The twenty-first century tourist can get a bad rap: it’s easy to conjure images of loud-mouthed Americans clad in sneakers and Hawaiian shirts, snapping photos of the Colosseum with bedazzled iPhones.

But the tourist has had a bad reputation long before the age of the smartphone “selfie.” In his 1980 book Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars, the late cultural and literary critic Paul Fussell expresses his disdain for the tourist who plays the role of mindless consumer. Here, Fussell makes a distinction between the “explorer,” the “traveler,” and the “tourist”:

If the explorer moves toward the risks of the formless and the unknown, the tourist moves toward the security of the pure cliché. It is between these two poles that the traveler mediates, retaining all he can of the excitement of the unpredictable attaching to exploration, and fusing that with the pleasure of ‘knowing where one is’ belonging to tourism.

According to Fussell, the age of exploration was eclipsed by the age of travel, which in turn was eclipsed by the age of tourism. Fussell claims that the last great age of travel was the period between the two world wars. “We are all tourists now, and there is no escape,” he declares.

Is it thus possible to recapture the spirit of the traveler in the twenty-first century, even if Fussell’s romanticized age of travel has long since passed? In the following online pieces from The Common magazine, four writers grapple with the distinction between tourist and traveler in their own ways.

 1. The Shopping Mall Tourist (a.k.a. “The Dubai Dilemma”)

Fussell is especially disdainful of the connection between tourism and consumerism: “One striking post-Second War phenomenon has been the transformation of numerous former small countries into pseudo-places or tourist commonwealths, whose function is simply to entice tourists and sell them things,” he writes. Sahiba Gill’s essay, “Great or What,” brings this observation to the fore as she discusses the rise and “death” of the present-day staple of consumerism: malls. Gill writes about the lavishness of the Dubai Mall in particular, with its “Cheesecake Factory, dinosaur skeleton, and fourteen dedicated lingerie stores.” In doing so, she touches on a dilemma of the twenty-first century tourist: is it ever possible to be a traveler—not a tourist—in a place whose economy is so centered on consumerism?

2. When in Rome, Avoid the Obvious

In “When Not in Rome: Tips for Touring Middle Italy,” Katie Cortese offers some unique advice you might never find in a guidebook. She urges visitors to trust strangers, collect wild herbs, and take naps, rather than speed to the next tourist attraction. Though Fussell claims that “travel is impossible and that tourism is all we have left,” Cortese gets closer to Fussell’s ideal traveler by paying attention to minute details and engaging with the local community, despite language barriers. Cortese’s essay suggests that being a tourist does not necessarily mean snapping photos at every turn and buying a slew of souvenirs.

“Count shades of green out your window,” she writes. “If you come up with less than seventeen then you’re doing something wrong.”

3. The Tourist Trap

Marian Crotty’s essay, “Touring History,” explores the experience of feeling “misled” as a tourist. While visiting St. Augustine, Florida, Crotty finds herself dissatisfied with the city’s transformation into a “tourist trap”: she’s unhappy to find that “the center of the city is stuffed with kitsch, sold in small, locally owned businesses that feel like airport gift shops.” Crotty hopes to learn more about St. Augustine’s history, but she finds the city’s historical exhibits “predictably incomplete and one-sided.” Crotty’s frustration brings to mind Fussell, who writes, “The sense that [the tourist] is being swindled and patronized, or that important intelligence is being withheld from him, must trouble even the dimmest at one time or another.”

4. An Honest Tour Guide

In “Tour Guide,” Nina Puro writes from Northern New Mexico, observing everything from the locals’ taste for food that “hurts them as they eat it” to more obscure details, such as mourning practices and historical facts about the various communities and people. Fussell insists that “Tour guides are touts by nature, required to lead tourists to shops where purchases result in commissions.” But despite her title, Puro pushes against our expectations of typical tour guides, who tend only to show us the positive aspects of a given location. Puro instead offers us a travel log of sorts, writing from a place that lies somewhere between a tourist, a local, and a historian.

Image credit: Giorgio Galeotti via flickr