A few years ago, after finishing a journey in the Indian Himalayas, I traveled to the desert state of Rajasthan and visited the Hindu holy-town of Pushkar. A scenic outpost of 13,000 residents, Pushkar was famous for its Brahma Temple, its serene lake, and its annual Camel Fair. Several travelers had recommended it to me as a mellow place to relax for a few days.
From the moment I arrived in Pushkar, however, something seemed strange about the little holy-town. As I walked along the shores of Pushkar Lake, a number of long-bearded, monk-like sadhus approached me and suggested I take their photo for the bargain price of 15 rupees; Brahmin priests kept hustling up and offering to take me through a puja ceremony for just 50 rupees. Having spent the previous two weeks in the sleepy villages of far-northern India, this lakeside hustle made me feel like I was in some bizarre new universe. Prior to Pushkar, no Indian had ever implied that there was a cash value to puja (a Hindu ablution ritual), and most of the sadhus I’d seen were more interested in piety and asceticism than photo opportunities.
The more I wandered the streets of Pushkar, the more I discovered this off-kilter synthesis of culture and commerce. In the bazaar, teenage Rajasthani girls relentlessly offered to dye my hands with henna (a ritual typically reserved for Hindu brides), and cheap paper flyers touted competing yoga academies. Perplexed, I retreated to a lakeside restaurant for a cup of tea. When the host offered me food, I asked him what kind of dishes he offered — thinking he might specialize in tandoori or thali or biryani.
“Oh, we serve Indian food,” he said. “But we also have Mexican food, Chinese food, Italian food, Greek food, and Israeli food.”
“But which food is your specialty?” I asked.
“We specialize in all those foods,” he replied with a cheerful wobble of the head. “Plus we have vegetarian hamburgers and banana pancakes. But we’re out of granola right now.”
Peering around at the other diners in the restaurant, I finally figured out what was going on: Pushkar was a Tourist Zone.
On the surface, of course, Pushkar didn’t seem much like a Tourist Zone: There were no glitzy hotels, no air-conditioned knickknack boutiques, no busloads of sunburned Germans and chubby Texans. Moreover, had you surveyed Pushkar’s visitors, you would have mainly found independent travelers — young wanderers from Europe and North America and Israel, who shunned guided tours and took a genuine interest in Hindu culture.
Still, despite the earnestness of its travelers, Pushkar was very much a Tourist Zone — place that had subtly shifted to cater to the needs of its visitors. Only instead of churning out the standard tourist products (postcards, audio tours, spa treatments), Pushkar had developed a makeshift economy in Hindu “authenticity” (exotically dressed sadhus, quick-fix puja rituals, high-turnover yoga ashrams). After several years of popularity on the backpacker circuit, the residents of Pushkar hadn’t gotten greedy; they’d merely become adept at packaging all of the Indian symbols and rituals that indie travelers found whimsically attractive (as well as a few choice Western amenities, like familiar-sounding food and Internet cafés).
As is the case with so many other traveler haunts around the world, the authentic culture of Pushkar had become difficult to discern from the culture that had been spontaneously adjusted to feed visitors’ notions of “authenticity”. And, in this way, it had become a Tourist Zone.
As independent travelers, of course, we like to assume that we’re above the workings of Tourist Zones. But, as the example of Pushkar illustrates, we have a way of creating our own, more organic tourist areas, whether we intend to or not. Look closely, and you’ll notice that some of the most colorful indie-traveler hangouts in the world — Panahajachel in Guatemala, Dali in China, Dahab in Egypt — have as much in common with each other as they do their host-cultures. Granted, these places retain their own geographical and cultural distinction, but each location shares a laid-back predilection for catering to the aesthetic and recreational needs of Western budget travelers.
Thus, keeping in mind that much of our time as travelers involves moving in and out of Tourist Zones, here are a few tips for making sense of things:
1) Learn to identify Tourist Zones
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a Tourist Zone, but it helps to know when you’re in one, as it will affect how you relate to people. Tourist Zones include airports, hotels, bus and train stations, major city centers, historical venues, pilgrimage sites, nature parks, national monuments, and anyplace where travelers congregate in large numbers — including sleepy backpacker hangouts.
2) Mind your manners
Though interaction with locals in Tourist Zones can often be impersonal and transaction-based, be sure to abide by the simple rules of courtesy. Even when dealing with pushy vendors and aggressive touts, a firm, courteous “no thanks” is always better than an angry rebuff.
3) Tourist Zones serve an economic purpose for the people who live there
In Tourist Zones, many locals will use friendship as a front to tout hotels or sell souvenirs. And, as annoying as this can be, remember that most locals will take a genuine interest in you, even as they try to sell you things. In this way, many of your interactions as you travel will be with folks who are offering a service — cab drivers, guesthouse clerks, shopkeepers. Thus, be aware that you occupy an economic dynamic wherever you go — and that there is no particular virtue in compulsively avoiding expenses (especially when many of those expenses are of direct benefit to local families).
4) Dare to travel outside of Tourist Zones
Invariably, the easiest way to get out of Tourist Zones and into a more authentic setting is to visit villages and neighborhoods that aren’t in any guidebooks or travel websites — places where other travelers never think to go. Normal safety precautions are in order, of course, but half the charm in travel is finding places where granola, pizza, and veggie burgers aren’t on the menu.
[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on May 22, 2006. All rights reserved.]