In praise of the airport tourist trap

The shops in airports that sell local trinkets may seem tacky, but we should embrace them.

Business Wire / File
People stand in line for food at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall (BWI) Airport in this April 2007 file photo. Guest blogger Jeffrey Tucker is in favor of the restaurants and tourist shops that are prevalent in airports.

I’m in Florida for an event sponsored by the Mises Institute, and flying into Fort Myers meant walking through the glorious micro-civilization that airports have become, little utopias of commerce and plenty. In the airport, you can stand in one spot and choose to walk twenty feet in any direction and find yourself in a Spanish or Thai restaurant, or grab a book from a literary looking place, or have a Starbucks, or eat a decadent cinnamon roll, or pretend to be on Savile Row at a high end men’s store, or perhaps get a massage or toss down a martini or two, trying on the high life for as long as it lasts.

You say it is all sheer fantasy, that this is, after all, just a stupid airport. I say: what does it matter? They have the stuff and we want the stuff. What’s not to like? Should we prefer some barren building like the Driver’s License Bureau? You know that if government were wholly in charge, this is the way it would look. Thank goodness for free enterprise and what it is permitted to do to make life more interesting. All these commercial establishments are wholly dedicated to slavishly serving you and me and every other traveler, giving us what we want in the most convenient way possible. This stands in contrast to, for example, the TSA.

Ah but what about the “tourist trap?” These are stores that specialize in heavily marketing what passes for local culture and fobbing off chotskies on us at inflated prices. So, here is how it works. You fly into Dallas and you are confronted with a hat store that sells 10-gallon hats and tacky belt buckles, plus rattle snake tails, and every variety of prickly pear jelly you can imagine. What an outrage that a store would dare to make money on people’s crazy lust for things related to Texas!

But, you know what? It turns out that in Texas, people really do wear hats like that. They really do. And those rattle snakes are real. They are crawling around right now in surprising places, and such things are not altogether common in others places like Maine and Singapore. So, yes, these are distinctively Texan. And so it is with all the rest of this seeming junk. This is the very essence of Texas culture, boiled down into consumable bites. And it turns out that people actually do want these things.

How often does it happen that you fly into some odd place, declined to buy the local chotsky, and then kick yourself later? Maybe when you get home to Chicago, you might wish that you had brought back some prickly pear jelly and a rattle snake tail to show your friends? It turns out that these shops really do meet a need. They allow us to experience local culture and take home a memento without having to do much work at all.

The first shop I found when flying into Fort Myers offered these fantastic shells, 5 for $10. I picked up a big starfish, a sand dollar, some fancy looking crab condominium, a long pointy thing from the bottom of the sea, and I threw in one more shell for good measure. Now, you say, this was a really stupid purchase, for I could have easily walked out on the beach and picked up buckets of shells for free.

That might be true enough, but I’m not out walking on the beach. I’m in my hotel room blogging, and blogging all the more joyfully knowing that I have a suitcase full of really cool looking seashells.

But I haven’t mention the greatest find of all. And tell me whether you have ever seen anything like this before: it is the head of an alligator! It is not a big thing. It is a small alligator but it is real, with teeth and all. It was $14.99. I consider this to be a bargain. I’ve never seen one before, and I hope that I will never encounter the live version. Someone else went to the trouble of raising these nasty things, hacking off their heads, freeze drying them or whatever they do, painting them with some shiny stuff, packaging them up, and then finally slogging them to the airport to sell to a “tourist trap” store, which then in turn sells it to me.

And I now have a treasure from Florida to take home — without having to visit a single swamp or risk life and limb. You say that I’m a victim of a scam, a naive tourist who coughed up money for a worthless thing? That I’ve been taken advantage of by a voracious merchant who preys on unknowing non-Floridians? None of this seems true to me. It seems to me that this “tourist trap” gave me exactly what I wanted and I’m deeply grateful.

The more traveling I’ve done, the more I’m alert to the need not to be suspicious of these local merchants. When in Rome, buy rosaries blessed by the Pope. When in Mecca, buy some tickets to paradise. When in New York, buy a Big Apple tee. When in Paris, snag that tiny model of the Eiffel Tower. In Russia, get some of the dolls that stack inside of each other. In Pittsburgh, revel in beer and steel.

These chotskies are made for us. We should be happy to be trapped by the prospect of owning them all. If this is oppression by shysters, the world could use ever more of it.

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