What about the tourists?

by Yule Heibel on March 1, 2005

Now that Joseph Heath’s and Andrew Potter’s book, Nation of Rebels : Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture, is readily available in the US (it was originally published by HarperCollins Canada as The Rebel Sell: Why The Culture Can’t Be Jammed), and now that many folks are planning their upcoming summer holidays, I thought I’d quote from Heath & Potter on the subject of tourism:

…the modern traveler is left with a serious dilemma. On the one hand, the exotic urge that creates travel as a provisional good and causes serious travelers to constantly strive to keep ahead of the waves of mass tourism is something that is shot through with self-deception, power imbalances and exploitation. On the other hand, as the tourist wave passes through a previously untouched area, the local economy is completely reshaped in anticipation of the visitors to come. The very antimaterialist attitude that leads people to seek out exotic places in the first place draws more and more regions into the global economy.

It might seem that there is no way to avoid either of the horns of this dilemma. Mass tourism is disgusting, shallow and exploitative. The pleasures of apparently exotic travel are sullied by the realization that the ongoing search for authentic connection by escaping modernity is not a solution to the problem, but its cause. Even just staying at home reneges on an implicit intercultural economic bargain. Whatever is the well-intentioned traveler to do?

One form of travel that is rarely, if ever, mentioned by sociologists and other students of tourism is the business trip. Yet there is something to be said for the business trip as the only truly authentic and nonexploitative form of travel. For many travelers, expecially those concerned (even unwittingly) with the exotic, the problem is that they are too focussed on the social psychology of the travel experience, and not on the experience itself. That is, instead of choosing a destination based on relatively objective criteria such as comforts, amenities, cost, friendliness of the locals and so on, they choose their destinations based on how “authentic” or “exotic” they are and on how much social capital will be conferred in the ongoing quest for distinction. The value of a destination hinges on how many “moderns” have been there already and on how unprepared the locals are for their arrival. This concern for the symbolic aspect of tourism transforms potential destinations into positional goods.

None of these problems apply to business travel. Unlike the exotic traveler, who spends as little money as possible while commodifying the natives’ difference, the business traveler is there at the express invitation of the locals. The business traveler’s trip represents a declination from the symbolic to the material. He or she goes not in search of spiritual meaning, or positional goods, not even to “see the sights,” but in search of trade — trade that, in principle, need not be exploitative or voyeristic. There may be competition involved, such as that between foreign firms competing for market share in a foreign market. But unlike the leapfrogging waves of tourists generated by those who travel to earn social capital, this is the sort of competition that works in favor of the locals, since they will then be able to negotiate for a better deal. In the end, it may be that the only “authentic” form of travel is business travel. Everyone else is just a tourist. [from the Canadian edition, pp.277-78.]

If you think of the early adopter travelers who, searching for the distinctively cool and the “authentic,” started what turned into a flood of tourism to Thailand, creating in their wake an industry that left huge numbers of Thai people dependent on tourism as well as ultra-exposed to the December 04 tsunami, you really should stop yourself next time you’re thinking of how to shore up your social capital, and what bragging rights it would give you, if you could snoop out the next and latest recherché elephant experience in Bali or the coolest “wilderness experience” in an Ellesmere Island-like environment.

Well, back to reading Nation of Rebels : Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture. The travel brochures will have to wait….


Tom Shugart March 2, 2005 at 7:00 pm

You make a very good point, Yule. But Heath and Potter, at least in the section you quote, make no distinction about the most common of all forms of travel–the visits to the Must See places (e.g. Vancouver and Victoria if you live in the Western US; or, as I did earlier this year, Paris and Florence).

There’s no social cachet in visiting these places. You get no points for doing something everybody does. You go for the infusion of a classic experience, widely shared and universally treasured.

This is hardly something inauthentic or shallow or exploitative–which these writers seem to be suggesting are the characterisitics of all forms of travel other than the business trip.

But, reconsidering, I guess their point really is that there’s a large group of travelers who eschew these classic experiences in the hope of being branded as unique, hip, etc. Is there anything older than vanity?

Yule Heibel March 2, 2005 at 8:50 pm

You’re right re. the large group of travelers who, as you say, eschew those more classic experiences — and they do so primarily because those experiences aren’t considered “cool” enough. When tourists come to Victoria, you can be certain that the “white bread” crowd (Mr. & Ms. Normal) stay in Victoria (or come for the year-round golfing), while the more cool individuals do a quick tour of the city and then head out on the so-called eco-tours on the Island’s west coast, grab a bit of “authentic” West Coast rainforest experience, etc. etc. Joe & Jane Cool don’t want to go home and brag about how they stayed at the Empress — they want to talk about the wilderness trails they trekked, and that they maybe even got all the way to the Haida Gwaii islands.

What H&P argue is that this constant search for the next cool thing, for alternative lifestyles, etc., focusses on symbolic choices based on status competition, which in turn exactly feeds the problem that being “alternative” is supposed to cure or challenge.

So, yeah, your question, “Is there anything older than vanity?” is right on the mark.

Tom Shugart March 3, 2005 at 11:39 pm

Well, I made it up the western side of your Island as far as Sooke. Does that qualify me as 1/16th, or perhaps 1/32nd Cool? No rainforest trek, though. I guess not.

(Actually I was up there to enjoy one of the most memorable dining experiences I ever had–(Sooke Harbor House).

Yule Heibel March 4, 2005 at 11:41 pm

Dinner at the Sooke Harbour House is, I’ve heard, a treat. But Sooke is no longer far enough away, Tom! 😉 Well, I myself have never been further than Tofino (albeit when there were only rutted logging roads to get there on — we got real highways now). I understand there are one or two real upscale resorts there now, too.

Well, now you’ve got me going. I really need a vacation this year….

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