A Journey, a Memoir: The Secret Ideology of Tourism Part II

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.

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The crowd at the Ponte Vecchio, Florence.

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.

 

 

 

 

A Journey, a Memoir: The Secret Ideology of Tourism Part I

My relationship with travel and tourism is complicated. My parents never expressed a desire to travel, I cannot remember waving farewell to extended family members heading overseas holiday, so the idea of travel was not part of my childhood. There’s no question that my recent trip to Europe was a powerful, pleasurable and deeply important experience but while writing the last few posts about the trip my discomfort with the politics of travel has rekindled. This is the first of two posts reflecting on tourism as a phenomenon. I intend to look outside my personal experience and examine the impact tourism has on the planet and on individuals’ lives.

I understand the human need to peek over the back fence, peer around the next corner or look past the horizon but when I read recently that everyone wants to travel I had to disagree. Some people like to travel, others are vagabonds for whom settling in one place is an anathema, but there are many who refuse to traipse around the world because they find planes, railway stations and sleeping in a different bed every night a challenge they cannot face.

Since my trip I fall into the crack between the two; I enjoyed and I disliked the experience at the same time. I believe this is normal. I also believe there are many ways a person can learn about the world and most of them do not require stepping past the front door.

A tour is ‘a journey for pleasure in which several different places are visited,’ but tourism is ‘the commercial organization and operation of holidays and visits to places of interest’. (OED) Despite the obvious distinction, tourism – visits to celebrated cities, art galleries, museums, sacred sites and geographical wonders – is usually described as a moral ‘good’ and ‘tourists’ as benign consumers of the world’s bounty. But is tourism always for the good?

Australians, in particular, feel the need to experience the wonders of the Northern Hemisphere. From the late fifties through to the seventies droves of Australian Baby Boomers made an almost obligatory pilgrimage to the United Kingdom and Europe. Many, who despite being born in Australia, declared they were ‘going home’, if only for a visit.

What are the personal and cultural advantages of wedging oneself into a plane and leaving the comforts of home for exotic, unfamiliar or ancient sites? I believe there are three main claims to support tourism:

  1. Tourism exposes us to different cultures, beliefs, food, customs and ideas and creates a more informed, rounded individual. Travel enhances education and exposes us to different values, all of which leads to a better understanding of the self and of diversity
  2. Humans need a holiday. They need to escape from the pressures of life, to relax and have someone cook and clean for them. This is tourism as a mental health break, something to anticipate and, more importantly, to earn
  3. Tourism enhances the economy of a country or city. If tourists stop traveling, economies will suffer.

What counter claims can be made to the above?:

  1. The idea that tourism is a form of education is all very laudable but it risks objectifying the ‘other’ as, different, odd, cute, or even strange, thus confirming the tourist’s superiority and belief that their way of life is ‘better’ than the one they witness when away from home. Is this the origin of many an Australian tourist’s comment, upon return from an overseas holiday, that, ‘We’re the lucky country, all right, you’ll learn that when you go overseas.’ Does tourism reinforce racial prejudice, commodify other cultures, and risk imposing white Anglo-Saxon lifestyles on others races, cultures and classes? The notion that, ‘you’ll be a more rounded, better informed, less insular person once you’ve traveled,’ makes me wonder how and why travel per se grants entry to the august club of ‘travel improved citizens’? If overseas travel were truly educative, why the need to advertise it? The claim that travel exposes us to other cultures begs the question, ‘What really drives a desire to travel? Is it self-enhancement or a form of cultural prestige? An airline ticket merely confirms that tourists have the skills to plan and organise a trip, the good fortune to work in an industry that provides vacation pay, and the means to afford an overseas holiday. It doesn’t automatically grant the individual an open, curious and reflective attitude to the countries they visit
  2. A mental health break is certainly important but who caters to tourists’ needs while they escape the tribulations of everyday life? This question is better addressed by examining the third claim: tourism enhances the economy of the areas visited
  3. Is the claim that travel is motivated by benevolence justified? Who actually benefits from the injection of tourist dollars into the economy? Is it the person who picks towels up from the hotel bathroom floor? The manager of a cheap resort in Bali? Or is it the company that owns the hotel chain? Does the tourist dollar go to the wait staff in a French restaurant or the Travel Agency who planned and managed the traveling experience? Does a visit to Thailand include considering the resort hotel’s impact on the local infrastructure and environment?  Where does the rubbish left in hotel garbage bins end up? Next to the hotel, or in the rubbish dump behind the hill alongside the village where the hotel cleaner lives? And what about the carbon footprint incurred flying millions of tourists across the world?

While writing this post, I read that residents in Venice and Barcelona have declared they have had enough. The unrest incurred by tourism seems to be spreading, and may not be just a reaction to terrorism.  In the next post, I will examine why some citizens of  Europe are wary of the current state of the tourism industry.