The Guilty Traveler

The complexities of being an American tourist in an inequitable world

I know where I was sitting the moment I wrote the line.

I was in an Internet café off a dirty street in Cusco, Peru. The city was built by the Incas and conquered by the Spanish, who supposedly covered much of it in gold, but today European twentysomethings with dreadlocks walk down the streets without shoes and crippled beggars whine for change in the town square.

“Poor people are happier,” I'd written on my blog, a new tool for me at the time and my primary means of updating friends and family on my three-month travels through South America.

Even then, I felt embarrassed by my hasty generalization, which I knew smacked of ignorance. But I was feeling bold, in touch with a new reality. Here, people lived simply, seemingly content with bootleg CDs, nonorganic vegetables, and a lack of order. Seat-belt laws and emissions standards? Peru seemed just fine without them.

Like a college freshman who, upon reading Nietzsche for the first time, buys her parents a copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra for Christmas, I wanted to tell everyone about my discovery. Even though I'd spent a summer studying abroad in Europe and had briefly visited Turkey and Nepal, on this trip I'd found an even bigger world outside the United States—one that included vast amounts of poverty and, yet, joyful people.

Seeing this new world also meant acknowledging a deep, nagging guilt. After all, I was a white, educated, middle-class American who'd been born into unquestionable opportunity. And I'd needed this trip to really begin to contemplate the realities of the developing world and my relationship to it. No book, movie, or essay had ever pushed me to evaluate my identity in the same way. The daily sights, from men urinating in bushes along the side of the road to schoolchildren skipping to class in neatly pressed uniforms, prompted me to form many theories and make quick declarations. My emotions ran high.

I knew the danger of my position. Travel tends to bend truths, obscuring an otherwise clear gaze with a mysterious gauze. Was I making valuable insights or simply seeing what I wanted to see? Did these insights make traveling more than 4,500 miles from home worth the time, money, and resources? Did they justify my cultural voyeurism and contribution to a tourism infrastructure?

And was I a tourist or a traveler? I use the words interchangeably but will admit that I prefer the term “traveler.” For me, “tourist” conjures up images of resort vacations, jet-boat tours, and plastic replicas of the Great Wall of China. As a “traveler,” my time away from home seems more purposeful and imbued with meaning, admittedly a possible fallacy.

My mother, who worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan during the late '60s, was appalled by my blog statement. “Lucy, really,” she said within hours of arriving in Cusco, the starting point for our two weeks of travel together. “Why would you say that? It's just ridiculous.”

We were drinking coca tea in a house owned by Mary, a jovial single mother who supported her teenage boy by renting out rooms to tourists attending a local Spanish language school. When Mary found out my mother was coming for a visit, she requested a gift from America: a bottle of multivitamins.

The feedback about my blog kept coming. “Your line about poor people really got people talking,” my friend Pam wrote in an e-mail. “Way to go!”

I'll admit, she made me feel some sense of accomplishment. In my ideal world, more people would openly discuss the relationship between poverty and happiness. Yes, in many cases these discussions would reveal ignorance (ahem). But at least people would be talking. I've noticed that these types of discussions happen more frequently and with greater ease among people who travel, both when they're at home and on the road.

Why? Because travel is stimulating, whether you're visiting a Starbucks in Rome or watching a dung beetle in Africa. Many travelers are fueled by curiosity about identity, culture, money, the natural world, art, history, commodities, architecture, food, ritual, and the nature of happiness. Each discovery creates more questions. Curiosities bloom and one trip inspires the next, which seems admirable. After all, we travelers are pursuing knowledge and connections—noble aims.

So why do I feel so guilty about loving to travel?

In the book A Small Place, Jamaica Kincaid bitterly describes tourism from the perspective of a local in her native country, Antigua. She calls it a phenomenon that triggers feelings of envy and inequity among native people, who are “too poor to escape the reality of their lives” and “too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go.”

How can you walk through the slums of Kathmandu on your way to a several-thousand-dollar, two-week trek on the Everest Trail and not feel guilty because you inspire envy in the locals? You can't. But does that mean you should've stayed home?


Tourism and money have always been intertwined. During the Middle Ages, small European towns built new cathedrals to lure religious pilgrims, who otherwise wouldn't have set foot there. Ultimately, the cathedral would augment the town's wealth thanks to the pilgrims' need for food, drink, and lodging (and speculatively, some early type of souvenir). But wealth came at a price. The town would be flooded with outsiders, and a new industry would become dependent on their presence.

These types of visitors, who arrive in a foreign place seeking something they can't find at home, continue to influence economies. As Roxann Prazniak, associate professor of history at the University of Oregon, puts it, “The dollar disrupts the local culture but also sustains it. You can't dichotomize those things.”

Steve and Bonnie Gibons, owners of Scappoose Bay Kayaking, lead group tours to Belize each year. Because they return to the same spots each time, the couple has made friends with the locals in a small, poor jungle village on the tour's itinerary. While Steve says he's pleased to bring American tourists to the village so the locals can sell their handicrafts to a captive audience instead of having to peddle the crafts on nearby beaches, he worries the village will become too financially dependent on him. “If I don't go back down there, they're still going to have to walk the beaches,” he says.

I, too, feel how money connects me to people I meet abroad. For me, as a writer for guidebooks, magazines, or newspapers, money binds me to those who also earn their livings from tourism. As I shared large lunches of rice, beans, and stuffed avocados with Mary in Peru, I felt how she needed me, the tourist, for survival, just as much as I needed travelers to plop down funds for trips inspired by one of my articles or books.

While researching a guidebook in Ecuador last year, I witnessed how I could almost guarantee someone's livelihood for the next few years by choosing to include a certain restaurant or hotel in the book. In one small town in the cloud forests outside Quito, a woman wanted to give me gifts to take to the guidebook's previous author. She told me that because he included a positive mention of her husband's bird-guiding service in the earlier edition, they were able to pay for the education of their eight-year-old disabled daughter.

She called to her daughter, who wandered into the house and immediately tried to play with my hair. I froze. As a guidebook author, had I suddenly become responsible for this child's education?

Gibons says the benefits of tourism can outweigh the existence of these complicated financial relationships, in particular for visitors. “We get to meet other human beings who are coming from different directions in life,” he says. “We hope the experience will alter the visitors and help them appreciate other humans and another way of living.”

While many trips and programs abroad encourage these types of profound connections, money can create separations, says Prazniak, who frequently travels internationally to study art. This past spring, she taught at a university in Siena, Italy, where she says some students from Oregon seemed intent on being “good tourists” by seeing as many countries as possible, which meant hopping on trains during the weekends and spending money in other locations. These busy travelers became more connected to the tourism infrastructure in Europe, which meant speaking more English and meeting more Americans. From Prazniak's perspective, the students who couldn't afford to travel on the weekends experienced a more profound immersion in Italian language and culture.

But no matter how much they spend, at home or abroad, Americans are viewed as wealthy, says Erik Wolf, a Portland resident who operates a global culinary tourism program and has visited sixty countries during the course of his travels. “People still view Americans as having tons of cash, an image propagated by the media,” he says. “They think every American has a huge house, flies around the world in their own jet, and drives huge cars, just like on the TV show Dallas.”

That false image can help alleviate any potential guilt: it's easy to dismiss a nasty stereotype. But compared to many populations in the world, Americans do have more disposable income. In 2007, the average full-time income in the United States was $49,483 compared to $15,446 in Poland. An estimated 982 million people in developing countries live on $1.25 a day or less, so most Americans are relatively well off. But Wolf says that generalizations based on some truth can become inflated and damaging. When conducting business transactions abroad, he frequently asks non-American colleagues to make real estate transactions for him in order to avoid the “American tax,” the automatic inflation of a price to correspond with his nationality.

Despite the stereotypes awaiting Americans abroad, about 30 percent of Americans have passports, according to the U.S. State Department, a larger number than in the past because of a relatively new passport requirement for visiting Canada and Mexico. While it's difficult to track precisely how many passport holders actually leave the country, many Americans do travel abroad, despite the global perception to the contrary.

Why do we willingly enter the murky territories of cultural identity, wealth, dependencies, and stereotypes? The answer matters, as does the character of the traveler, at least to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who claimed he didn't oppose travel, if the traveler set off for the right reasons. “He who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself, and grows old even in youth among old things,” he wrote. “In Thebes, in Palmyra, his will and mind have become old and dilapidated as they. He carries ruins to ruins.”

Most people I asked, all of whom considered themselves travelers rather than tourists, rejected the idea that traveling in search of something you lack causes harm or delusion. Their assumption is that any journey prompts positive, personal growth.

Julie Resnick, a cross-cultural trainer and consultant who frequently helps Nike employees relocate outside their native countries, says putting yourself in a foreign place where you don't understand the language or the culture is humbling. “The first person you meet when you get off a plane in a foreign culture is yourself,” she says. “It's such a formative experience. You learn more about yourself and your culture from that incredible vantage point.”

Local public relations consultant Kathleen Mazzocco, who aims to leave the United States once a year on vacation, agrees. “In a foreign environment, I didn't have reference points for all my habits,” she says. “All of a sudden it became really clear what I should do in my life. I haven't found another way to have those kinds of insights.”

I know what she means. After trips abroad, I usually come home and notice my unnecessary stuff, from clothes and shoes to books and kitchen gadgets. By living out of one bag and spending time in societies that place less of an emphasis on material things (sometimes because their citizens can afford few extras), it's easier to see how my stuffed closets give me a false sense of comfort and security.

Also, my post-trip self softens a bit. I become more patient, especially when interacting with strangers, such as the people who serve me food, process my mail, or fix my car. Travel helps me realize that my time is no more important than anyone else's and that the world is a kind place where strangers help each other without promise of reward. I strive to be one of those strangers.

As I bask in my humanity, I wonder if Emerson would endorse my wanderings as non-amusement? I like to think so, but I'm not ready to simply sit back and enjoy the ride. Because as travelers, or tourists, if we justify all our journeys with the pursuit of growth and noble aims, any guilt for being well off, educated, or in a position to escape the monotony of our daily lives can too easily be stored out of sight. Next stop? Detachment and delusion, no matter what the country code.

Perhaps guilt should be placed in a more accessible overhead compartment, tucked alongside more glowing thoughts of equitable financial exchanges, cultural understanding, and self-improvement. Only when we acknowledge guilt, can we really begin to venture into new worlds.


Economics, Place, Global and Local


1 comments have been posted.

I related to the mixed feelings raised in this article. I believe they have lead to me to "rationalize" not venturing to some foreign lands thereby losing the opportunity to experience the complex but life affirming moments of getting out of one's comfort zone. The insights above will help me do so in the new year. Thanks!

Todd Lester | December 2019 | Asheville

Also in this Issue

Seeking and Finding

The Guilty Traveler


The Crossing

Far from Home

Here, Not There

Distance as an Illusion

Irreconcilable Dissonance