In my last post, I described my discomfort with the travel industry. While researching the topic I discovered criticism of the industry is not new. In 1959, German poet Hans Enzensberger wrote an article addressing the issue of travel as an ‘experience’. This post will attempt to summarise the article.
Enzensberger begins by outlining the development of tourism, including the first appearance of the word ‘tourism’ in dictionaries. He is particularly interested in how tourism is mythologized as a ‘metaphysical’ experience when it was, originally, an exclusive enterprise that pandered to a selective group of people clamoring for an historical, untrammeled, romanticised, pristine experience of, as Enzensberger calls them, carefully selected ‘sights’. He argues that travel is a by-product of the bourgeois/ capitalistic endeavor, designed for the benefit of the few, who believe they have a ‘right’ to crisscross the planet at whim, to the detriment of the many whose rights are deferred. Eventually, the ‘privileged’, wealthy tourists were joined by ‘emancipated citizens’ who, although restricted in both capital and time, nevertheless flooded the tourism industry. This has been achieved in three different ways: standardization, packaging and serial production. Standardization is a result of the emergence, in the 19th century, of ‘travel books’, which encouraged travelers to perceive, and venues to package, certain ‘sights’ as highly significant. Standardization creates ‘obedient tourists’ who visit sights ‘produced’ as tourist venues.
‘Packaging’ is the assembly of a set of specific experiences and venues. When it proved too expensive to create packages for every individual the ‘serial production’ of collective experiences, otherwise known as cruises and guided tours, emerged. Taken together, these three techniques drive an industry that markets ‘inexpensive’ destinations while eliminating the risk that tourists will stray off the predetermined, mass-produced and designated trail. It does not, however, address the needs of residents who live in cities, not ‘destinations’, and who resent the seasonal, mass intrusion of thousands of people into their country and lifestyle.
Given the significance of such locations to the packaged product, tourism, claims Enzensberger, is little more than the political, social, technological, intellectual, cultural and environmental ‘homogenization of space’. I interpret this to mean that most tourist sites are mere parodies, frozen facsimiles of what they once were, little more than fantasy images on a postcard tourists purchase or the photos they snap, instead of unique, organic locations open to change and renewal.
Enzensberger also addresses the ‘adventure holiday’, which, he claims ‘allies itself with the methods of competitive sports.’ A form of heroic tourism reminiscent of Odysseus’ journey back to Ithaca, the adventure holiday provides access to ‘untramelled’ locations, effectively eradicating their ‘undiscovered’ value. Enzensberger’s article was written in 1959, but this concept of ‘lifeseeing,’ or ‘observing the way the people one visits really live,’ eerily prefigures the growth of Airbnb, where tourists eschew large and impersonal chain hotels for the opportunity to stay in a real home with ‘real’ people. This, however, has brought its own problems and restores international hotel chains to their original position of ‘castles of the bourgeoisie’. Fifty plus years before its creation, Enzensberger also foreshadows Facebook when he says,
it is not enough to experience what ideology has sold as the pristine and far away – one also has to publicize it. Those who stay at home demand that the adventures be recounted …
In 2017 neither tourists nor their families need to wait until they arrive home to recount their travel adventures; they can post photographs of the day’s ‘experience’ on Facebook thus verifying their privilege and reputation as travelers.
Enzensberger reminds us that while migration has always been a ‘biological and economic’ necessity, travel has not, historically, been a pleasure. Both, however, are closely associated with capitalism: travel through rampant advertising, the plethora of hotel chains and the marketing of museums, art galleries, and historical sites; migration through war, the premier fuel of capitalism. Is this is why people fleeing, for example, Syria, are labeled ‘economic refugees’? Does the idea, spurious though it might be, of tourism as pleasure blind us to the legitimate needs of people fleeing for their lives? How can we imagine refugees are seduced by the lure of exotic places and economic benefits when what they need is safety and time to grieve for lost homes and family members killed by the same capitalistic regime that casts tourist dollars across the planet?
I am aware that this post describes what Enzensberger calls ‘tourism’s clandestine disappointment’:
Despair is a familiar experience for tourists. Blindly, they grasp for the strongest means to dissipate boredom, well aware beforehand of the futility of their escape. Again and again they see through a deceptive freedom that is sold ready made, but refuse to admit the betrayal that has victimized them. They do not voice their dissapointment because the blame would not fall on the organizers of the trip but only on themselves. In the eyes of their friends, such a confession of defeat would amount to a social failure.
Enzensberger, A Theory of Tourism, pp. 134-135
Written in the late 1950s, Enzensberger’s article examines who benefits from the tourism industry and who is disadvantaged by it. More importantly, he asks that we examine how tourism shapes our perception of the world and ‘whether we have created it, or it has created us.’
These questions continue to be asked. In 2015, Elizabeth Becker described the growing criticism of tourism adding that in 2012 tourists made a billion trips abroad, bolstering an industry that adds ‘$7.6 trillion to the global economy.’ She concludes by noting that,
The United Nations World Tourism Organization projects that by 2030, global tourism will reach 1.8 billion trips a year. It is now so big that it will inevitably be part of conversations about climate change, pollution and migration. Without serious government attention, many beloved places will be at risk of being trammelled and damaged — what those in the tourism industry call being loved to death.
Should we, can we, reverse this trend? Are there better ways to experience the world? As The Guardian recently reported, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), which promotes ‘responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism’,
recommends a number of proven methods for managing crowds in destinations, such as encouraging tourists to visit beyond the central sights, diversifying tourist activities, reducing seasonality and, importantly, addressing the needs of the local community. The focus should not be, it says, on simply stopping tourists arriving.
The UNWTO has published a pamphlet listing a series of goals designed to achieve this end. The first is to
End poverty in all its forms everywhere: As one of the largest and fastest growing economic sectors in the world, tourism is well-positioned to foster economic growth and development at all levels and provide income through job creation. Sustainable tourism development, and its impact at community level, can be linked with national poverty reduction goals, those related to promoting entrepreneurship and small businesses, and empowering less favored groups, particularly youth and women.
The next time I contemplate spending my tourist dollar, I will try to keep this and the sixteen other sustainable development goals in mind. Unless we all commit to doing so, there may be no more tourist sites to visit.