What Is A Tourist Trap? And Is It A Bad Thing?

Yesterday I wrote a post entitled “The Joys Of Traveling To A New Place With No Expectations,” in which I talk about my experience in Colombia so far.

So far I’ve been in Cartagena for two days, and love it. The food, people, scenery, and architecture really make this place. But as I noted yesterday, Cartagena isn’t exactly a tourist hotspot for Americans.

While JetBlue and Avianca fly between New York and Cartagena (4x weekly and 3x weekly, respectively), we’ve only overheard one other person speaking in an “American English” accent. So I’m not trying to act like I’ve traveled to Pluto and am somewhere no one has been before, but I do get the distinct impression that this place isn’t frequented by Americans. That’s not to say there aren’t tourists — there certainly are, from Canada, Brazil, Argentina, etc. But even when accounting for them, I don’t consider the city to be overrun by tourists.

Cartagena-3

Since my post yesterday, multiple readers have commented that Cartagena is a “tourist trap,” and there are much better places to visit. That sort of got me thinking.

My first reaction was “well, then I guess a tourist trap doesn’t have to be a bad thing, since I really like it here.” At the same time, I tend to think anything with the word “trap” in it has a negative connotation.

Wikipedia (if it’s to be trusted) defines a “tourist trap” as follows:

Tourist trap is an establishment, or group of establishments, that has been created or re-purposed with the aim of attracting tourists and their money. Tourist traps will typically provide services, entertainment, food, souvenirs and other products for tourists to purchase.

Alrighty, fair enough. This got me thinking about all the places I’ve visited which people have called “tourists traps,” telling me there are much better places to visit:

  • There’s a reason many places have become “tourist traps,” and it’s probably because in many ways they’re special. That’s not to say that every “tourist trap” lives up to the hype, but there are generally reasons that certain destinations are frequented.
  • “Tourist traps” typically have the proper infrastructure for tourism, meaning there are a variety of well organized things you can safely do.
  • The type of travel I find frustrating is when I go to a popular destination during peak season. For example, Amsterdam is a gorgeous city, but I find being there in summer to be borderline intolerable, as you hear as many people on the streets speaking American English as Dutch. To me that takes the charm out of a place.
  • Some destinations are beautiful and still worth traveling to in peak season. I was just in Queenstown, New Zealand, which is one of my favorite places in the world. It was completely overrun by tourists… but it was still worth it! The weather was incredible, the days were long, and there was so much to do. There’s a reason people flock to Queenstown, and it’s worth it even if the city is overcrowded.

Queenstown

Bottom line

Everyone has a different travel style, and ultimately what matters is that everyone is happy with how they’re traveling. Because you’ve gotta travel for yourself, and not for others.

I do still find the topic of “tourist traps” to be an interesting one, since it seems to have a negative connotation. Personally I don’t mind traveling to a popular destination, be it a huge city (Sydney), a small town with beautiful landscape (Queesntown), or a relaxing island destination (Bali).

What I generally try to avoid is traveling to places during peak season. Even the most popular destinations only have so much capacity, and I find it’s just better to avoid going when places are the busiest, in terms of the overall experience, and also in terms of cost.

What is a “tourist trap” to you? And do you avoid them?

Comments

  1. I lived in Chicago for the longest time, and whenever we had out of town visitors, we avoided taking them to Navy Pier, because that screamed “tourist trap” to me. Instead, the number one visitor’s spot we took, them to was Millennium Park – it’s designed for both residents and tourists alike; yes, there are a lot of tourists, but it wasn’t a “tourist trap” IMO

  2. I don’t know you can apply the term “tourist trap” to an entire city. I would usually use it with respect to specific places, like overpriced and poor-quality restaurants in Times Square that couldn’t stay in business without the tons of people walking by who don’t know better.

    Some cities have more or fewer tourist traps relative to other cities. But most places you can still find some restaurants and other businesses that are worthwhile.

  3. Just returned a few days ago from my first trip to Cartagena and I loved it!! It’s also an absolute bargain. The history of this once Spanish colonial port is fascinating (go to the fort) and there are plenty of local restaurants in the “central” area (outside the old city). Bottom line is that any destination is what you make of it….

  4. I find the term “tourist trap” to be indicative of places that Disney-ize the cultural experience. Like Pier 39 in SF and the Viking Ride in York, England. However, I also find that the people who use the term to poo-poo something a tourist might find interesting are generally travel hipsters. You know, they went to all the “cool” places before they became mainstream, and will go out of their way to tell you how some place you’d like to visit is “too commercial” or “lacks culture anymore”. So whenever I hear that term fall out of some idiot’s wordhole without providing an alternative – which rarely follows, I immediately discount their opinion. If it’s something I want to see, so what? It’s my time/money.

  5. Just went to a so called tourist trap, a couple of days ago, the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Now I will say I got a lot from the experience, saw the temple of the emerald Buddha, and it was just spectacular. However, lines were crazy. It was way overcrowded, people were very loud despite signs to observe silence or at least quiet voices. People were shoving too. I will be honest it took away from the experience. But some tourist traps are worth it. I still got a lot from the experience. I enjoyed seeing the cultural history and our guide did a great job explaining everything to us. But I also look at it in the sense that if you go somewhere what’s the one place someone will ask if you went to. If you say no did you really explore it. Don’t get me wrong I love the unexplored less touristy areas, but when I travel somewhere I definelty want to see the main attraction…I mean who on their first visit to New York doesn’t see a Broadway play, or see the Statue of Liberty?

  6. I remember when I was first heading out to Venice and I mentioned to a friend how excited I was about riding a gondola through the canals and he said “gondolas are such a tourist trap”. I remember thinking…”and…your point is….?”.

  7. This is an interesting topic. I use to live in DC, and parts of the city were just flat out over run, but then again, it gets that way for a reason, there are legitimate attractions there that because they are so popular become traps. Does this make it a tourist trap? I tend to think of a tourist trap as less about the city and more about specific attractions in the city, as noted above. I travel to London a bit, and I know the London Eye falls into this category, but I still love to do it! Having said that I avoid London Tower and other “touristy” sites and go to other parts of the city to explore. But I have been so much I know where to not go. Same goes for Paris. When I go, I tend to avoid all the basic stuff in favor of other parts.

  8. Those hidden gems are getting harder and harder to find. My experience has been that anything worth seeing will eventually morph into a tourist trap if it hasn’t already. And I find most tourist traps worthwhile. Enjoy your holiday!

  9. Usually tourist traps fall into three categories for me: worth it, worth it but not the traditional way, and not worth it. These are subjective based on your interest.

    Some personal examples
    Worth it:
    Manta ray dive/snorkeling in Kona – Major tourist trap but an amazing dive for something so close to the west coast of the US.

    Worth it but not the traditional way:
    Milford Sound, NZ – Gorgeous area and worth going. We took a bus down to meet up with a ferry. If I could do it again I would not take the bus. It was rushed and we didn’t have a lot of time between getting on and off the ferry. I would instead drive down and spend the day hiking.

    Not worth it:
    Mona Lisa – I’m not big into art and I’ve heard it’s a tiny painting in an overcrowded room. I decided to skip it all together.

    Took me a while to accept the fact that not all tourist traps are terrible. Like you said, there is a reason they became tourist traps.

  10. I have no issue with places that are skewed to the tourism trade, I just try to avoid them during high season.But as you noted there are some things you just have to do. We’re going to India in October for the first time, and will be spending at least a full day and night in Agra. Because Taj Mahal (and surrounding gardens), how could you not if you have the time? We’ll also have 2-3 full days in Delhi, not counting arrival day when we’ll mostly be recovering from getting there.

    But we’ll also be visiting Nagpur for several days, and a day trip near the triple border of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarkhand and Nepal.

  11. I think most of the comments calling Cartagena a tourist trap came from other readers that are Latino in heritage and just hate to have you or someone else pick another city other than theirs to visit. Jealously is ingrained in Latin culture. Cartagena is amazing. I was there when I was very young and can’t wait to be back again. My friend (American) went in a cruise and absolutely loved it. I agree with you when it gets to places. I went to Queenstown because of your advise and absolutely loved it. One of my top five places I been in the world. And I have been to over 85 countries so far. Keep enjoying your time there. Bogota will be different. But as other readers mentioned, go to Monserrate (a must), la candelaria which is the historic area where the presidential palace is. Skip the gold museum. That I do feel is a tourist trap. Go have dinner and drinks at Andres Carne de rez outside the city (in Chia). It will be $$$. But worth it. And lastly check out the gay scene if you can haha. Go to Teatron. If you are 6 feet tall, you will feel like a giant there.

  12. Isn’t a tourist trap something designed to take advantage of tourists? Something that locals wouldn’t fall for? In that sense then most anywhere that tourists visit would have some sort of tourist trap.

    I work with a group that is based in Cali Colombia, some of those ‘locals’ just spent a vacation week at the beaches in Cartagena. I’m sure that those locals avoided any tourist traps while there.

  13. Is there a universally recognized definition for what is, and isn’t, a tourist trap? I would suspect Disney properties, and other specifically-created tourist districts, which always seem to be built on piers in cities like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Montreal, would fit perfectly.

    What about Times Square? It’s a legitimate nexus — look at a subway map — and has a lot of what tourists seek and know about NYC. To skip it entirely as a first-time tourist would be wrong, but so would spending a majority your NYC time just in midtown.

    I agree more with the “crowded” factor, as it relates to individual attractions and whole cities. I think everyone is universally unhappy when lines stretch too long and the streets restrict free movement.

  14. To me, a tourist trap is typically a place that locals refuse to go to on their own, a place that has mostly chain restaurants and shops rather than locally owned establishments, and prices for food/goods/services above what would be found in a different area of town. The food may be of lower quality or less interesting/authentic, and the goods may be mass produced.

    I think there is a difference between a site or area of town being interesting for tourists and locals alike and for something to be labeled a “tourist trap.” I may try to hit some of the big sites when I travel, but I try to avoid going to places that locals actively avoid. For example, when I visited San Francisco, I avoided Pier 39, which is all mass-produced goods and chain restaurants. When I was in Paris, I still checked out the Eiffel Tower, but I avoided eating or buying souvenirs in the vicinity because everything was more expensive in that area.

  15. @Kali P: Your definition is the best and most accurate of all. You sound like a guru traveler who emphasizes more on destination than all else.

  16. @Charles, I don’t consider Grand Palace a tourist trap.

    Agree with @Kali P on the definition. And agree with several that Fisherman’s Wharf is the epitome of tourist trap.

  17. To me a ‘tourist-trap’ has to have a bit of a rip-off or scam to it. Or at least a sense of preying on unknowing tourists.

    Visiting New York? Times Square is touristy, but the shops and attractions are not a tourist trap. The TGI Friday’s in Times Square with a $22 hamburger, def a tourist trap. Same for the ‘free comedy shows’ that have 2 drink minimums and charge $12 for a beer.

    Visiting Chicago?

    A destination that caters to tourists is not a tourist trap. At least not to me.

  18. I always considered a tourist trap is a business that takes advantage of tourists by misrepresenting a service, food, entertainment, etc. at inflated prices.

  19. As a citizen of a place very popular with visitors, I can tell you one thing about tourist traps:

    The best thing about tourist traps is that they work.

  20. There are many places that probably do qualify as tourist traps, but I feel like there’s a growing trend to dismiss anything popular as a “tourist trap”.

    No writer on this blog is guilty of doing it, but I’ve read a few different blogs that made me cringe. To dismiss the British Museum or the Louvre as a tourist trap simply because it’s popular? You’re out of your mind!

    For me, a tourist trap is something that I regret doing and wouldn’t do again. Many things I would only do once, but I remember them fondly. These are not traps. Then there are things that I would gladly do again. These are also not traps.

    I’ve generally had good luck using sites like Fodor’s to identify attractions that are culturally or historically significant, and I use TripAdvisor to determine where to eat.

  21. Interesting topic. For me, a tourist trap is a place that offers sub-standard quality at high prices. I.e., a place that no one would ever return to, but that can stay in business because of a steady flow of first-time visiting tourists.

    So not every place that is flooded with tourists is a tourist trap. And generally speaking, I think everyone should enjoy travelling the way they like. It has become a sad obsession to be at a great place but always have that feeling that somewhere else it might be even better and you are missing out on it…

  22. @Bgriff, exactly, you cannot call an entire city of a decent size a tourist trap.

    Looked at visiting Cartegena 20 years ago on the recommendation of a local. Looked nice but there were no cheap flights and Colombia was still dealing with the narcoterrorists

  23. I once explained the “tourist trap” conundrum to someone thusly. The Taj Mahal is probably the textbook definition of a “tourist trap”, but if you took a trip to India, would you seriously go there without seeing it? As another commenter said, anyone suggesting that you forego something like the Taj just because it’s crowded is out of their mind. Personally, I think “tourist trap” is a term better used to describe the crappy, overpriced food and shopping that usually pop up around popular sites with the aim of overcharging unsuspecting gringos. The Taj Mahal isn’t a tourist trap, but the rug shop your driver takes you to after your tour? That’s a different story.

  24. HavIng visited the Swiss Alps first and then the French Alps, I found that the Swiss Alps are a total tourist traps especially Jungfrau and Titlis. These mountains are over run by Asian tourists. This is because they are marketed well in the core tourist Asian markets. The French Alps are equally beautiful and pristine but not inhabited by bus loads of tourists.

    I would always try and avoid the tourist traps in future

  25. Personally, the definition you cite from Wikipedia above is TERRIBLE. Something designed for tourists is not (in and of itself) a tourist trap. Break apart the phrase and you’ll see what I mean. Here’s how the American Heritage Dictionary defines the word “trap”:

    “A stratagem for catching or tricking an unwary person”

    Thus, a tourist trap would be some way of catching or tricking an unwary tourist.

    That doesn’t mean that all popular sites are tourist traps. For example, visiting the Great Wall of China isn’t necessarily a tourist trap, even if it is overrun by tourists. However, having a guide take you to a section of the wall claiming that you can buy handmade goods at bargain prices only to be sold mass-produced items made in factories down the street? THAT’S a tourist trap…

  26. Im not a big fan of the coast in Colombia and I have been to all three major cities (Cartagena, Barranquilla, Santa Marta). To me Santa Marta was best as it was pretty cool place and only Colombian tourists. I was there and Barranquilla in Sep 15 and with the exchange rate, it was dirt cheap. Probably the cheapest place I ever been to be honest. I went to Cartagena about 7 years ago and found it to be nice overall, but very expensive during that time when the USD was around 2100:1. Even worse when a few years ago it was down to about 1900:1. Overall I’m glad I went to all of these cities, I love Colombia, but the true beauty of Colombia is found in its’ mountains. I spent a lot of time in Santander and its so beautiful there. Bogota is exciting and a lot to do, despite the weather. Medellin is great and I hope to explore it more. Cali a great time, and not too many tourists around. I can’t wait to go back. Enjoy!

  27. I like the definition by @MeanMeosh. It is not the specific sight that is the tourist trap, but the all the things that collect around those tourist sights. The Eiffel Tower is not a tourist trap, neither Walt Disney World. But if you stated the dozens of shops selling souvenirs at the Eiffel Tower or the 1,000s of shops selling whatevers along International Dr in Orlando, as being tourist traps, I would say you have a very good understanding of what a tourist trap is!

  28. Cartagena? Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.

    Tourist traps aren’t great, but the worst are tourist leg traps. They’re really inhumane.

  29. To me, a tourist trap is a place or event that locals don’t go to or participate in at all, and exists only for tourists. For example. if you go to see a dance performance by costumed local indigenous people at a gated resort in Thailand while drinking $10.00 margaritas with a large group of Americans and Australians, that’s a tourist trap. Sometimes a “real” tourist site (i.e. St. Paul’s Cathedral, Eiffel Tower, etc.) can attract locals as well, however the shops within or adjacent that sell cheesy trinkets could be characterized as tourist traps.

  30. The walled city (ciudad amurallada) in Cartagena is absolutely completely overrun with tourists. And I have to laugh at anyone who calls it a bargain. It’s the most expensive place in Colombia. If you’d visited it seven or eight years ago you would understand. Meanwhile, Bocagrande is filled with vacationers from Colombia (primarily Bogota and Medellin). A much more appealing crowd 🙂

  31. Well, yeah it may have the infraestructure. But also, in my opinion, tourist traps tend to be to expensive for what they are worth (speaking of attractions) or if we speak about restaurants they tend to have mediocre local food in an environment that you, as a tourist, would expect in that place. Ej. In Mexico going into a Cantina and seeing only american tourists, with colorful decoration just like you may have in the US.

  32. I think it’s okay to use tourist trap for a restaurant or a bar or even a museum, but definitely not an entire city.

  33. Agree with a fair few of the comments above. Describing any city as a tourist trap is ridiculous. Also, while many attractions may be crowded with tourists, this doesn’t qualify it as a tourist trap to me. Usually, there’s a good reason for people to go there. I mean, imagine going to Berlin and not seeing the wall. Paris sans a visit to the Eiffel Tower? Sure, they’ll be crowded, but that’s because such things are worth seeing.

    To me, the term tourist trap should be reserved for the types of businesses that tend to cluster around such major attractions. Overpriced, sanitised, westernised versions of the local cuisine (if not just flat out western/American food) and tacky souvenir shops usually. Basically places that locals would never bother entering. Of course, tourists are free to eat and buy at such places, but I always feel that I’d get better and cheaper elsewhere (even if only a block or two away).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *