The sociology of tourist traps

Interesting piece in the Guardian about tourists who ask for restaurant recommendations, then blithely ignore them and have the expected miserable experiences at overpriced tourist traps. There are probably a bunch of phenomena that cause this effect:

  • Most people have undiscerning taste in food and they’re the ones who create the demand for tourist traps in the first place. A place like House of Nanking is San Francisco is one example of this; you’ll rarely see a Chinese person there, yet the experience is exotic enough to the average non-Chinese tourist (and some misguided non-Chinese locals) that the place has managed to hold onto a reputation in some circles as the best Chinese restaurant in town.
  • Travelers in foreign cities are often uncomfortable getting around, and this tends to bend their food choices toward the conservative. When you’ve been walking around all day, are hungry, and aren’t sure if you can find your way back to the Tube station from some dark back alley, that shiny well-lit storefront probably looks pretty appealing.
  • By their nature, tourist traps have huge marketing advantages. Unlike locals, tourists have a limited number of meals in a city and I think there are moderately strong social and psychological pressures to conform to a common “tourist experience.” Even if your host says “avoid this place,” if  everyone you know who’s been to London has been there, the perceived social benefit of giving the same old tourist trap a try is  going to outweigh the risk of coming off as snobby or weird if you come back and tell your friends about places they’ve never heard of.
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  1. I actually really enjoyed the cold sesame noodles from House of Nanking. Although, to be fair, I had absolutely no high expectations whatsoever so I’m sure that colored the outcome.

    • I didn’t add it to the post because I think my writing is long-winded and parenthetical enough as it is, but I actually didn’t dislike House of Nanking either when I went there in January (with some visiting tourists of course). 😉 The ingredients are of good quality and the cooks know what they are doing, even if most of the recipes are completely inauthentic and heavily tailored toward white people’s palates. I brought them up in the post just because they’re a classic SF tourist trap and have a reputation among visitors and Marina dwellers as “the best Chinese food in SF” and a must-try for any visitor.

      Incidentally, I think dealing with weird house rules or mildly obnoxious staff when traveling is part of the fun for tourists – it feels like you’re getting a window on some very foreign culture when you deal with Durgin Park’s annoying servers in Boston, or when Peter Fang or his wife at House of Nanking comes to your table and demands that you let them pick what you’re going to eat instead of ordering off the menu. Something tells me these places have figured out that tourists eat that stuff up and incorporate it into the formula.

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