Problematic Travel Terms We Should Have Stopped Using Yesterday

I’ve had it with travel being described with lazy, cliché, and most importantly, problematic terms that carry colonialist or patronizing connotations. I’m not writing this so you stop using these terms, I’m writing this so we can think more about word choice and whether the diction we’re using actually means what we’re trying to convey. Not going to lie, I’m also guilty of using several of these, but you live, you learn.

The Columbus Syndrome:

KPK, Pakistan
  • “Real”
  • “Discovering new places”
  • “Undiscovered”
  • “Untouched”
  • “Hidden gem”

These terms imply that locals who have probably visited/touched/eaten whatever it is we’re writing about, don’t have agency.

As in, “discover the real Paris” or “untouched landscapes of Northern Pakistan.” First of all, if we’re in a place, everything around us is real. This is often used to guide people to less touristy places, but the touristy areas are real too. They exist. If you are in Paris, or Cambodia, or Peru, everything you do or see is part of the “real” Paris or Cambodia or Peru, whether it fits the image in your head or not.

The Us vs Them Orientalists:

Bizerte, Tunisia
  • “Authentic cultural experience” and its siblings
  • “Land of contrasts” and,
  • “Blend of ancient and modern”

The meaning of “authentic” is “of undisputed origin; genuine.” Like “real,” anything can be authentic. A recipe that has gone through several iterations is authentic to the person who created the most recent version. “Authentic” can also come across as condescending. It’s rarely used to describe modern sights or shopping malls or luxury resorts but is used to describe rural areas, poor areas, or to reinforce dated ideas of places.

The Fetishizers:

Granada, Spain
  • “Exotic”

The primary definition of exotic is “introduced from another country: not native to the place where found.” So, if you’re in another country trying a dish, or seeing a sight, but that dish or sight is from that place, it cannot be “exotic”. You are technically the exotic one in that situation. More often, it’s used as its third definition: “strikingly, excitingly, or mysteriously different or unusual.” This is still troublesome in travel and food writing though, because what is different or unusual to one writer may be entirely normal for readers. When foreign writers come into a country and start calling something that is completely ordinary in that place “exotic,” it comes across as patronizing and naive. Imagine a foreigner using “exotic” to describe hamburgers in the US. It makes no sense.

  • “Friendly locals”

There is no other term that makes travel writing more cringe-worthy than “friendly locals”. Every place has good and bad people having good or bad days, and the use of “friendly locals” is another way of embedding the orientalist trope of us versus them.

  • “Love”

I know I sound like I hate love but “love” is often employed to explain ambiguous and mundane situations. It is the epitome of lazy writing. I often see white people in a developing country saying how much they “love” their surroundings under a picture they posted of poverty. It’s uncomfortable to take in how, as a tourist, one is probably going to go home and forget the everyday struggles of those they may have met.

The Bonus:

  • “Mecca”

Mecca is an actual place. It sounds ridiculous to say, “New York City is the Vatican for theatre lovers,” so we should stop using “Mecca” in this context as well.

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