In Defense of Being a Tourist
Isabella Baumann is a sophomore majoring in Neuroscience who is planning on going to Grad school to earn her Ph.D. She is a registered phlebotomist and plans on taking a year to volunteer on a Mercy boat to provide medical assistance to poor communities off the coast of Africa.
Here in Rome, you are a tourist. The goal of studying abroad is to move past this label and become more like the locals, but until then you are a tourist. Being a tourist is not necessarily a bad thing. For some locals tourists are cute; they get eager to see magnificent monuments all around the city, they are curious to try local cuisine, and they are thrilled to be surrounded by complex and intense culture. I see these types of tourists when I look at the ecstatic face of a grandmother from Poland in a packed first row at a papal audience, reaching out and being able to touch Pope Francis, fulfilling a life-long dream. I see it when college-age American tourists get excited about having wine with their meal astonished that they weren’t even carded. I see it when flabbergasted teens giggle amongst themselves as they try the bright blue Viagra gelato. (It tastes like cotton candy). I see it when a young couple on their honeymoon travels the city through the maze of alleys with their only guide being ancient statues on the sides of buildings as they try to find an ancient church tucked into a bustling residential area. Locals see it in me as I try to order peach (pesche [PEHS/keh]) tea and instead accidentally order fish (pesce[PESH/sheh]) tea. They laugh and gently correct my pronunciation smiling as they do so.
However, not all tourists are cute. Tourists can be rude, selfish, and indifferent to the new culture they are in. To these types of people, Rome is not seen as a home but rather as a picturesque backdrop, and they will get into a fist fight with anyone over the perfect selfie spot. I have seen this in tourists who when trying to ask for directions get upset and start yelling at a local who doesn’t speak English since they are “ruining” their vacation. I see it with all the police stationed near the Trevi Fountain to make sure no one damages the marble as tourist are known to do. This is why people (and even I) tend to distance themselves from being a “tourist.”
The word “tourist” is a relatively new term, dating back just to 1772, used to describe a then-rising trend of mass travel for people with disposable income. In 1872 Thomas Cook created his company Thomas Cook & Son which offered the first package tour, and the tourist industry took off. The tourism industry has become a beast of an economic force mostly due to mass tourism which traveling in large groups on pre-scheduled tours, usually under the organization of tourism professionals. In Italy, especially Rome, mass tourism has boomed. Today on average, Rome receives 7-10 million tourist a year which can more than double on holy years leading to tourism being around 14.3% of Rome’s GDP.
Being a tourist has a bad rap. Tourists can be respectful, kind, and willing to try new things. There is shame in being a tourist, but there shouldn’t be. Despite a few bad apples that don’t respect local customs many tourists come to Rome to learn and see living history. Tourists care about Rome; why else would they make the financial decision to go and visit? They love and respect Rome. For these tourists, it’s the chance to see history come alive through the ancient Roman ruins or the centuries-old churches. Rome is packed full of places to see and explore. Being a tourist is about being able to enjoy seeing sights you might never get to see again. When you are so afraid of being a tourist you miss out on seeing Rome for all its glory. So don’t be afraid of going to major tourist attractions. Go see the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, or the Vatican. These places are tourist sites for a reason, they are worth the visit. Go enjoy yourself and see what you want to see, and don’t worry about seeming like a tourist, it's not as bad as you might think.