Borrowing the Landscape

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Tourism is vast and has transformed thousands of cities, for good and for bad. Many cities are drowned by tourists and have had their lifeblood drained out of them, their identity squashed by the sheer mass of human bodies crowding into sites. Think of Agra and the route to the Taj Mahal, Barcelona's Sagrada Famiglia, Niagara Falls, Venice, and now Keralan beaches and Mayan temples. It is often better to look at a picture or watch a film than visit them because it is difficult to see them in the flesh, let alone sense their awe. With so many people there is little respect as chatter, flashing cameras, smelly food and sticky drinks impinge on the experience. It is one reason, money aside, why armchair tourism and virtual tourism have become popular, where you do not travel physically but explore the world through the internet, books or TV.

Tourists mostly borrow someone else's landscape for their own personal pleasures and needs. It may be an urban buzz or a beach. As tourists we treat those landscapes or cities as commodities -used one moment, thrown away the next, rather like we treat clothes. Tourists rarely converse deeply with the place, meet a local or go to their home, even though most of us want to pretend we are travellers. In the hierarchy of travel, tourists are seen as mere consumers, whereas travellers are - to themselves, at least - of a better class: amateur anthropologists.

Frenzied tourism has transformed the way we treat places. One day prague, the next Hong Kong - an endless list of the 'next thing'. We see the cities briefly, we engage little with them, we use them (and abuse them). We give nothing back except a bit of money and rarely do we speak the language. How under those conditions can we find the 'true soul' of a place that seems to be authentically itself: resilient enough through inner strength to take on the blemishes, to absorb outside influence without being too absorbed?

In the resilient city, such as New York, Hong Kong or Tokyo, the strength and sheer scale of activity, business and the industry means the tourist is a bit player. Their impact is minimized. The insider (the resident) rather than the outsider (the tourist) defines the city's self-perception. In between there are those on their way to becoming insiders or temporary insiders and they are necessary to give the city new blood. But it is important to appreciate that they are committed to the city by living there. They give something back by providing their ideas and labour. Yet cities become a stage set when the balance is wrong and the outsider overwhelms. Think of the French Quarter in New Orleans, old Venice or even the strong city of Barcelona with Las Ramblas and new city beach. Tourism has recently opened in China and already the beautiful Lijiang is complaining about losing its identity. A city with too many tourists is like a home that receives too many guests; there is little time to be yourself and get on with your life.

The contradictory effects of tourism come from its mixed motives, which represent two kinds of yearning. It is about transgressing and escaping from everyday reality. At the same time, by getting out of yourself you can reflect on and affirm who you are. You let go of yourself and at best you enrich yourself. Or, in complete contrast, you search for a home from home and that is truly borrowing the landscape. For the English abroad it can mean the clichés: fish and chips, lukewarm beer and a cup of tea. Where does this leave the city visited?

The history of European tourism originated with the medieval pilgrimage. The purpose was religious; there was a humility and a respect for place, but the pilgrims already saw the experience as a holiday. The word derives from the 'holy day', where religious activities and fun and games are mixed. Pilgrimages created the souvenir business, helped banking to develop and, inventively, used all forms of transport, such as catching a lift on boats bound for ports near religious sites.

From the 16th century onwards it became fashionable for sons of the nobility to take an extended Grand Tour of Europe as an educational experience. The equivalent today is perhaps the backpacker trip. Health tourism, such as visiting spas to take the waters, developed early and became popular by the 18 th century. They helped create cities like Bath, Karlsbad or Baden Baden, which provided an active social life for their fashionable visitors, such as balls and tournaments.

The tourism industry as we know it can be dated back to 5 July 1841 when Thomas Cook, a Baptist minister, organized transportation and entertainment for 570 people travelling from Leicester to Loughborough to attend a temperance rally. He thought that the new power of the railways could help the cause of temperance. Cook argued that the lower and middle classes would be better off if they saved their money for trips rather than spending it on booze.

Cook's big break came with arranged package tours for the Great Exhibition in London that took place in 1851, prefiguring big-event tourism. For five shillings, a person could travel to the exhibition, eat and sleep in London. 165,000 tickets were sold in the county of Yorkshire alone. Cook arranged similar tours to the Paris Exhibition and developed many of the services we know today, such as help getting passports, language guides, transportation, food, lodging and traveller's cheques.28

What a supreme irony that the temperance movement's fight against alcohol shares a history with tourism! We have now turned full circle as cities and holiday spots around the world, from Prague and Dublin to Goa and Bali's Kuta Bay, fight to control binge drinking and drink-induced bad behaviour by tourists. For instance, the traditional English habit of a 'stag night' or a 'hen night' before a wedding has taken on international dimensions. In Dublin's Temple Bar area an association called TASCQ (Traders in the Area Supporting the Cultural Quarter) is actively discouraging such visitors and block bookings of hotels.

Tour operators tout attractions such as Prague Pissup, ( 'an all-in package for all-in drinkers'. Stand on Wenceslas Square on any Saturday evening and you will see lots of British stag groups. And they openly admit they've come to Prague for the cheap booze - and cheap sex:

There's fifteen of us in various places, all doing the same thing - all in strip clubs. Beautiful women ... culture, beautiful blonde-haired culture. We like all that.

Listen, it's a beautiful city, and the architecture is fantastic. But what we're saying is, it's built up a culture now that's a stag weekend . and people enjoying themselves. Cheap beer, it's easy to get to -two hours from the UK. Fantastic, fantastic.29

As Peter Hall noted, 'There's a haunting sense that maybe Prague could become an urban Torremolinos, following the curve from charming discovery to mass tourism hell to tourist slum in one generation.'30 And expansion is on the way as the lure of Prague wears off: The cheap, beautiful East European cities like Tallinn, Budapest, Ljubljana and Krakow are next on the list of the Prague Pissup organizers. As they say, 'The groups pump money into local businesses - hotels, bars, restaurants, taxis and so on. These blokes spend a lot more than the average tourist.'31

Tourism exploded from tiny beginnings into the world's largest industry with finance.32 'The Lonely Planet is not lonely anymore' reads a headline in the Guardian.33 Tourism employed 235 million people in 2006, which is one in every 15 jobs, and this is projected to reach 280 million (one in 11 jobs) by 2016.34 Its economic value was US$6.5 trillion (US$6,500,000,000,000) in 2006 and is expected to double between 2007 and 2016, 4.2 per cent annual growth in real terms. It represented 3.6 per cent of global GDP in 2006.35 Yet when considering both direct and indirect contributions to the world economy such as the growth in tourism-related businesses (cleaning companies, caterers, and so on), the industry is estimated at 10.3 per cent of gross domestic product.36

In 1950 there were 25 million international tourists. By 2005 it had risen to an estimated 800 million - an astonishing 24-fold growth. This was aided by the rise of low-budget airlines and cheap airfares, whose prices are cheap because there is no tax on their fuel. It is the environment that is paying the consequences. Of these tourists two-thirds are European, the equivalent of one trip per European. In 2004, just over half of all international tourists travelled for leisure and recreation, business travel accounted for 16 per cent and around a quarter had other motives like visiting friends and relatives, religious purposes and health treatments. Together, they spent US$623 billion on souvenirs, hotels, restaurant meals, museum tickets and the like. The World Trade Organization reports that the world's 6.5 billion people produced US$8.9 trillion worth of merchandise exports in 2004 and international tourism represented 7 per cent of this total. This is a bit less than the total world agricultural exports of US$780 billion for that year; about two-thirds of the US$990 billion in energy exports; more than twice the value of global steel trade; 40 per cent above the US$450 billion textiles and clothing trade; and 20 times the US$30 billion in annual arms exports.37

Tourism is growing at a faster rate than trade as a whole. In 1950, 25 million international tourists spent US$2.1 billion equivalent against a world export total of US$125 billion. The ratio of tourist spending to export revenue was 1 to 60. In 2005 it was 1 to 13.38

And just wait for China and India to take off. For instance, in 2005 31 million Chinese flew abroad, admittedly most to Macau and Hong Kong, and by 2020 it is estimated it will be 100 million39 - and how many to Europe? 10 million? To Britain, perhaps 1 million? And the Chinese go to quirky places. In Germany, the second most visited place by Chinese tourists after Berlin is Metzingen, a small town in the Black Forest unknown to most Germans, but home to a giant Hugo Boss discount store - since joined by another 20-odd factory outlets for designer labels. The Chinese already account for 11 per cent of the annual US$121 billion luxury goods industry and this is projected to rise to 24 per cent by 2009, surpassing the Americans, Japanese and Europeans.40 But tourism is a two-way process and more will go to China, especially with the Olympic hype, and India. In 2006 alone China is building 48 new airports. There are also 120 million middle-class Indians longing to travel.

People travel for bizarre reasons. Everything is now a potential tourism resource. Take any topic, theme or purpose and it has tourism potential. Does this show endless human curiosity or is it simply boredom that needs satiating? Obvious niche tourism includes: cultural tourism, like visiting museums and galleries; heritage tourism, such as visiting old canals and railways; eco-tourism, which is responsible tourism that includes programmes that minimize the adverse effects of traditional tourism on the natural environment and enhances the cultural integrity of local people; sports tourism, which follows teams; adventure tourism; and gambling tourism. The raison d'être of places like Atlantic City, Las Vegas, Macau or Monte Carlo is gambling, and others are increasingly getting in on the act. And sex tourism is often connected. In spite of the gloss, there is a seediness.

The more unusual tourist pursuits include: disaster tourism, not to help out but to be a voyeur; dark tourism, to visit places associated with death; pop-culture tourism, where you visit a particular location after reading about it or seeing it in a film; perpetual tourism, where wealthy individuals are always on vacation to avoid being resident in any country where they might be liable for tax. Not forgetting vacilando - where the process of travelling is more important than the destination - and the quirky experimental tourism.41 In this latter form of tourism destinations are chosen not on standard tourism merits but on the basis of an idea or experiment. For instance, try the 'bureaucratic odyssey', which recommends that you:

Take a tour of the following places known for their administrative function (rather than their tourist value): waiting rooms, social services offices, town halls, police stations. Use the facilities and resources, such as the photocopier, brochures, magazines, and sample the gastronomic delights on offer like the canteen, coffee machine, sandwich shop.42

Another is by-night travel: 'Arrange to visit a place and arrive at night. Spend the night exploring the town and return home at dawn the next day.'43

Experimental tourism reminds us that the ordinary and mundane can be strange places. By making strange what is familiar to us, we do not have to travel to far-flung clichés to escape the everyday or to explore our identities. Indeed, we do not need to leave our bedrooms. An atlas and a pair of dice may be all that are required for a journey.

Experimental tourism cannot, by its very nature, become a growth industry. However, its ethos is not to be sniffed at. At present, much tourism represents a tired rehearsal of a song we do not understand the words to. We visit monuments, museums and churches because this is what tourists do, but vary rarely to explore the history, culture or spirituality of a place. This is not to deny the potential resonance of such places but to question the touristdestination relationship itself. As it is currently configured, the tourist gaze brings no new life to places. Experimental tourism suggests that we look afresh at things, start from scratch. By so questioning the received wisdom of heritage and travel brochure narratives, new ideas about ourselves and others are generated, lending a new dynamic to tourism which isn't just about taking but also giving.

Further, the ordinary day-to-day facilities of a place can often offer the most rewarding experiences. Hong Kong's transport system is a case in point. It has great diversity and is affordable, frequent, always on time and a joy to use. For instance, the mid-level escalators are, at 800m, the longest escalator system in the world. It is free. First thing in the morning they take people down the steep Hong Kong island hill to work. Then at 10am they switch directions and take people up the incline. The escalator floats past the ever-inventive shops that advertise themselves on the higher floors of buildings, creating a strip of high-level shops. The areas it passes below have regenerated, affirming the truism that transport is the maker and breaker of cities. The Peak Tram funicular railway is a more typical tourist pull but it is still heavily used by locals because it gives an astonishing view of the city. The Star Ferry that runs continuously between Hong Kong island and Kowloon gives you a glimpse of the city from sea level for practically nothing. Hundred-year-old double-decker trams trundle around Hong Kong Island at a leisurely pace. The MTR underground system is clean, fast and very frequent and the Airport Express Link speeds you to and from the airport while you watch the personal TV that is in the back of every seat. When even transport is pleasurable in its finest detail, there's no need to fetishize obscure historical relics in order to create an experience for the tourist. The everyday becomes as central to the tourism experience as more rarefied cultural attractions on offer.

In fact, getting a visa extension, reporting a lost camera to the police or washing your clothes in a local launderette are, one could argue, somewhat more authentic experiences than eating ice-cream on a gondola, drinking beer in lederhosen or watching the Changing of the Guard in London. So why is it that the tourist industry peddles such invented traditions in the name of 'authenticity'? Travel literature is fixed on ideas like 'real food', 'local culture' and 'history' while simultaneously propagating cultural antiquities. Why? Because both travel and destination are commodities which are subject to the imperatives of marketing and competition.

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