16 January 2011

The package tour of the road less traveled

Is there a single part of the world today that does not have its own package tour? I rather doubt it. "Off the beaten path" has become just another marketing phrase, one used to attract the authenticity-seekers who are so over the tourist trails of Europe and Southeast Asia. There comes a point, though, when that endless--and, importantly, mass--quest for the unspoiled becomes not just absurd but wholly unsustainable.

I think we've reached that point. Two articles from the New York Times in the past week provide ample evidence. First up, from last week's big "41 Places to Go in 2011" package (with my emphasis added at the end):
34. Iraqi Kurdistan
As United States forces withdraw from Iraq, a handful of intrepid travel companies are offering trips to the semiautonomous Kurdish region in the north, which has enjoyed relative safety and stability in recent years.


Visitors can tour significant cultural landmarks like Erbil’s citadel, which dates to the Assyrian empire, and the site of the Battle of Gaugamela, which ended in the defeat of the Persian king Darius III by Alexander the Great and led to the fall of the Achaemenid Empire. The biggest lure is the opportunity for authentic cultural encounters. “Authenticity is something that can be lost so quickly as development occurs,” said Janet Moore, of Distant Horizons.
Yes, correct, it's true: with development comes a decline in authenticity. Now, development can have plenty of positive effects, too--improved medical care, infrastructure, economic growth, etc.--but never mind all that, we want authenticity! But who can tell me where the first wave of development and authenticity-leech might come from? Tourists, perhaps? 

And now on to the second article, from yesterday's Times:

Tourists Mimic Polar Pioneers, Except With Planes and Blogs

When the British explorer Robert Falcon Scott arrived at the South Pole only to find that he had been beaten there by Roald Amundsen and his team of Norwegians, he was despondent. “Great God! This is an awful place,” he lamented in his diary.

Awful as it may be, it is about to get a lot of foot traffic. Hundreds of people — tourists, adventurers and history buffs — are lining up to visit the South Pole in honor of the 100th anniversaries of Amundsen’s arrival (on Dec. 14, 1911) andScott’s (Jan. 17, 1912). The preparations are already speeding along.


Needless to say, people will not want to replicate Scott’s entire expedition. He and his men died in a blizzard during the 800-mile trek back from the pole, huddled in a tent that was, famously, just 11 miles from a vital cache of supplies.

Instead, many people plan to ski to the pole, then fly back. One of them is Matt Elliott, a 28-year-old Briton, who will compete in a 440-mile ski race, pulling 200 pounds of gear the whole way. A resident of Windsor, he works for his family’s paper wholesaling business and calls himself “a complete polar novice.”

He has never tried cross-country skiing, and he is not a big fan of cold weather, but he has been practicing by dragging two car tires on a rope for several hours at a time.

“I want to know how far, physically, I can go,” said Mr. Elliott, who is paying about $95,000 to enter the competition, sponsored by a London-based company called Extreme World Races. “It would be great to get there first and run the Union Jack at the South Pole before the Norwegians get there,” he said.
It's tempting to be snarky and note that this can't end well and wonder if Jon Krakauer will be on hand to write the book about the inevitable disaster this will turn out to be. But I don't want to joke; it's really not funny. Truly: this is a tragedy waiting to happen (though I'd love to be wrong). This guy has never skied before, and surely he isn't the only member of this group who is astonishingly ill-prepared, but who seems to think that writing a big check and training in entirely different conditions (not on skis, not in the cold) is all the preparation he needs. All in the name of ... what? Competition? Hubris? I can think of a hundred ways to prove yourself with less chance of dying. The Ironman Triathlon, for one.

The article continues: 
David Wilson, a great-nephew of Edward Wilson, the naturalist and sketch artist who marched to the pole with Scott and died beside him, will join other descendants of Scott’s polar party in Antarctica next Jan. 17 in the vicinity of the tent, where they will hold a memorial service.

He echoes the Scott party line: that the British expedition went to Antarctica to do science, not to race to the pole. The people planning competitions are “completely misunderstanding what happened 100 years ago,” Dr. Wilson said.

Despite the potential circus atmosphere, some veterans insist that Antarctica is not for novices.

“It’s a place that wants you dead,” said Robert Swan, an environmentalist who walked Scott’s route to the South Pole in 1985. “Scott found that out 100 years ago.”

Seriously: there are some places tourists shouldn't go. For their own good.

And also for the good of the place. Look, I get the appeal of the authentic and unspoiled and untouched (here, travel journalists, have some more synonyms). There's nothing so transcendent, so stirring, as beauty in the raw.

But I'll say it again: it's not sustainable. Even if the Antarctic tourists don't die (and, truly, I wish them all the best), there's a good chance some of them will have to be rescued. They'll leave garbage. And even just by being there, as tourists, they send a message to the rest of the world: come on down! Anyone can do this! It's totally extreme ... and totally awesome! I await the filming of the first sports-drink commercial with Shaun White snowboarding down a glacier and doing a McTwist 1260 over some startled penguins.

In a 1972 profile of Arthur Frommer for Harper's, Stanley Elkin observed, "It's no accident that Arthur Frommer, the Pill, and credit cards are simultaneous phenomena. Everybody deserves everything. You only live once. Screwing for everybody and Europe for everybody too. This is the egalitarian key to a proper understanding of Europe on Five Dollars a Day."

Today, it's not just "Europe for everybody." It's "the whole world for everybody." And as much as I like the notion that travel is becoming more egalitarian, I can't help but recoil at the perception that it's everyone's birthright to see everything, do everything. Not sustainable, not sustainable. 

It's time to put the brakes on this kind of tourism. Not that anyone from the New York Times travel section or Conde Nast Traveler or Travel + Leisure or, for that matter, Budget Travel reads this blog, but if they did, here's what I'd say: please stop with the lists and stop with the authentic and stop with the endless quest for the unspoiled. I know it's a game you play. I know it gets the readers who draw the advertisers who pay your salary. I know you like to talk up "green" travel and ecotourism (although I respectfully submit that there's no such thing as a truly environmentally-friendly lodge in the rainforest, especially one that then attracts more people and more lodges to a place that was truly untouched and ... well, there goes the neighborhood).

But. Maybe it's time to rethink things a bit. How about an article or two embracing the beaten path, finding new ways to appreciate the seemingly-cliched cities and landmarks? How about mentioning that the truest ecotourism is to leave these "unspoiled" places alone--not to rush to get there first so you can later brag that you saw them before they got overrun? How about acknowledging that we're all tourists, no matter how far-flung, and what matters is not finding something your friends haven't found but appreciating and understanding that thing--that culture, that place, that food--on your own terms, in your own way? (Oh, and if you want someone to write a story with an offbeat take on the beaten path, well, I might know someone ...)

Of late, one of the big culinary trends, at least the US, has been classic comfort food done right. Witness the rise of the gastropubs like the Spotted Pig in New York or the nouveau diners like my hometown favorite, the Town Talk Diner--places that take hamburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches and the like and remix them, often with high-end ingredients. There's a parallel phenomenon of street-food fusion, such as the Los Angeles food-truck phenom Kogi, which serves Korean barbecue tacos.

I think it's time for the travel world to follow suit, to embrace the familiar but in unfamiliar ways, to find the new angle on the old cliche. One of my favorite things about traveling on the beaten path is that it's the crossroads of the world--you meet people from the Official Local Culture but also immigrants who live there now and tourists from all over the globe. In Brussels, you can eat frites and doner kebabs with EU officials, Malaysian tourists, and Algerian-immigrant locals (to be sure, this particular scene is possibly an idealistic  pipe dream ... but then, so are most of the touristic visions of Provence or Bali). The New Old World ain't just churches and museums and stuffy restaurants, so don't treat it like a static, monolithic place.

Or there are the places that have stood the test of time, becoming tourist traps, yes, but gloriously so--the Hofbrauhaus in Munich, Casa Botin in Madrid, landmarks like the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum. These are places with stories and history; there's a reason they're iconic, there's a reason people go there. And that's one of the other things I love about the beaten path: that sense of being part of something collective, of trying to understand the reasons why so many people come here. What is that history? What are those stories?

I could go on, but the Madrid chapter is calling me and, well, you probably take my point by now. If there's one theme I harp on throughout this blog, perhaps too much, it's this: there are plenty of stories left to tell on the beaten path, because it's always evolving, developing unexpected contours and detours and landmarks. It might take some extra effort to find those interesting things, but they're there, all over, sometimes hiding in plain sight.

So if you're reading this, travel magazine editors, there's a story for you. And please stop with the authenticity-hype. I can think of a few tourists in Antarctica who will soon be deeply regretting that they didn't stay on the beaten path.


  1. I understand that the slopes of Everest are literally littered with the bodies of unprepared climbers: unnecessary personal risk and pollution rolled into one.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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