Having said that, allow me to now, yes, defend the beaten path in three ways. (Basically, these are the talking points I wish I'd raised, or elaborated upon, during my interview.)
1. You meet some interesting people in the Tourist Culture
As discussed previously, there's a distinct Tourist Culture, with its own dress code (khaki travel pants, sensible shoes), its own literature (guidebooks, obviously), its own cuisine (the Irish Pub), its own rituals ("Scusi, could you, por favor, mein camera ... take foto? Merci bonjour?"). The Tourist Culture includes people from all over the world, which means that you may well encounter a family from India while traveling in Finland (over 50,000 Indian tourists go there every year) or a few of the two million Chinese who visit Europe annually, or the diverse group Lee and I met on our beer tour in Munich, which included dedicated
These are the types of people you meet in the Tourist Culture: interesting people from all over the world.
Truth is, you're not going to just parachute into another culture and fit right in with the locals, no matter how hard you try, no matter how carefully you plan your attire or try to study the language. You're an outsider. That will be obvious to them. And no matter how eager you are to interact with them, they probably don't want to interact with you--they just want to go about their daily lives, danke, and not be bothered by this stranger who's come to stare at them and mangle their language and ask to see how the Authentic Local Thing is done. No, it's the other people like you, the other outsiders, who are most likely to strike up conversation with you. You're a kindred spirit. And, truly, you'll find that a lot of those people are--like you--actually pretty damn interesting and, gosh, not the clichéd shallow, tacky tourists of stereotype.
So, no, you probably won't meet a lot of hobbled, cloaked-in-oh-so-native-garb grandmotherly types if you stay on the beaten path. You won't encounter many of the eccentric characters who populate the year-in-a-remote-village memoirs that have become such a cliche of travel writing. And, sure, fine: it's a shame that you won't meet those Authentic Individuals™. But you will meet all kinds of other people who will be more than worth your while. And maybe, just maybe, you'll become friends and keep in touch, and they'll invite you to visit them in their homeland--allowing you to get off the beaten path and get a local's perspective, precisely because you didn't do that last time around.
2. Travel is not about bragging rights
There's a prominent travel blogger who says he's a "one-man National Geographic." There are lots of other travel bloggers and writers and just-plain-travelers who boast of how many countries they've visited, like there's some kind of lifetime merit badge that they're trying to earn.
What's the point of such boasts, though? At their base, aren't they just statements of status and privilege and an admission of a myopic, self-absorbed worldview that mistakes accumulation of passport stamps for open-mindedness and intelligence? Is this not like the kids in high school who thought their entire self-worth was dependent on how many decals were on their letter jackets?
I don't know how many countries I've visited. Sure, I could figure it out. But I just don't care. I don't travel so that I can place-drop in conversation. Similarly, I don't seek out the lowest-price hostel--or, for that matter, the highest-price hotel. I look for--wait for it--the place that best fits my own personal needs in terms of budget, safety, and location (meaning, of course, proximity to a bakery). Which, by the way, might change on a day-to-day basis--some days, I want to save money and don't mind a bit of discomfort; others, I desperately need a hot shower and a good night's sleep on clean sheets.
Travel seems to have become a status marker of sorts, with specific travel attitudes and methodologies as carefully calibrated as attire worn on a first date. It's a chance to show the rest of the world--or at least blog readers and Facebook friends--what kind of person said traveler wants to be. That, to me, is absurd. (Um, pay no attention to the fact that you're reading this on a blog by a person who would love for you to think of him as at least mildly witty and semi-intelligent. Pay. No. Attention.)
It's absurd when it means visiting only the most famous cities and landmarks, hewing only to the instructions of the latest Fodor's. It's equally absurd when it means avoiding any cities or landmarks for the specific reason that they're popular. (Most absurd of all, though, is anyone who uses The 1,000 Places To Go Before You Die as dogma.) Seriously, I thought we all learned this by the time we were teenagers: sometimes the crowds are right, sometimes they're wrong--you have to find your own path, and that's going to be a mix of the popular and the unpopular.
Travel is not about bragging rights. It's about exploring, learning, and trying to understand the new. It's about enjoying the bounty of weirdness and wonderfulness of the planet--some of which just happens to be located on the beaten path.
3. The beaten path is already beaten. So don't go beating more paths.
There's also the argument--which I made on Q--that following the tourist trail is the truest eco-tourism, the greenest and most ethical option, because those places already overrun and McDonaldized and otherwise ruined. You're staying on the sidewalk, not trampling the fragile flowers of the untouched, untouristed places. I'm not sure I'm convinced of my own argument here, actually (feel free to argue pro/con in the comments). I don't want it to be true--that would kind of break my heart. But I fear that it just might be absolutely correct.