The term “travel gem” gets thrown around a lot in the course of conversation and within guidebook pages, travel blog posts, and tweets. Recently, I’ve seen the phrase used to describe everything from packing tips to blogs to recommended destinations. It’s this latter usage that’s the most ubiquitous, and the one that can be the most misleading when planning your trip.
I stumbled upon some folks berating a person for choosing to go to a town that “the locals would never go to,” and “why would they choose that place when there are so many travel gems nearby?” This triggered two responses from me: 1) A strong desire to call them a-holes, and 2) wondering if the chosen destination truly had no redeeming qualities, and what were the qualities that separated the unnamed destination of disdain from the so-called “travel gem?”
Given my propensity for analysis, I couldn’t resist breaking this down and sharing my thoughts with you.
Now with “Very Few Tourists!”
It seems a large part of recommending a place as a travel gem hinges on the perceived volume of tourists*. Words like “undiscovered,” “pristine,” and “unspoiled” get first billing as travel gem adjectives. The obvious irony is that by traveling to a place you are doing your small part to remove the travel gem moniker. You are a tourist and your presence detracts! But not just any old un-touristed town makes the grade for a travel gem. If that were the case, my home state of Wisconsin would be a tourist’s diamond mine.
No, there needs to be tourist infrastructure too.
And by that I mean B&Bs, hotels, parks, restaurants, museums, monuments, natural beauty, etc. Whether we like to admit it or not, these are important elements that contribute to the overall enjoyment of the place for most tourists. I’m not talking about Starbucks- and McDonald’s-ing the town, I mean locally-owned and operated infrastructure that highlights the unique qualities of the place.
The need for this infrastructure is a function of time – if we could all spend weeks and months in a town, perhaps we wouldn’t use tourist information centers and guidebooks as frequently. We’d have the time and luxury to flush out all of the fun quirks and memorable idiosyncrasies on our own. It’s not just about how few tourists there are, so think twice when someone recommends that tiny village off in the mountains opposite your travel path (Wait! Wait! Before you object, there’s more on this below). Will you have enough time to find the appreciation the place surely deserves?
It’s all about balance. I’ve been to cities where the tourist infrastructure overpowered everything else (I’m looking at you Venice) and places where it was so lacking I was bored to tears (hello Braga and Inverary).
The Local Fallacy
And that is, do not equate travel gems with locals’ vacation destinations. This is what happened in the conversation that kicked off this post. Think about it. As tourists, we want authentic experiences that feel foreign or different from what we’re used to in our daily lives. So do locals going on vacation – we’re the same. Local or foreigner, we’re often seeking the “different” when we travel. Some travel gems might sit at the nexus of these two paths, but a local’s vacation destination does not automatically become a travel gem for foreign tourists.
Weeds Are Flowers in the Wrong Garden
So your buddy just got back from a trip and he said you have to go to a certain town. He met the best people, the food was incredible, so much to do – it was “epic.” Mmmhmm. You were just there a few weeks ago and you hated it. What gives? Ultimately, and why the original conversation above left such a bad taste in my mouth, I think travel gems are person-specific. You know, the whole eye of the beholder idea. When you read about travel gems, think about whether you have the same goals and travel style as the person giving the recommendation. If you don’t know, think again. Don’t blindly book a ticket. That is, unless you’re just as happy with whatever may come, even if that’s the tourist equivalent of fool’s gold.
What are some of your travel gems? Have you ever had one turn out to be fool’s gold?
*Please note that I am not making any distinction between tourists and travelers.
Listening to: This Will Destroy You
Drinking: New Glarus Brewing’s Moon Man
Original photo by ToNToN CoPT via Flickr under Creative Commons