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Ten Thoughts on Tourism

(This was written in 2005 after a post-retirement round-the-world tour. It was published on the Social Affairs Unit website and I am dragging it out of the archive a) because I still believe what it says and b) because it was the high end of the spectrum in terms of favourable comments.)

I have just spent four months as a tourist and could not avoid a certain amount of reflection on the nature of tourism as an activity even if I tried. It is, of course, an enormously important and growing activity and in many of the places I visited, from Egypt to South Island, it already dominates the economy. There is, quite properly, a considerable body of academic writing on the subject, particularly in cultural sociology, but also in economics. Though I have perused John Urry’s The Tourist Gaze and the Journal of Sustainable Tourism and even the website of that “other” WTO, the World Tourist Organisation, what follows does not take up their themes, but those which I began to think about as a result of experience.

1. Tourism is destiny. We inexorably work towards the tourist condition, the holiday and the retirement, both individually and collectively. In the absence of real religious conviction “Paradise” and “Heaven” become beaches and hotels.

2. Tourism is difficult. The most famous lines written by W.H.Davies, the “supertramp” are: “What is life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?”. They are famous because reflective idleness is a condition that we aspire to. But the actual experience of tourism isn’t remotely like that. We found ourselves constantly getting up at 4am to see animals, temples or whatever. And the skiing day starts with you getting up early and putting on hugely heavy boots to go out in temperatures of –12C. More fundamentally, when I look at the diaries I kept there are constant self-assessments as to whether I’ve put the work in, touristically speaking: there are “thorough” days and “lazy” days. There is a tick list in one’s mind of things that have to be seen and done if opportunities are not to be lost. On safari they actually give you a tick list. It all feels like a set of obligations, but to whom? It is a particular example of a more general contemporary problem. If we are utilitarians and consequentialists how do we balance means and ends, stop being instrumental and merely enjoy?

3. The core difficulty is the multiplicity of purposes. One might cite “relaxation”, but the objective evidence that most tourism is anything but relaxing. “Curiosity” is not what it was, either: given the plethora of visual images available to us now actually seeing the pyramids at Giza or the Sydney Opera House adds little to one’s knowledge. “Status” would be another general objective, but is surely increasingly elusive. The statistics show that in the UK (and there is a similar pattern in several fairly wealthy countries) only about 50% of the population travel at all, but they travel increasingly far and often. You may think you are rather special for having reached the ancient mountain capital of whomever, but when you get there you are likely to meet your plumber or a group of your former students. In any case, there are very diffuse values among tourists: what backpackers admire and aspire to is not the luxury hotel but the arduous journey.

4. Photography concentrates these philosophical difficulties. Imagine the scene: dawn at the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank of the Nile. About 400 coachloads of tourists turn up. (It feels like 400, anyway.) The place is as crowded as any football ground. We all click away like paparazzi, in many cases with equipment a BBC cameraman would have envied twenty years ago. It is so crowded that cameras have to be stuck up in the air at arm’s length. But why are we doing all this? Who on earth is going to look at all these pictures? The danger is of a kind of false instrumentality in which we fall into the assumption that we have come to create pictures and assess our journey accordingly.

5. Quasi-tourism is better than tourism. By this I mean that the activity is not tourism (or not mere tourism), but the route or destination are chosen touristically. The cricket tour, the skiing holiday, the conference, the guest lecture: all these provide a “narrative”, as they say, a way of winning and losing, which gives tourism meaning. I was surprised that in driving to Santiago da Compostella I felt twinges of envy for those who were actually walking there as proper pilgrims. I was equally surprised at the enthusiasm of my wife (who normally refers to the game as “bloody cricket”) for her first away test match, because “it gave us something to focus on”. The future of the industry lies with focus and not with mere gawping or relaxing. Note the resentment that lies in the idea of the NAFT tour (= “not another flipping temple” – roughly).

6. Tourism generates its own forms of social relations. “Easy come, easy go” is the assumption and I suppose our literary paradigm must be the Canterbury Tales. It always amazes me that the British, who seem to put up barriers against each other at home, are so good at creating friendly acquaintance and viable groups once away. Put us round a table on a Nile boat or in a safari vehicle and we are able to create instantly what seem like warm friendships. There is an unwritten rule against extending these relationships, however. In New Zealand we had dinner with an airline pilot who was travelling on his own and whom we had met several times on the road. We exchanged life stories and had much in common, but somehow knew not to exchange addresses. It is as if the transient nature of these mini-friendships licenses and eases them. A version of this holds true for the relationship with the tour guide, ski instructor etc.

7. Tourism provides a complex expression of national cultures. When I first travelled, over forty years ago, Americans were the dominant tourists. This was the world of Europe on $5 a Day and If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium. But it’s very noticeable now that Americans are distinctly under-represented in world tourism whereas the young Irish and Australians and the middle-aged English are very prominent. (Actually a young Irishman gave me the greatest soundbite on travel I have come across. We were the only non -Chinese travelling in a train across Southern China, a landscape in which you could always see a block of flats, a factory and several paddyfields. I ventured the opinion that it was a boring landscape. He thought for a moment and said, “But it’s interesting how boring it is.” And so it was!) Clearly, for these cultures (and not for Americans) wandering is a literal and metaphorical rite of passage. With young Japanese women I often feel they have subjected to some ancient curse which condemns them to wander the earth solemnly and silently. I climbed Mt. John in South Island alone, my partner having been injured. I was thoroughly enjoying my “solitude in the presence of natural grandeur” (to borrow a phrase from John Stuart Mill) when I realised I was sharing it with a young Japanese woman with a rucksack on her back who bowed politely. Far from detracting from the experience, I felt that her presence made it more real.

8. There are no limits to what can be an object of touristic attention. I remember the smirk on the BBC newsreader’s face twenty odd years ago when it was announced that Bradford had appointed a tourist officer, so odd did it seem in the context of English culture that an “industrial” city should try to be of interest. Whereas now it would seem very odd for any city not to try to attract tourists. In assessing our own journey we created a “More things in heaven and earth” category to cover things we’d never heard of before we set off. The top two were the Sheepshearing Hall of Fame in Hay, New South Wales and the lavish-tacky oriental style cinema, now known as the Civic Theatre, in Auckland, New Zealand.

9. Notwithstanding 8 (above) there is an important element of pilgrimage about most tourism and there is one aspect of this which I find rather disturbing. It is that people who do not show any kind of reverence or religious feeling in their normal circumstances do so when presented with Ancient Egyptian symbols or Aboriginal painting. What I find disturbing is the underlying assumption that the ancient and the primitive provide the sole locations of the profound. Although not a believer I did find Choral Evensong at Christchurch Cathedral more moving than anything which ancient cultures had to offer.

10. If you assume that present trends continue and that tourism continues to increase throughout this century the question arises as to how it will change the world. Superficially, the evidence (such as the reaction to the tsunami) suggests that it will make us all more conscious of our common humanity. I certainly feel more compassion towards Galle, Sri Lanka because I have actually been to a cricket match there. But I think we must acknowledge that it works both ways, at least to some degree and remember that Norman Angell’s The Grand Illusion, which argued that there would be no wars in the twentieth century because of our increasing interconnectedness, was published in 1910. On the other hand I feel more confident in believing that countries where people travel a great deal will benefit in many ways, including tolerance and relativism, the importation of ideas and the appreciation of what you have already have. English food has surely gained enormously from this process already?

Lincoln Allison