Tourist or local? How the smartphone made me an anonymous traveller

When I first started to travel internationally in the early 2000s, it was probably easy for locals to identify me as a tourist. With the introduction of the smartphone, I can now breath easy knowing that I blend in with the locals.

When roaming the streets of major cities in Great Britain and Eastern Europe in 2006, I'm sure I looked like a Canadian tourist. Holding a travel book and map, while carrying a backpack plastered with maple leafs, locals could probably spot me a mile away. While I might have had an early candy-bar phone, its Internet browser likely would have done more harm than good and there were no mobile maps in those days…

Way-finding during this era was pretty analogue despite the computer revolution. I also think it made travel more dangerous. Tourists are often targets for criminals as passports are hot black market items. Holding a travel guide with a cheesy cover like "Find Your Way Around London Like A Pro!" or "101 Places to See in Budapest" is kind of a giveaway. It screams "rob me" to anyone who's looking to rip you off.

Today, tourists can travel with a great deal of anonymity thanks to the smartphone. While I was in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. last week, I realized how much I blended in. My uncle and I toured Washington's many monuments and sites by bicycle. Bicycles are rented by locals and foreign nationals alike, so this isn't a giveaway. In fact, it’s common to tour Washington this way due to the distance between the historic areas. Whenever I wanted to find directions to another location, I used - not surprisingly - Google Maps. Unless someone was looking over my shoulder, it would have been difficult to label me as a tourist. Like everyone else, I was taking photos with my phone.

Today, a thief looking to steal a tourist's wallet or passport would have to be much more perceptive. Unlike the cover of a book, the back of a phone provides no clue as to what the user is looking at, thereby providing the user with a considerable level of anonymity. The same has been said about the eReader, which hides what the user is reading. However, an eReader is a single purpose device, so it's not difficult to deduce that the user is probably reading a book. Conversely, phones and tablets are multi-purpose devices. The user could be reading a book, looking at a map, watching a video, or responding to a message. During my trip, I felt like I was able to blend in better - not worrying about looking like a tourist.

One counter argument to this assertion is that prominently displaying a smartphone in public - particularly an iPhone or another high-end device - makes tourists a target. This is true. But, it makes the tourist no more a target than all the locals carrying phones.

The multi-function nature of the smartphone and its Internet connectivity makes it the most liberating travel device. In many respects, I feel more like a local than ever before which only adds to the immersive experience of travelling.