David Cogswell | November 10, 2015 12:00 PM ET
What Makes a Tourist Attraction?
Tourism is usually defined by itineraries structured around the “must-see” sights in any given destination. We see lists of them: the places you cannot miss you when go somewhere if you want to cross the place off your list and say you’ve “done” it.
I’m not sure what happens to people who don’t see a must-see sight. Maybe I should be concerned because there are certainly thousands of must-see sights I have never seen, and never will see.
There are many must-see sights even in places I have been that I have not seen. There are must-see sights in New York City I haven’t seen, many of them, and I have lived in the New York metropolitan area for decades. When it comes to must-see sights, I’m in really pathetic shape. And time is running out.
I know people who are determined, when they go somewhere, to see all those places and they end up running around like crazy. Like the proverbial beheaded chicken, going nowhere fast.
I even think my motivation for seeing must-see sights is running out. I just can’t get myself fired up to work on that list and get them done.
When it comes down to it, that’s just not what travel is about for me.
I have nothing against the must-see sights. Most of them, if not all of them really are worthwhile. I myself have had many places I was determined to see in my lifetime, such as the Great Pyramids, Antarctica, Machu Picchu and many others. I’ve seen many of them. I’ve still missed most of them by far.
There are many must-see sights in the U.S. that I’ve been close to, passed right by and still haven’t seen. And that includes places I really would like to see, like the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls.
It’s not that I don’t think the things on the must-see list are great. Most of them, or at least many of them, I do think are great. But when I go somewhere, seeing the must-see sights is not my top priority.
What I find myself liking to do when I go somewhere is to just absorb the place, the feeling of the place, the atmosphere. I like to dig into an area and get to know it, maybe spend a while tracing and retracing my steps along a particular avenue, really becoming familiar with it.
I also like to go back to the same places over and over. I don’t tend to cross places off my list unless I just don’t like them. They stay on my list. They’re never “done.”
Itineraries built around going to different sites and experiencing different activities provide structure to a trip. They punctuate the trip. They create “moment signs,” markers for the time you spent somewhere. But through them all, and tying them all together, is the underlying experience of the place. That is what really counts. And that doesn’t come through from a particular must-see sight. It is absorbed throughout all of the marking points of the itinerary and in all the moments in between.
Tour operators have come to understand this by paying attention to their clients and that’s why today’s tour operators are no longer selling sightseeing, they are selling experience. They realize that what people really want is beyond the “tourist attraction.” You don’t need a theme park or some kind of commercial venue to enjoy Paris. In fact, often those kinds of “attractions” often serve to screen out the authentic experience of a place by placing an artificial veneer over it.
Tour operators have learned that what is best about a place is right there in front of you all the time in every part of the place. The whole, or the essence of the whole, is contained within every part. You absorb it through the whole combination of experiences you have there. And the real marrow of a place is the people. As the National Geographic program World Without Humans showed dramatically, without humans around to maintain its workings, everything we know as civilization, including most of these must-see sights, would crumble rapidly.
If you try to imagine Paris, for example, without the people, it would be strange indeed. Not much of an attraction. Ultimately it is the people that make a place what it is. And again, to return to tour operators, they learned years ago that their profession would not survive if they persisted in basing their tours and travel programs merely on seeing must-see sights and attractions. What people really want is to get down with the people.
Travelers want to interact with people, experience them and their culture, their ways of life. They want to experience the place as if they were visiting friends there.
What tour operators can do is help facilitate that interaction. As a profession, tour operators have proven themselves to be extremely creative and resourceful in finding ways to use the assets that they have, such as their knowledge and their contacts, to structure opportunities for those kinds of meaningful interactions with the people who live in the place you are visiting.
That is the marrow of the experience of travel. And that is the purpose of the itinerary and the events and sightseeing within it. It all works together to form the whole experience, which you can then digest when you go home. You can spend the rest of your life contemplating it, absorbing it.
Running a very close second to people in importance to travelers is nature itself. Travelers want a meaningful interaction with nature. Interaction with nature always includes people. People are part of nature too, so people remain the most important component of the travel experience even when the ultimate objective is an interaction with nature. You need people to guide you, to teach you about the nature you are encountering.
These are really the most important things in travel: people, including their culture and history, and nature. Everything else is just there to give structure to the experience, to provide opportunities to have those fundamental experiences that help you get to the marrow of the place you are digging into.
So when I go to a place I like to take in a few of the must-see sights, but not too many. I don’t want to get too distracted from the main business of my being there, which is just … being there.
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