I happen to live on the bus route to a popular city landmark, so I see a lot of tourists on my daily commute. Since these tourists inevitably check their maps multiple times during the bus ride, I get many opportunities to do the same. While some of them do carry fancy schmancy guide books, a large proportion of the tourists I see are clinging to a hotel or city-issued map of the town. And the first thing I always look for is the cutoff line: where the city “ends” according to that particular map. I’m not knocking city-issued maps: as a frequent tourist myself, I am all for free resources. But I always wonder to myself: What does it mean to be off the map?
Clearly, exclusion from a map does not indicate lack of importance. One of the trendiest hoods for dining, shopping and nightlife is off the standard tourist map for my town. That hood doesn’t have any “certified” tourist attractions, to be sure, but it has an abundance of character. Let’s be honest: I’m sure many of the area’s residents are glad to be excluded, for the sake of preserving that character. But I always feel slightly sad for the tourists who never have a chance to experience the vitality of that neighborhood. And I’d really love to know how the map-creators pick where to extend their maps’ lines. Is it driven by sponsorships to be included, and the only sponsors happen to fall in the traditionally touristy areas? Is it driven by data on where tourists are more likely to go? Or is it simply a wagon wheel drawn out from the “city center” and engineered to hit a certain radius? Naturally, map-creators have limited space and want to highlight the most popular tourist attractions. And clearly, well-educated tourists would do their own research before coming to figure out where they want to go. But is this a chicken-or-egg scenario? If maps started to include 2 additional neighborhoods, would those neighborhoods soon be seen as “tourist vital” areas?
I’m a neighborhood-jumper kind of traveler myself, and often find myself off the freebie maps. I wander beyond lines, past the boundaries of the “city core” and off into undefined territory. Undefined, that is, from the tourist perspective. But the fake boundaries created by maps mean nothing about a city’s true essence. In my opinion, they simply perpetuate what’s always listed as a city’s “top attractions.” And since I’m a cultural traveler, always on the pursuit of seeing new ways of life, what’s most interesting to me is not always going to fall within the category of landmark, museum, or palace. It’s often a crooked street full of crumbling houses, or a market filled with cheap eats, or a trip to a part of town that doesn’t see enough tourists to even consider selling souvenirs (gasp!). And while heading off the map has occasionally resulted in momentary confusion about where exactly I am and how exactly I will return to where I need to end up at the end of the day, some of my favorite travel moments have taken place off the “tourist map.”