Well, it’s almost that time of year again.

As the weather warms up, flowers start to bloom, and it’s possible to leave the house without that heavy coat, tourist season begins to awaken.  Individuals from around the world, perhaps including yourself, begin to pack their bags, plan how to best utilize their hard-earned vacation days, and look forward to taking a break from the daily grind.

Here in D.C., tourist season is already in full force.  Tourists have been trickling in for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, with this year marking 100 years since Japan first brought the beautiful trees over to Washington.  I have to confess, sadly, that the blooms come and go pretty quickly starting in late March, and local Washingtonians tend to feel bad for the tourists who travel up here in mid-April expecting them to still be on display.

Tourist season in D.C. tends to run at high speed through the balmy weeks of August.  Interns flood the city to fill thousands of summer internship positions, student groups come to study our nation’s history, international visitors come to take advantage of the warm weather on the East coast, and families come to complete the pilgrimage of bringing their children to the country’s capital.  In turn, the locals tend to brace themselves for impact.

Like any popular destination, D.C. is thankful for tourist season, but in a slightly begrudging way.  Politicians have gotten in trouble in the past, to be sure, for “dissing” the large groups of sweaty, tired tourists wandering aimlessly around the Capitol and distracting security guards by asking for directions. Locals tend to stay away from downtown D.C. at all costs, bemoaning the takeover of the city that causes yearly bouts of extra traffic, street congestion, and longer lines at places of interest.

To prepare for this year’s tourist season, local papers in the D.C. area have taken to Twitter and other social media to ask locals to give advice to tourists.  That got me to thinking.  After all, part of being a good tourist means preparing effectively for your trip, namely, trying to understand a bit about the local culture of your vacation destination and serving as not just an economic asset to the region’s coffers, but also as a graceful ambassador of your point of origin.

Case in point:  Study the local culture.  This doesn’t mean that you have to read dozens of books about D.C. and know more than your tour guide at the Smithsonian (which is comprised of several different museums by the way, not just one big one).  Instead, this means, as I like to call it, blending into the environment and stealthily eyeing how the locals live.  For instance, in D.C. it is an unwritten rule of culture that people stand on the right side of escalators and walk on the left.  I’ve seen Washingtonians fighting the rush hour on their work commutes find themselves trapped on the escalators by tourist groups chatting away, yell at them, and literally try to run them over.  The best remedy to avoid being “that person” blocking the escalator and irritating the locals who aren’t on holiday is to study how other people are acting.  If everyone is standing to the right of the escalator, that is not the moment to declare your individuality and repulsion towards conformity.  Stand to the right just like everyone else.

Another way to be a good tourist is to, in fact, pretend like you’re not a tourist.  Shopkeepers in D.C. tend to be very nice people, but they do get frustrated by the crowds who cram into their stores, don’t look at them, and proceed to aggressively paw through their merchandise and only address them if they want to know the price, often in a gruff tone.  To be a graceful visitor, slow down.  Take your time in a shop, greeting the shopkeeper or employee with a polite “hello” or “good afternoon,” and asking politely if it would be all right to touch items that look breakable.  Being in a different city should be treated as visiting someone else’s home.  As well, local shopkeepers, waiters, etc., can often give you valuable advice and answer any questions you might have.

In terms of sightseeing, everyone has their own travel style.  I have friends whose parents literally schedule every hour of family vacations, often starting at 7 a.m., with even bathroom breaks specifically slotted for certain times.  Others, such as myself, like to make a list of things to see, but also allow plenty of time to just “chill out” and enjoy the city.  Some of my best travel memories are of sitting in a cafe with a cup of coffee and just people watching all afternoon.  Of course, it is beneficial to see the major tourist sites, or to visit things of particular interest (if you’re a history buff, for instance, the National Archives in D.C. is a must), but it is okay to accept the reality that you will not physically be able to see everything and do everything.  I’ve lived in D.C. for almost three years now, and there are numerous things I haven’t done or seen yet.

Another rule of thumb I like to keep in mind while traveling is that it’s okay to leave something on the list unchecked.  When I was an intern in D.C. back in 2005, I felt like I had to see everything and do everything in the city before I left.  After all, I didn’t think I’d be back on the East coast ever again.  Then, several years later, I found myself there again, this time living and working in the city.  You never know when you’ll get to go back to a location, so if there are a couple of things you didn’t get to do on your vacation, it’s not the end of the world.

Another thing to keep in mind while traveling is the temptation to go overboard on souvenirs.  I myself have been guilty of this (hello Cambodian musical instruments that I can’t even play, or tropical sundresses that look great in the Caribbean but ridiculous anywhere else).  It’s tempting when you’re in a new place to snap up all of the local “must haves,” but then you get home with a heavy suitcase of extra stuff that you wonder what on earth you’ll do with.  My goal while traveling is to find one unique item that will always remind me of my trip.  It doesn’t have to be super expensive, and it’s also helpful to get a collection of something going.  I began to pick up pieces of jewelry during my travels, often a pair of earrings or a necklace, and they each have a story with a special meaning behind them. Plus I’ll be able to share them with my daughter someday, if Leon and I have one.  Beginning a focused collection of something takes away the pressure of feeling like you have to buy everything in sight and getting home wondering why you ended up with twelve refrigerator magnets.

When it comes down to it, the art of being a good tourist means relaxing and enjoying yourself.  Travel can be stressful if you let it, to be certain, but once you get to your destination it’s important to give yourself the mental break you worked so hard to earn.  It’s possible to strive for that balance between seeing lots of interesting things and also going along slowly enough to watch the local customs and abide by them.

Happy tourist season 2012 everyone!

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