Avoiding Tourist Traps

It’s been about 17 years since I have been traveling by myself or with friends and family. Every trip has its mix of good and bad experiences, fortunately, more good than bad. This journey of journeys has been a great teacher. Everyone falls into tourist traps and I have as well. Over the years, I have learned my bit on how to identify them. That doesn’t mean I don’t fall into them at all, just not as often. They are not just a waste of money, but often they are a big waste of time, something that I consider more premium. These experiences often also leaving with a bad taste in the mount, both literally and figuratively. They are the prime reason that travel is beautiful, tourism is usually not.

So here are my top 10 traps and how to avoid them:

1: The rare art trap: This is the most common trap in South and Southeast Asia. You are taken to this factory selling producing some exquisite art that is unique to the area. It could be sculptures in India, silver jewelry in Indonesia, or some as unorthodox as model ships in Mauritius. 95% of such factory tours will lead you to a factory with less than ten artists, just for show. Most of the real estate is occupied by a large shop selling the wares that those ten people would have taken 2000 years to produce. Be assured that most of those products were made in a factory and are highly overpriced. Avoid any factory visits unless you are sure you are going to a genuine production floor, like some of the blow glass factories in Murano or Tea Garden tours in east India. On some rare occasions, these tours can be interesting but it is still wasted time away from a genuine local flavor. 

2: Recently made history trap: These are most commonly found in Central Asia, Russia, and some parts of Europe. Several buildings are being built to look like buildings built hundreds of years ago. I remember next to my grandparents’ house was this “purana shiv mandir” or the Ancient Temple of God Shiva. It was built about 5 years before the time they moved there. A lot of churches were destroyed during the communist regime of the USSR. A number of them are being rebuilt to look like the originals. Some of them like the St. Michael’s Monastery in Kiev are worth a visit because they are a true copy of the original. The city of Tashkent is building many mosques based on old designs that look fancy until you realize they are built with all modern technology. The US also has a bunch of these attractions like Colonial Williamsburg, designed to mimic lifestyle from 400 years ago where you can buy a complete hand made table for $800. Before you plan a trip to any ‘historical’ monument that you haven’t heard of, just check on Wikipedia. Some of these are still spectacular to look at, like the St Michael’s Monastery in Kiev or the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. But they aren’t ancient, just built look historic. 

3: Museums of torture trap: This one is a Europe special. The continent has a rich heritage of art and architecture and at times that abundance is misused to masquerade anything to be artistic or unique. I pick on the museums or torture that are spread out across several cities like Vienna and Prague, but they are not the only ones. There are many museums of inconsequential museums that you pay a bomb to enter. They will make a museum of anything if there are more than 10 of them in the attic – coins, glass lamps, and even liquor. A few of these may have some interesting exhibits, but most are just overpriced walks through poorly reconstructed ‘art’. Then there are museums in cities depicting village life or life from 300 years ago. They make for good green patches to stroll through but not something worth a ticket, unless you are getting something additional too. Any museum that occupies a basement of a commercial street is an obvious red flag. Look for museums that are either famous or very large or both.

4: Times Square restaurant trap: This is what most people fall for and they are everywhere. I have fallen for it at least once on most of my trips. Fifteen years ago, I have had trips where most of my meals fell in this category, now I have improved to maybe one a trip. To understand this realize that in prime tourist areas the repeat customer rate for any restaurant is nearly zero. They have no incentive to provide good food one you have sat down and ordered. They do have all incentives to lure you in with a fancy ambiance and even people standing outside urging you to take a seat. Times Square in NYC is full of such restaurants that no local would ever step close to. Most downtowns and city centers are full of these. A person standing outside just to lure in customers is always a red flag. You should consider that a large restaurant in a prime location will likely spend most of their revenue on real estate costs and not food. I have recently fallen for these in Lisbon, Hanoi, Reykjavik, and many others. Look for small restaurants, they are usually more local. Best to look for a place where you can see locals eating and you can identify locals by attrite, language, or larger group size. Google reviews can also be very helpful – I ate at this well-located place in the Alfama district of Lisbon. The food was inedible and I checked the rating a little too late to spot an astounding 1.5/5. In general, avoid eating anywhere close to a tourist attraction – find out the areas where the locals hang out. Exceptions can be a few famous or historic restaurants.

5: Story of an empty wall trap: I did not want to name this one after a particular location for the fear of hurting sentiments but there are many attractions in all parts of the world where you just go all the way to see a place that commemorates an event that happened a long time ago. There may be some emotional connection for the locals. Though as a visitor, you only go there to listen to the stories and see some pictures on a wall. You could easily do both of those things online. Killing fields of Phnom Phen, Jaliawala Bagh in India, 9/11 memorial, and even Pearl Harbor fall in this category – the story is great and legendary, but there is nothing left to see. It always helps to research a little online on what you expect to see – lookout for visitor pictures. The pic below is cellular jail in Andamans, India – loads of stories you can read at home.

6: Blink and you’d miss it trap: This when you sign up for a grand event that is heavily advertised. Once you are committed, there is a lot of build-up through cheap means, and the grand finale is finished in seconds. In Russia and Vietnam, there are places where you can go fire any assault weapon that you want. As much as you may want to aim it at your ex’s current spouse, you can only fire it on a target and you can probably be done with 10 bullets in 10 seconds. In Langkawi, I went to a crocodile park that had a show where a man would put his hand inside a crocodile’s mouth. There was a 20-minute build-up and then he did a 3 second long thumbs-up between the jaws of the crocodile. The crocodile kept his mouth open for a good 30 minutes. While I have picked on SE Asian countries, these are everywhere. These are hard to detect but best to use some common sense and ask how long the main event will last.

7: Switzerland of India trap: There are many hill stations in India that claim to be the Switzerland of India, someone called parts of Gurgaon to be like Singapore and there are many towns in the US that claim to be copies of some European city. Let’s be honest, there is only one Switzerland, and calling anything a Switzerland of India is unfair to both the unique culture of the place and that of Switzerland. Most such tall claims will disappoint and a poor man’s Paris is exactly what the name says, a poor Paris. Avoid anything that claims to be something else. If you are visiting a place, look for its own identity and not a stolen one. Easy to find out because the trap is in the name. Some of these may be good places, but I still don’t like the style of marketing. It is deceptive.

8. T-shirt in Cambodia trap: These styles of tourist traps are common in all of Asia, Eastern Europe, and parts of South America. This is when you first are taken to a market that basically sells imitation goods that are nearly always of really poor quality. Then you are convinced that the quality is just below the authentic brand and sometimes even told that these are made in the same factory. Finally, the price offered is so high that the chance of your being able to bargain it down to a fair value is very low. A long time ago in one such market in Cambodia crappy t-shirts were on sale for 5USD per piece. My brother was able to negotiate 10 t-shirts for 10USD. 20% is not where you expect to end up and even that seemed a little high, he may have done better. There are very easy to spot but equally hard to resist. Mostly you know you are being taken for a ride but just can’t stop yourself.

9. Leaning Tower of Pisa trap: This is another Europe special. To be honest you have to appreciate the marketing genius who would have thought that a poorly constructed tower could be a tourism magnet. The tower is not the only artifact with exaggerated value – there are the Mona Lisa, Scream, and a lot of other art and architecture. Paris has a lot of wonderful things to see but people still stand in long lines and step on toes for a small peek of the MonaLisa from behind bulletproof glass. It’s always good to know a little more about what you are going to see. You can then decide for yourself if the juice is worth the squeeze. Sometimes these are the obvious checkboxes for each city but even then, usually, you will find something else more exciting.

10: FantaSea Phuket trap: These are large events where you strongly urged to buy expensive all-inclusive tickets well in advance. Another typical feature is that transport is free, which means that once you have reached there, you are dependent on them to get you back. The fanfare is amazing but the show itself lacks any depth or cultural flair. FantaSea is not the only one such show, there are several across many popular cities of the world, especially in the US where public transport is usually minimal. Many casinos will offer to pick you and feed you for free only if you agree to ‘hang around’ in the casino for several hours. The worst part here is that you often end up wasting half a day and spend a lot of that time frustrated and angry. In general, avoid stuff that you will not be easily able to walk out of unless it is comes recommended from a known source.

One thought on “Avoiding Tourist Traps

  1. True about memorials or single object checklists. I generally make sure an attraction is an experience, as opposed to just a picture with a mural on a wall or a statue.

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