Sunday, October 15, 2006

Confessions of a Tourist in an Energy-Challenged Age

Tourism is perhaps best described as a theatrical production in which the tourists become the audience, the destination becomes the set, and the natives become the actors. In general, the tourist goes to a destination to witness the enactment of another culture, either domestic or foreign.

The performance can take place under different conditions. When only a few tourists (i.e., audience members) are present, the natives may find those tourists to be an oddity and generally go about their business as if there were no audience. At most, the locals attend to the visitors as they would any visitor.

When the number of tourists increases, certain natives find it profitable to cater to the desires of tourists. These natives, in effect, become the ushers of the theater and become aligned with the tourists. When the number of tourists overwhelms a particular locale, the performance suffers. This happens when, for instance, those sitting next to the tourists in restaurants are other tourists. The other restaurant guests are no longer part of the performance, but part of the audience. In such cases, the actual performers are reduced in number to those working in restaurants, shops and hotels, i.e., places where tourists spend most of their time.

Two developments result from this last scenario. First, the natives still living in the tourist destination begin to shape themselves to satisfy the fantasies of the tourists and neglect their own culture. What tourists want and expect becomes paramount (and highly profitable). Second, this process can breed both conscious and unconscious resentment that occasionally comes to the surface as rudeness or remains hidden as offstage contempt for the tourist audience. The natives resent being reduced to a servant class whose job is to provide a caricature of their culture consistent with the fantasies of the tourists.

On a recent trip to Italy I experienced all three environments. In a working class suburb of Milan, my sister and I went looking for some food to bring back to our hotel. We eventually found some shops behind a block of flats that we could see from the highway. No other tourists were in evidence and neither the proprietor nor his employees spoke any English. For the first time we were thrust into a situation that was authentic Italy. Our Berlitz Italian allowed us to buy what we needed and get directions to a nearby bakery as well. But in this small shopping district there were no special concessions to tourists. In some ways this brief encounter was the most satisfying of our trip. We were having to deal with Italians on their terms.

While in Rome we found that Romans go about their daily lives despite the million or so tourists who visit every year. Except for the occasional McDonald's, there are very few accommodations designed exclusively for foreign tourists. Still one would expect this great cosmopolitan city and seat of government to have an openness to foreigners. Accordingly, nearly every shopkeeper and concierge speaks English (and many speak French and German besides). And, yet Rome retains its essential character.

But Cinque Terra, a national park on the northwest coast containing five small cities, has become a virtual American colony. Most of our fellow hotel guests were Americans. Most of the dinner guests at the restaurants were Americans. The resentment of the locals was just under the surface. For us that resentment erupted in a spat with a waiter who piled the next course on our table only shortly after we had started eating our first one. The restaurant was exceptionally busy, and so it took considerable effort to get his attention again and make our complaint. After cutting us off, he proceeded to lecture us about our rude behavior. I couldn't help thinking that he was voicing the resentments of his fellow Italians about the tourist takeover of these five towns and the strangulation of their culture.

What could one now find in Cinque Terra other than more English-speaking tourists attempting to fulfill a fantasy about a romantic Italian vacation? The entire place was designed not to disrupt or challenge that fantasy in any way.

In fact, many American tourist destinations have perfected this kind of environment. At Disney World any actual local culture has been scrubbed away and replaced with fake, nonworking town environments and sanitized streetscapes. Perhaps the closest Italian equivalent would be the island of Capri (which was only described to me by those who took a day trip there). Capri has apparently become a free-fire zone for upscale retailers targeting cruise ship patrons. All traces of authentic Italian town life seem to have been eliminated.

People have always traveled for a variety reasons--to seek knowledge, to gain riches, to visit friends, to trade, and (lest we not forget) to conquer territory. But the particular variant of travel called tourism is a more recent phenomenon. At first only the rich engaged in tours. But with the advent of cheap, fossil-fueled transportation tourism has gradually become democratized, at least for the people of wealthy nations. Nearly everyone in those nations can and does travel as a tourist. And, for many well-off retirees, tourism has become a way of life.

But, as the petroleum age wanes, there is a question not only about whether the tourism industry as we now know it can survive, but whether it can be defended as an activity worthy of the vanishing fossil fuels we expend on it. There can be little doubt that tourism has helped to break down barriers between people of different cultures. It has made it harder for world leaders to demonize foreigners, at least for people who have met those foreigners. Tourism has--even if only a little--aided a worldwide dialogue about difference, tolerance and cooperation. To paint all tourism with one brush as merely a pleasant method of dining out (and wasting resources) is too simplistic.

Perhaps one way to think about the relative merits of any tourist venture in an energy-constrained age is to ask whether a planned trip is something other than escapism. Are we open to the possibility that our current fantasies about our destination might be overturned? Are we anxious to test our ideas and preconceptions against the reality we find? Can we learn anything that may help us bring about the deep and lasting changes we require to create a sustainable society?

As our energy challenges mount, tourism is likely to become one of the first casualties, making further lectures about its wastefulness unnecessary. Around that time all of us will find ourselves cast (whether we like it or not) in a drama of transformation unlike anything the modern age has known, a drama in which the very survival of our civilization may be at stake. In that drama none of us will be playing the part of a passive audience member anymore; we will be the actors and our performance will, of necessity, be the performance of a lifetime.


Anonymous said...

The thing about Tourism, as opposed to Travel, is that it compresses the experience into the few days or weeks that we can spare from our modern lifestyles. Without a doubt fossil fuels power that compression.

But you know, Josh Slocum sailed himself around the world better than a hundred years ago, and many have followed.

In less risky endeavors many, many, people have walked or bicycled distances ranging from the "fun" to the "epic."

It takes time to go far ... but how much compression do we really need?

Suggested Titles, an incomplete list:


"Around the World in the Yacht 'Sunbeam'", Mrs. Brassy, 1879

"Sailing Alone Around the World", Josh Slocum, 1899

"Red Mains'l", Peter Pye, 1952


"Against the Wind", Yasuyuki Ozeki, 2004


"Hanibal's Footsteps", Bernard Levin, 1985

Anonymous said...

Also recommended, the Adventure Cycling photo gallery