Much of the formal discussion the AGS group engaged in during our trip to South Africa revolved around some of the students’ general angst about fulfilling the role of a tourist. After all, most of us are used to being “locals” in New York City, and some of us have probably looked with disdain at least once upon the selfie-stick-wielding masses that flood the city year after year. It is this role reversal that we experienced upon arriving in South Africa that initially left many people uncomfortable. Some expressed desire to break free from the mold and see the “real” Johannesburg/Cape Town/South Africa, but it was never really clear what this meant. Did it mean living like nearly half of the population does, in some form of poverty?1 Or did it mean going to trendy, lesser-known areas and establishments so we could feel accepted by the wealthier citizens of South Africa as more than just American tourists? I’m still not sure.
It was this preoccupation with our appearance and high visibility that many of us got hung up on, including myself for a little bit. But if the NYU student leaves behind the casual elitist and tourist-disparaging attitude, said student can enjoy the experiences for what they are: some of the best sights and establishments that a place has to offer. After all, one doesn’t spend 16 hours hurtling through space in close quarters in an aluminum tube just to shy away from the most popular attractions of that region. One can dismiss many of these attractions as mere tourist traps, but to do so would be to shamefully neglect their awe-inspiring capabilities and historical value. Very few of the attractions we went to were tourist traps, in the sense that they had very little to offer the visitors yet attracted many. Nearly all of the activities we engaged in had some kind of value, whether it was aesthetic, academic, spiritual, or cultural. One would be hard-pressed to make the case otherwise.
Still, the constant vilification of tourists, especially the American variety who visit certain communities, makes it easy to see why a group of Gallatin students from NYU could have been so very conscious of themselves and the effects of their presence on the locals around them. I think that it was our reluctance to be seen as the typical American tourist that in some ways limited our enjoyment. Such a consciousness is important and infinitely preferable to being blissfully ignorant, obnoxious, and culturally unaware, but at a certain point it can hinder one’s appreciation of a place or peoples, which becomes a detriment to the entire trip and the ideal behind it.
Touring a new country is in many ways like getting to know someone. When people meet for the first time, they generally want to make the best impression. If you’re in a position of power (i.e., a tourist with money), the person receiving you is probably going to be polite and welcoming, but you won’t get to know them entirely. Only in time will you get to know them more fully, including all their flaws and faults. As a tourist, you dip into places and see the best that they have to offer, getting a taste of what the citizens are most proud of and willing to share with you. This is completely understandable for short trips like ours, given that one can only get to know a place so well in two weeks—although I think our trip agenda was excellently planned in terms of diversity and breadth.
So you might as well enjoy the sights. They’re popular for a reason.