x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Advice for travellers: see the sights, but also live the life

Travelling isn't just about ticking off a list of attractions, it's also about engaging with people and places, says Fatima Al Shamsi.

American author Mark Twain noted in his book The Innocents Abroad that: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

I agree wholeheartedly. Growing up in different countries and frequent travel has affected how I see the world and is the source of my interest in, and appreciation for, different cultures and traditions. My experience has also shown me that, more often than not, those who have travelled or mixed with people of different nationalities, religions and backgrounds tend to be more open-minded and tolerant. I believe that in a world that is ever shrinking due to accessible and affordable travel, as well as the spillover effects of economic and political interconnectedness, tolerance and open-mindedness are crucial traits.

I will forever feel blessed and be grateful to my family for bringing me up all around the globe. In addition to shaping how I see the world, it has influenced how I like to travel.

I like to avoid being a “tourist”. I like travelling to countries where I have local friends so I can soak up the culture without the “tourist” veil. Yet, at the same time, I am a sucker for visiting famous landmarks. Life is short and there is no reason why you shouldn’t make time for the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building or the London Eye. But I like to get these out of the way quickly so I can truly enjoy myself by eating local delicacies, getting lost in winding streets, trying to get a sense of the local art and music scene, and just generally partaking in whatever activities are the norm.

Knowing my love of travel, a friend recently recommended that I take a look at Peeta Planet, a hybrid TV-web international travel show, produced and hosted by two Emirati brothers, Mohamed and Peyman Al Awadhi.

They promote something they call “social travel”, which consists of meeting with local innovators in various fields instead of doing all the touristy activities.

What I love about the concept is that anyone following the project on social media can suggest countries, activities and even foods for the brothers to try.

Not only do I think crowdsourcing trip itineraries is a fantastic idea and a good use of social media, I think it’s great that they are very conscious of representing their Emirati national identity by wearing their kanduras wherever they go.

I think many people could learn from Peeta Planet, not only by staying away from superficial tourism that doesn’t really engage with the country or locals when they are abroad, but also by being aware of the fact that when they are travelling they are, by default, representatives of their country. This means that how we present ourselves and how we behave reflects on our own culture and traditions.

I think it is a good thing that most Emiratis travel and I consider it a crucial component of life. But we need to be mindful of the reputation that we have in certain parts of the world for being overly flashy. I think it is worthwhile to adapt to the cultures of the places we are visiting. What is considered normal in the Emirates might come off differently on the streets of London or Bangkok.

Now that summer is upon us, I hope that we all take the time to reflect on how we approach our holidays. Travel is not just about how we can better explore the world and how many countries we can tick off a list, it’s about opening our minds to different cultures and traditions and getting to know the world and its people.

My experience has taught me that there is a difference between travel and tourism; that sightseeing isn’t the same as learning about the country you’re in. I believe we can get the most of our trips if we start balancing the two – and bring a little bit of what we’ve learnt back home.

Fatima Al Shamsi is an Emirati who recently returned from New York City after pursuing a master’s ­degree in Global Affairs at New York University