02 March 2010

Always the other chap: notes on tourists

Tourist or traveler: Which are you? Actually, don't answer that. Because to be perfectly honest, I don't care. I'm sick of this conversation. It's the travel equivalent of debating the work of Sartre and Heidegger and Kierkegaard: boring, pretentious, obnoxious. Who am I, fundamentally? Am I intrinsically good? Evil? Do I have any real autonomy, or am I just like Neo in "The Matrix," a body stuck in a virtual world? In the words of Keanu, or maybe Plato, Whoa.

Talking about such matters at length--either existentialism or the traveler/tourist dichotomy--only makes you sound like a pretentious wanker, no matter what your stance.

I pretty much agree with Eric Weiner, who calls out the "I'm a traveler, not a tourist" crowd in a new essay on World Hum, "Why Tourism is Not a Four-Letter Word":
Travel snobbery is rampant, insidious, and, frankly, annoying. Everyone fancies themselves a traveler, not a tourist. But that’s a lie. The fact is we’re all tourists. Yes, even you, travel snob. Now get over it. 

But I also know that Evelyn Waugh definitively covered this territory in the 1920s, with his immortal quip, "The tourist is always the other chap." And to me, there's not much else anyone can say. End of the conversation. We're all tourists.

So, yes, I trust we can all agree: Clearly, tourism can help destroy a culture. Clearly it can help preserve it, or at least an exaggerated, theme park version of it, as Weiner points out, and as I noted in my post about Munich. (UPDATE: for a compelling, convincing commentary on the culture-"preserving" effects of tourism, check out this essay on Matador by Sarah Menkedick.) Tourism and travel are neither inherently good nor inherently evil, and the debate is unresolvable ... so, lordy, enough already. Can we please just move on and all agree to stop this silly philosophical conversation about terminology? Travel well. Keep an open mind. Respect other cultures. Don't be a jackass or an imperialist. End of discussion. Thanks and good night.

Except . . . even after I've said that, even as I realize that this post should end right there, even as I realize that any editor who reads this will instinctively reach for the red pen to cross out everything that follows . . . I can't resist adding further commentary, because as aggravating as I find this conversation, it's also irresistible.

I need to point something out. You know who isn't afraid of the term "tourist"? Arthur Frommer. Here's how he opens Europe on Five Dollars a Day:

This is a book for American tourists who
a) own no oil wells in Texas
b) are unrelated to the Aga Khan
c) have never struck it rich in Las Vegas
and who still want to enjoy a wonderful European vacation

Hard to imagine that first line in Lonely Planet. Even harder to imagine in a modern guidebook is this blurb, from Travel Magazine, printed on the back of E5D: “The mere possession of EUROPE ON $5 A DAY must become the conspicuous mark of a traveling American from now on.”

Conspicuous mark?  Actually, that doesn’t sound like a selling point at all, at least not to the modern reader.  To the twenty-first century traveler, the blurb basically translates to, “Buy this book and you’ll stand out like the stereotypical Ugly American tourist you are, you sad, pathetic loser.”

I find it fascinating that even though E5D came out in 1957, decades after Evelyn Waugh's brilliant quip, Frommer could still use the term "tourist" without shame or irony. When I asked my mom about the subject recently, she laughed and said, of her 1967 Grand Tour, "Of course we were tourists!"

In 1967, one went to Europe purely for the sake of going to Europe. There was no shame in that. Today it seems necessary to have some deeper motivation--to find one's roots, to learn to make authentic Tuscan peasant cuisine, to escape the rat race and live the good life in Provence. Otherwise, prepare for scorn. To tell your friends that you want to see the Eiffel Tower, the canals of Venice, the Running of the Bulls, and other icons of European tourism is to invite scowls, wrinkled noses, long pauses in the conversation, and tentative questions of "You're ... you're kidding, right?" Example: a friend of mine, upon hearing that I was going to Paris, informed me that I should try to go the whole five days without ever seeing the Eiffel Tower, even for a moment, even as speck on the horizon. In fact, in certain quarters, you're deemed an Ugly American if you head to Paris rather than spending your trip trekking through the Alps, herding goats and learning to make artisanal cheeses. (Actually, what are you doing in Europe at all? It's such a total cliche, you Western-centric prick! You should be trekking across Nepal or hanging with Maoist rebels in some war-torn republic.) But when Arthur Frommer penned Europe on Five Dollars a Day in 1957, simply seeing the continent, even the already-overrun landmarks, was still something of a bold excursion into the unknown.

In the fifty years since then, tourism has become a dirty word. Take the blurb on the back of a more recent guidebook, a 2006 edition of Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door (whose very title is loaded with "traveler-not-tourist" smugness): “Avoid crowds and tourist traps. ... Discover off-the-beaten-path towns, trails, and natural wonders.”

(But let me once again offer translation services. That quote actually means, "This incredibly popular guidebook, trusted by millions, will lead you to places that no outsider has seen before, certainly not those millions of others who have this guidebook." That's just objectively false.  It's sort of the inverse of the famous Yogi Berra line "nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded"--by following the advice of guidebooks, everyone goes to the same out-of-the-way place precisely because no one goes there.)

So, yes, something changed between Frommer's first edition of Europe on Five Dollars a Day and now.  Back then, travel was still inherently adventurous--even if you were traveling what's now considered the beaten path. Now? Well, here's proof of how much of a cliche travel abroad has become: when the blog Stuff White People Like began its eponymous inventory, Traveling came in at number nineteen on the list, fittingly sandwiched between "Awareness" and "Being an expert on YOUR culture," and beating out such uber-white things as Apple products, public radio, and microbreweries.

White person travelling can be broken into two categories – First World and Third World.
First world is Europe and Japan, and man, this travel is not only beloved but absolutely essential in their development as white people.
Every white person takes at least one trip to Europe between the ages of 17-29. During this time they are likely to wear a back pack, stay at a hostel, meet someone from Ireland/Sweden/Italy with whom they have a memorable experience, get drunk, see some old churches and ride a train.
What’s amazing is that all white people have pretty much the same experience, but all of them believe theirs to be the first of its kind.

Guilty as charged.


Finally, for the two of you still reading, I'd like to offer the following Tourism Primer, just so you can see how old this conversation is (and therefore why it's implicitly unresolvable, and therefore we should just kill it already).

Tourism as we know it today traces its roots to the concept of the Grand Tour, beginning with 17th-century British aristocrats who journeyed to the continent ostensibly as something of an informal but dignified academic exercise, but often involving a certain level of timeless tourist debauchery—heavy drinking, sexual escapades, barroom brawls. Think of it as Ye Olde Spring Break. According to Tim Moore’s The Grand Tour—in which Moore follows in the footsteps of the original Grand Tourist, the amusingly crass and eternally unlucky Thomas Coryarte—there were some 40,000 Englishmen on the continent in 1786. In 1851, Thomas Cook initiated the package tour, leading a group from Leicester, England to the Paris Exhibition.

The term “tourist” dates to the late 18th century. The pejorative usage followed shortly thereafter, with Francis Kilvert grousing, in the 1870s, “of all the noxious animals, the most noxious is the tourist.” John Muir complained about day-trippers ruining Yosemite; Thoreau griped about the excessive visitors to Walden Pond; in The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain mocked -- well, pretty much everyone, actually, but he had particularly harsh comments about his fellow foreign travelers.

In fact, complaints about places being overrun with visitors undoubtedly go back to the Stone Age, when, one fateful day, Og and Rrr were relaxing by their fire and a crowd of strangers barged in--presumably wearing cargo shorts fashioned from tiger hides, colorful headgear emblazoned with tacky insignias, and massive rocks on strings around their necks, in anticipation of the invention of the camera--and demanded to see the cave paintings they'd heard so much about. Turning to Rrr, Og let out a series of grunts that roughly translated to, "If it's tourist season, why can't I spear them?"

I jest, but it's actually well-documented that the ancient Romans exhibited the stereotypical boorish behavior of today's tourists. What was the Colosseum, if not a seriously old-school sports stadium--meaning tourist attraction? Nero, infamous emperor of fiddling-in-a-fire fame, had a freaking theme restaurant. Roman travelers bought trinkets and had their own tourist trail, their own sandal-beaten path, as Tony Perrottet documents in his book Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists (there's that word again):
As [Perrottet] retraced the historic route, fighting the crowds and reading two-thousand-year-old descriptions of bad food, inadequate accommodations and pushy tour guides, it became clear that tourism has actually changed very little since Caesar's day.
So. Tourism. Ancient stuff. Complaining about it: also ancient. Complaining about the complainers: well, probably not that much more recent.

1 comment:

  1. This is great...very entertaining, well written!
    (I'm a friend of your uncle Scott)
    Happy Travels!


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