Andrew Potter: The only problem with tourism is the tourists
It's easy to overthink travel, especially if you're a philosopher on summer break. But ultimately tourism is like traffic: if you do it, you're just part of the problem.
By Andrew Potter
On an early-summer family vacation to the Rockies, we decided our first excursion would be to Johnston Canyon, which tops any number of “bucket list” rankings of things to do while in Banff.
Turns out we were just four of a few thousand other people who had the same idea. Despite getting to the parking lot just after eight a.m., we spent the next few hours shuffling along a narrow boardwalk, being pushed from behind by tourbusloads of Tilley-hatted boomers while dodging around young couples dragging infants in strollers up the canyon. At each prescribed Important Sight along the way, we’d stop for 20 minutes or so while everyone took turns taking selfies in every possible permutation of their group membership.
Back at the bottom, we vowed we wouldn’t do that again, so we spent the rest of our time in the area doing hikes drawn from the very bottom of the bucket lists, skipping the alleged must-dos like the Sulphur Mountain gondola, Moraine Lake, and Lake Louise. Apparently the town of Banff is lovely, but who knows. We never set foot in it.
Tourism presents the traveller with two main dilemmas: One is what it does to us (the visitors); the other is what it does to them (the visitees). These are problems, respectively, of authenticity and commodification. And as it turns out, they are just two ways of looking at the same underlying dynamic.
For many people, the aim of travel is self-perfection. We move about the Earth in the hope of having new experiences, discovering new cultures, feeling new emotions. We want to get out of our comfort zones, out of the ruts of the familiar and experience something exotic and authentic, as a way of getting in touch with our true or better selves.
The problem is other people have the same ambitions, the same drives and desires. And this creates a market amongst “locals” for these cravings for the authentic or the exotic, which gives rise to the modern tourist industry: Get on the tour bus; see the sight; do the thing; exit through the gift shop. This can be a highly dispiriting experience, leading one to question why one bothers going anywhere, ever.
Back in June, the philosopher Agnes Callard wrote a pissy essay for The New Yorker entitled “The Case Against Travel.” For her efforts she got trashed on social media, mostly for a section of the article where she laments what she calls the “locomotive” character of tourism — “‘I went to France.” Okay, but what did you do there? “I went to the Louvre.” Okay, but what did you do there? “I went to see the ‘Mona Lisa.’” And so on.
This is weak stuff for sure, a lame example of the old philosophy trick of substituting pidgin philology for insight. But the rest of the essay is actually good fun, and even if there’s nothing all that new in it, Callard has some good lines, including this one: “Travel turns us into the worst version of ourselves while convincing us that we’re at our best.”
She ends up arguing that, far from being a vehicle for living life at its fullest, travel is actually more like stagnation. Travel doesn’t expand the mind, it narrows it. Again, these are not new points, but Callard presses it to its logical conclusion: travel is a way of practicing for death.
Come on, you might be thinking. But joining this chorus is the philosopher Robin Hanson, who, in his newsletter this past weekend reflecting on his recent two-week Alaskan cruise, gave it the title “Visiting Death.” It’s a short dispatch, but it makes some sharp observations about travel being a sort of preparation for retirement (which is a form of death), a feeling that was only amplified for Hanson by virtue of being in the presence of so many old people.
But there’s something to be said for not overthinking things (and for not going on cruises in the first place), so let’s go back to the beginning. Why travel?
The idealized form of travel is that it is something that expands the mind, fills the soul with experience, and generally makes you feel better about yourself, the world, and your place in it. The problem, in a nutshell, is the presence of other people trying to do the same thing.
That is why the best way of understanding the trouble with travel is to see it as basically like traffic. The problem with traffic, of course, is all the other cars on the road, full of people trying to get to the same general place you are. That is, if you’re stuck in traffic, you are as much a part of the problem as anyone else.
When it comes to dealing with traffic, there are basically four main strategies. The first is, don’t bother going anywhere. But on the assumption that you want to go somewhere, your choices are to leave at off-peak times, to take different roads, or take different forms of transport. All of these last three generate further difficulties at the intersection of cost and hassle, and inevitably give rise to the same sort of congestion issues that made the original route so frustrating. Anyone who has ever tried to get up to cottage country north of Toronto or Montreal on a long weekend knows the calculations involved here.
The thing is, travel has exactly the same dynamic as traffic. It basically is traffic, with the added complication that the people doing the moving (the “locomoting”) are not just trying to get somewhere, they are also trying to experience something. But nothing is more surely guaranteed to undermine an experience, of the authentic say, or the exotic, than the presence of other people trying to do the same thing.
All of which is to say that travel is a form of status-seeking. It is an experiential arms race, where people are forced to spend increasingly large sums, or take on increasingly significant hassles, to get away from the crowd. Spend a lot of money, get up really early, or don’t go anywhere at all — that’s the trilemma of modern tourism.
Everyone is free to make his or her own choices here, and it’s hard to see why one option is any better, or more virtuous, than the others. The philosophers are free to sit tight with their thoughts and their books. It would be nice, though, if they realized that mocking those who decide otherwise as somehow choosing to “experience death” is itself the ultimate status move, and as such, only makes the problem worse.
Andrew Potter is the author of The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves.
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