Sunday, April 17, 2011

Thailand 2011 - Don't Be a Tourist

This is a pretty heavy entry, so for those who are more interested in the adventures and excitement of travel please feel free to read another post. 

I am a traveler, not a tourist. After today, the term 'tourist' leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Today was a hard day, not as a filmmaker but as a human being. We were witnesses to a horrific car accident coming down a hill in Phuket that killed 5 people and injured 15 more. Among the deceased were two girls: an 11 year old and a 3 year old. They were all paying respect to Buddha at the end of the Songkran and collided with an Australian bus heading up to the Big Buddha.

I won't be describing what I saw or what it was like seeing someone dead like that for the first time. I will say that I will never forget that image, and the anguish that only death can bring.

I'm here to discuss the plague of being a tourist. As the Big Buddha is a huge destination here in Phuket, many vans and busses filled with tourists were backed up on the hill as paramedics and police attended to the scene. We were stopped for nearly an hour, and everyone was crowded together on the road. Everyone wanted to know what was going on, which is natural when there is an event like this.

What disgusted me to the point of rage was how the tourists reacted to it all. To many, it was a spectacle. Anybody with a camera was snapping pictures of the bodies laying on the ground, and the people with DSLR's acted as if they had media passes and were getting close-up shots of these people on the ground. 

Unfortunately, I've seen this kind of behavior before. It is a tourist mentality. When they are on vacation, everything and everyone is out to cater to them. Laws do not apply, and neither does morality or ethics. They treat each and every event as if it's an attraction in a theme park…as part of the story to share with their friends when they get back home.

As a photographer and filmmaker, I understand the concept of visual storytelling. I also understand that images are sacred. You are taking an image of an event in time: whether it be a flower on a tree or a tragedy on a Thailand highway, that image immortalizes that moment forever. You should take images for the following reasons: as a keepsake for yourself, to share with others, or both. People do make money, yes, but that falls under the category of sharing with others. 

I also understand the nature of journalism, and the obligation a photographer has to covering a story without censorship or bias. These kind of images tell a very powerful story, and you do what is necessary to tell that story. But even then, journalists know how to cover a story to respect and protect the families of the victims involved. It is treated delicately, with a journalist covering a story in the most respectful manner possible.

These people….these tourists, they were unintentionally vindictive. This isn't their story to tell, yet they feel entitled to snap photos because of the DSLR hanging on their neck. Do you honestly think that the father cradling his dead daughter wants pictures taken of him so you can share that with your network of friends? This message is for everyone who owns a DSLR: just because you have a camera doesn't make you a photographer. 

The worst part is I cannot blame them for doing this: they are only tourists after all. When visiting another culture or country, they entitle themselves to do what they please. They are on vacation after all, and are spending their hard earned money to come to this place. 

This isn't a black and white issue, and there are other people who are tried and true travelers. When they visit a foreign culture, they immerse themselves. They talk with the locals and treat them as equal, human beings. They are polite. They leave a small and positive footprint on the community that they are a part of for this short time. A traveler knows how each and every thing he or she does has an affect on the local community, and that they must be respectful and conscious of their habits and self at all times.

I've noticed that humans tend to believe in some kind of hierarchy. One group of people is better than the other. There is always a superior and inferior demographic. As an American, a competitive culture like the one I live in seems to demand a winner and a loser. If you don't go to school, you are inferior to those with a degree. If you graduated with honors, you are superior to your peers who just managed to make it through. If you're married and rich at 30, you are better than the guy who volunteers for a living and is broke and single. 

Notice anything wrong with this? If you have a soul, you probably do. Now I challenge you to do something about it. Most of us accept this reality and play that sick and twisted game. I know I did…for a very long time. I was a tourist: going through life as if a degree, a job, a wife and 2.5 kids was entitled to me. 

Entitlement…that's what it comes down to. You aren't entitled to anything in this life. Life is way too turbulent to think that way. We're all here for such a brief existence, and it is your job as a member of humanity to make that experience wonderful for not only yourself, but for everyone you encounter. It's also your job as a human being to recognize the precious gift of life, and to respect that gift. Simply put:

Don't be a tourist - be a traveler. 


  1. Very well written, and I couldn't agree more.

    Just because someone speaks a different language, eats different foods, and lives in a hut instead of a house doesn't make them any less human. A traveler seems to understand this. They understand that people around the world are one and the same, and that everyone has the same basic needs.

    A tourist, however, seems to easily forget the meaning of humanity when they are in a place that is alien to them.

  2. Ryan excellent observation of humanity. I am so glad you are a good human being and not just a mere traveler. Good luck in your travels.

  3. Ryan, your father shared this with me -and we had a similar experience here, this last week. Horrific. Yes. A well written piece here too --

  4. Thanks Tom! I'm glad you're following.

    It's something I really don't like to think about too much...but it's good from time to time to realize how precious life is, and how we must respect the lives of others. Traveling is a sacred ritual: you are a guest there. Thailand is so welcoming too (as you probably know), and to act in that way is terrible and distasteful.