Engage in Counter-Tourism

GeekMom Travel

My kids staged a revolt after one too many visits to historical sites.

We were touring a restoration village; you know, the sort of place featuring a blacksmith shop, one room schoolhouse, mill, general store, and a few homes. Normally we stroll around on our own at heritage sites, looking and talking and speculating as we let curiosity lead us. But this time we came with a group of parents and children, so we politely followed a docent as she gave a series of memorized talks meant to educate the sweaty masses. It was hot and stuffy in those small buildings. The docent droned about the historic significance of various items, never changing her patter to meet a child’s interests. Worse, every time she was asked a question she went back to the beginning of her particular speech rather than jump back in where she’d stopped.

It was slow torture of the instructional kind.

If only we’d visited as counter-tourists. For well over a decade Phil Smith, aka Crab Man, has encouraged people to bend tourism into their own unique experiences.  He asks us to look past the official versions provided by guide books, limited by entrance fees, and structured around prohibited areas. Right beyond, we can experience these places playfully.

Tactics he shares in Counter-Tourism: A Pocketbook: 50 Odd Things to Do in a Heritage Site may seem silly to the uninitiated. But they are, at the very core, a way of stepping past approved viewpoints to freshly explore and discover new stories.


Counter-Tourism: A Pocketbook by Crab Man


Counter-Tourism: A Pocketbook by Crab Man


Counter-Tourism: A Pocketbook by Crab Man

It’s an approach that sidesteps the homogenization that Dr. Smith terms “mythogeography” or “the past on life support,” and instead celebrates the open-ended meaning found in every heritage site as a form of play.

Thanks to suggestions in Counter-Tourism: A Pocketbook: 50 Odd Things to Do in a Heritage Site we might make some new earthworks in the back yard after visiting a prehistoric site or visit a shopping mall as if it were a post-apocalyptic artifact.

Thanks to suggestions in his larger-scale work Counter-Tourism: The Handbook we might leave notes in graveyards, kiss statues, photograph mold and stains, knock on doors in search of our ancestor’s homes, or use a dream symbolism book to interpret a heritage site. (He invites you to submit your own counter-tourism hacks, too.)

This can get as complicated as you’d like because Dr. Smith is a complex guy. He’s written over 100 plays, does site-specific performances in unconventional setting, creates “mis-guides” and counter-tours, and authored books such as On Walking and Mythogeography.

We’re taking his work at the most basic level. If I can talk my family into checking out another heritage site, we’ll follow one of his suggestions. Maybe we’ll all wear pirate eye patches.

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