Am I a tourist? What makes a tourist a tourist? How long must one live in a place to not be a tourist? Is it merely a state of mind, or something more substantial? If I wasn’t born in a particular place, will I forever be a tourist there?
I have done my fair share of traveling, especially over the last few years. I’ve been through much of Eastern Europe, both coasts and the southern states of America, many different parts of the Caribbean and coastal Mexico, and am now living in Morocco. Yet, In each place, I have been the outsider gawking at the new and novel with camera at the ready. I have dined at touristy restaurants, stayed at touristy places, and taken actual tours. Does that make me a tourist? If so, why?
I have always resisted the term “tourist” for myself. Perhaps everyone does. Maybe everyone wants to feel like they are better than that, just like everyone in high school wants to be seen as different but essentially dress the same. We both want to belong, but to be seen as a separate, autonomous individual.
Case in point, I know eco-tourism is supposed to be more genuine and respectful of both the environment and the people who live there, but isn’t it also just a strange manifestation of the same elitist, separatist motivation? Or worse, isn’t it a bit self-congratulatory? By lessening our impact aren’t we actually amplifying our feeling of separation from the environment? Aren’t you still gawking at locals?
I suppose, as with all things, there are gradations. There are probably as many lovely eco-tourism companies as there are fraudulent, manipulative ones.
Or, maybe some people enjoy the tourist label, be it eco or otherwise. Maybe it gives them a feeling of superiority that they otherwise lack. Maybe this is what I push back against. Or, maybe it’s because it is an “industry.”
The term “tourist,” to me, carries with it a sense of haplessness, an unwillingness to be part of the new environment at which one is looking. It reminds me of gender studies and the power inequities of the “male gaze.” There is a sense of entitlement that comes with masculine looking and frequently a refusal to accept that it is not always welcomed. I know I’ve done it. I know I do it.
The “tourist gaze” too can evoke a similar sense of separateness and superiority. It objectifies the subject of the gaze and reduces it to a consumable commodity, one that can be shared through Instagram and earn more Likes.
But, is it always this way? Can I photograph something with genuine appreciation and an have an urge to share that does not simultaneously diminish the subject? Can a selfie actually honor a subject, or does it by its very nature make the thing being photographed into simply an ornament of the self and thereby devalue it?
These questions, and many others, come up for me because I look like a tourist. My complexion makes me stand out; I can’t help it. Despite the fact that I have lived in Morocco for more than six months now, I still get lumped in with every other Western-looking tourist, especially in larger cities such as Marrakech or Fes.
Even though I speak the local language with some developing skill, even though I have friends who are Moroccan, even though I work and live in Morocco, even though I wear traditional Moroccan clothes on occasion, there will always, at minimum, be a moment of pause and consideration. I will always be seen as different. Perhaps, that is what makes me the tourist that I reject.
I want to yell out, “Mashi tourist!” (Not a tourist!), but at the same time, I do not begrudge anyone trying to make a living. The simple fact is that European tourists will spend more money. A Moroccan friend of mine said that it’s not uncommon for taxis to pass by Moroccans in big cities in pursuit of bigger game. And, by looking like a tourist, I reap those benefits.
Maybe, I am overthinking all of this. But, as I grow more fond by the day of this country and its people, I want to always be mindful of how I represent them and the lives we share together.
So, what is a tourist? Well, to me, it is intent. Much has been written lately about poverty porn, when people revel is images, soundbites, and documentaries about the poor but take no action. They simply talk about it to pretend they are more empathetic. I think that serves as a good barometer. Do my actions harm the character of real people either intentionally or unintentionally? Does my photograph honor or teach without degradation? I see a tourist as someone who treats the subject as entertainment and does not attempt to engage human to human, heart to heart, hand in hand.
And, to lighten things up… here are some goats at the Rabat zoo just hanging out, spittin’, and being bros.