When you pick a travel destination, you may think of how far it is, how easy it is to get there, what there is to see, what there is to eat, where there is to stay, how much things cost, and how safe it is. It may not occur to you to gauge who will be there with you–what kinds of people your fellow tourists will be. But the more you think about it, the more you realize that who else will be there should be a key consideration in choosing a travel destination.
Perhaps the “best” fellow travelers, for us, are independent budget travelers. Most typical is the late 20s/early 30s backpacker, usually from Western Europe or East Asia, traveling after graduating college or post-graduate education, or between jobs. As a whole, Central Asia attracts a well-educated, well-traveled lot, with ample linguistic abilities, travel skills, cultural sensitivity, and so forth. Almost without a doubt, a fellow traveler in Central Asia will have something interesting to show for themselves, a good story or two from the region or elsewhere on their travels. The types of fellow travelers, I find, broadens the “easier” the destination is, but broader does not necessarily mean worse. For example, in Southeast Asia, you may find a younger or less-worldy crowd, but for the most part you are still dealing with independent travelers, people with some sense of adventure and desire to immerse themselves in local cultures.
This issue occurred to me because Egypt is perhaps the worst place in the world that we’ve experienced, in terms of fellow travelers. Egypt is overrun with package tourists. Now, there’s nothing wrong, fundamentally, with going on a package tour. Travel planning can be a daunting and demanding effort (however much I love it), and going on a tour does maximize the amount of things you can see and learn in a limited amount of time. A knowledgeable guide could even afford you cultural insight that would be hard to access for an independent traveler. And, of course, tours can be quite cost-efficient.
But far more often, tours have serious deficiencies. Traveling in a guided group insulates you from interactions with locals (however appealing that sometimes sounds in Egypt). Traveling in a group means that you never have sights to yourself, paced according to your own interests. Explanations are dumbed down to the lowest common denominator. Many tour groups stay at mediocre hotels and eat mediocre food. That is why many (though by no means all) tours attract people who are intimidated by traveling by themselves, people who are less interested in cultural immersion, people who are satisfied with a quick and superficial understanding of history and people with relatively low standards for food and hotels (at least as far as value, authenticity and atmosphere are concerned–no doubt almost all tours stay and eat at fancier and more hygenic places than we do). (One might even go so far as to suggest that tour group tourists don’t really enjoy travel for travel itself. Let’s face it, spending long periods of time immersed in places where people speak little or no English and may have little else in common with you can be lonely, no matter how close you are to your travel companion(s). It should come as no surprise then that people turn to groups and in the end derive as much or more pleasure from internal group interactions as from external stimulus–that’s certainly been the case in the groups we’ve had the pleasure of joining.)
Egypt is full of such mediocre tours. Perhaps people are intimidated by traveling in an Islamic country, or maybe they have very little travel experience and are fulfilling some childhood dream of seeing the Pyramids. But this lack of standards, on the part of the tourists, results in a country whose travel infrastructure is, considering the volume of tourism, largely unspectacular. Package tourists, for the most part, stay in mediocre three-star type hotels that are absurdly overpriced when not booked on a tour, and so Egypt does not have the wonderful range of budget accommodations that one finds in, say, Southeast Asia. Food is similarly uninspiring, with many restaurants offering bland adaptations of local food (I suppose we can thank the abundant British tourists for that). Worst of all, having undiscriminating, relatively free-spending package tourists with apparently little interest in learning about local culture or spending time with locals constantly breezing in and out of cities promotes the worst kind of behavior in local merchants: aggressive salesmanship, overcharging, poor service.
Heaven forbid you have to walk a little to see the Pyramids!
There are other fellow tourist considerations in addition to the prevalence of tour groups at a given destination. In some places, there are large numbers of domestic tourists. The most extreme example of this, I believe, is China, where foreign tourists are almost always dramatically outnumbered by domestic tourists. This can be good or bad, depending on your perspective. Hawaii and Tahiti attract a lot of honeymooning couples, and so a single traveler may feel awkward and lonely. There are cultural issues, too. If you speak French, and only French, you would have more opportunities to meet fellow French speakers in a destination that attracts relatively more French, such as Cambodia or Madagascar.
One small story, showing that hotels understand that travelers care who their co-travelers are: Somewhat shockingly, the Hyatt in Sharm El Sheikh enforces a dress code banning Islamic dress (euphemistically called “ethnic dress”) at the pool and on the beach, even while allowing topless bathing on the beach–no doubt their research showed that their “international” clientele felt more comfortable without a burqa in sight.