Just yesterday I was talking to someone about this and I am even considering a post on the same topic. Maybe I can blog something as ’4 more ways to….’ lol. Thanks for the post :)

Ant

“Bum bag” (just as uncool!)

You should consider the origins of the word tourist, when writing your post on segregation in tourism. According to Wikipedia; “The word tourism was used by 1811 and tourist by 1840. In 1936 the League of Nations defined foreign tourist as someone travelling abroad for at least twenty-four hours. It successor, the United Nations amended this definition in 1945 by including a maximum stay of six months.”

So apparently there is a post-tourist threshold. Look forward to reading the post, mate.

As a native New Yorker, I can assure you – even in our own city, we actually do wear the I Love New York shirt. Really. I’m kinda bummed that I didn’t bring mine along to Europe with me this time. :)

Important stuff, Matt! I think the best way to not stick out is to simply be a good observer. What do locals do? Are they loud? Quiet? Where do they eat? Play? Hang out? As a woman who sometimes travels alone (and I know there are a bunch of you out there!), blending in as much as is possible is a must for safety’s sake. Even if you don’t look the part and there’s nothing you can do about it (blond hair and blue eyes won’t blend in in China, for example), you can at least act the part. In today’s world, people move around and live overseas all the time. It’s not completely impossible that a nordic-looking person would be living in Shanghai! Just play it cool, and observe, observe, observe!

@ “I really think the whole ‘tourist’ vs ‘traveller’ thing is elitist and opinionated.”

I have to agree. I used to get uptight about this and say “I’m a traveller!” but it’s such a false and unhelpful terminology. It does promote travel snobbery. As much as I appreciate laughing at the American tourist stereotype and almost crying when I see it manifested (couple of times a week, every week) it’s also a poor strawman.

It’d be nice to move beyond these into examining travel philosophies more fully; there are certainly differences in travel styles…and some are worse for the world than others.

Talen

Excellent list. The fanny packs always make me laugh.

Another thing to consider is keeping all the flashy jewelry at home. I always see tourists wearing things like Rolex’s and huge diamond earrings in SEA …I don’t know if it makes them feel superior or they just want to show off but it surely makes them a target to locals.

C K

Over here in London, especially at Westminster and Tower of London area, tourists usually throng the area with a Lonely Planet ‘London’. Don’t ask me why, but it’s always Lonely Planet…. never fails.

Another Nomadic Matt Classic… Super Funny! I just can’t decide which is worse :o)

Talia Clare

I totally agree with this and want to add one little thing…about taking appropriate baggage. A couple years ago, I got my family to go to Europe with me. I specifically told my aunt to buy a backpack for traveling since we were going to be visiting several countries. She ignored my advice and bought a huge, hard shelled bag on wheels which she then proceeded to pack full with more than 50 pounds of clothing and jewelry. She thought it would be really easy to get from the airport to the hotel. Little did she comprehend that we were taking the subways to the hotels and that many of the smaller, older hotels we were staying at did not have elevators. My uncle complained every time they had to tote that bag anywhere, and by the time it got home, it weighed 80 pounds with all the additional souvenirs. Although she tells my uncle she will never take anywhere again, she secretly admits that she WILL bring them again if she can.

BTW, she also takes a fanny pack with her. :-)

Mercedes

The “The Wrong Way Backpack” and fanny pack(guys only) are actually really common in Brazil from what I saw/heard. Especially in higher crime and downtown in the cities, and at bus terminals I rarely saw people with the backpack on the back. But I’ve never seen anywhere else where you can pull that off!

While the fanny pack rule should probably be followed for fashion reasons, every rule has its exception. Though not necessarily “common,” it’s far from unusual for a local Singaporean to be using a fanny pack to carry whatever it is they need to be carried (in fact, it seems like it’s standard attire for the P.E. teachers I work with).

Disclaimer: In writing this comment, I am in no way advocating the usage by anybody of fanny packs.

Whoops — forgot one other thing. You forgot to add, “Don’t stand out in the open, pointing at street signs/landmarks/random directions, with a completely puzzled look on your face.”

I found this particularly useful in South Africa a couple years ago. Even if I was lost, I would just keep walking — even if I was only to double back down the road, or to go around in circles (obviously, stick to main roads). Eventually, I found my way every time, plus I got the added benefits of seeing other parts to the city, as well as getting some extra exercise.

Susan

I have to agree with the I Love NY shirt.. even John Lennon rocked it.

Karissa

Nanjing is not the exception, I agree with Matt, wearing a backpack in front (in crowded areas) seems to be a rule of thumb in China. I actually learned that trick from my Chinese friends, they did that every time we rode the bus. I was even warned at the airport by the Chinese man at the ticket counter about wearing backpacks, well, on your back. I guess a good rule is to watch what all the local people are doing and follow suit, what’s silly in Japan or Europe doesn’t matter if you’re in Russia or China ect.

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