‘Tourism, human circulation considered as consumption … is fundamentally nothing more than the leisure of going to see what has become banal.’
– Guy Debord, French philosopher, in The Society of the Spectacle
After many years of moving about, I have become a sceptic about the benefits of travel. I was disappointed, for instance, by the Taj Mahal. In my dreams it was there just for me alone, moonlit just for me, not swamped with Indian tourists for whom I, with my white skin, was the spectacle. Similarly, I felt cheated that there were so many other people interfering with my view of Machu Picchu and so many small boys wanting my money.
I have also long doubted the veracity of the old adage ‘travel broadens the mind’. Looking at the European tourists slouching around Bandarawela or Kandy, wearing peculiarly unflattering leisure garb, it seems more a case of travel broadening the arse. Arrogant pink people wandering around wearing silly clothes and bossing around ‘the locals’ – this is supposed to be a sign that Sri Lanka is finally recovering from war?
The Colombo government is eager to encourage tourists. Arrivals in Sri Lanka (where I live) increased by almost 20 percent in the year up to June 2011; this number is forecast to grow by another 20 percent this year, with the industry already securing USD 1.2 billion in investment. Tourism revenue rose by more than 50 percent in the first five months of 2011 to USD 415.4 million compared to the corresponding period last year, after already jumping around 64 percent year-on-year to a record USD 575.9 million in 2010.
Tourism is also coming to formerly war-torn areas on the island, with the government planning to make the Eastern Province a priority. In Pasikuda alone, 14 new hotel projects are coming up, offering a thousand new rooms. Most projects have a gestation period of just over a year, and the first one, the Maalu Maalu, has already opened for business; upwards of 5000 jobs are projected when construction is complete.
This calls to mind the British environmentalist writer George Monbiot’s strictures about tourism in East Timor, and relates to any situation in which travel is ethically dicey. For instance, a number of people have urged me to visit Burma, telling me how beautiful the country is, how kind the people are, how rich the country is in history. Yet they ignore the current history, wherein the tourist industry supports a regime that uses slave labour to build hotels. In 1995, Monbiot wrote about the country that became Timor-Leste:
Tourists visiting East Timor, or any other country subject to the brutal whims of an intractable dictatorship, can swiftly become accessories to inhumanity. The hotel in Dili, for example, is owned by army officers: everyone who pays for a room there puts money straight into the soldiers’ pockets. The ignorance in which most tourists are cocooned is infectious: when they go home and tell their family and friends that the beaches were great or the food was disgusting but say nothing about what is happening there, subtly, unwittingly, they help to blot out the efforts of people trying to draw attention to the atrocities.
Will Sri Lanka now give rise to ‘terrorism tourism’?
Foreigners can already travel to the north without special government approval, and plans are afoot by Jetwing, a luxury-hotel chain, to build new major hotels in the north and east. In the July 2011 edition of Lanka Monthly Digest, Jetwing managing director Ruan Samarasinghe urged Sri Lankan critics to view tourism as another ‘export commodity’ to generate foreign exchange. He called those who fear that tourism squanders precious resources ‘misguided’.
Perhaps I am one of those misguided people. Can Samarasinghe reassure us that tourism does not squander local resources? Resorts are usually operated by foreign companies, and any local benefit must be weighed against downsides, such as commandeering scarce local water resources. Currently, the Sri Lankan government has leased out ten islands in the Kalpitiya area off the north western coast near Puttalam for tourism projects, while a land-acquisition process is underway in the remaining 17 islands.
Rituals of the dull
Thirty-five years ago, Dean MacCannell, an American sociologist and cultural critic, published a pioneering study on the phenomenon of tourism. His theme was that the middle classes of the West felt alienated by their comfortable but dull lives. Although they had been programmed to believe that everything centred on the individual, MacCannell suggested, these classes nonetheless felt the disjunction of living in a depersonalised historical epoch. If there was an authentic reality, it must be elsewhere – and if it was out there, it could be bought.
MacCannell employed Karl Marx’s concept of ‘fetishisation’: ‘pure experience, which leaves no material trace, is manufactured and sold like a commodity’. The tourist thinks he or she can buy the authentic experience, which is located somewhere exotic beyond their normal experience. The tourist experience is built on the fiction that it is outside historical time, in a virtual world. MacCannell also wrote that tourist attractions are analogous to the religious symbolism of ‘primitive’ peoples. Sightseeing is a collective striving for a transcendence of the modern totality, unifying its fragments. The tourist’s ‘life and his society can appear to him as an orderly series of formal representations, like snapshots in a family album,’ he wrote. Thus I can look through my photos and say that my life in the past was Turkey in 1986 and Morocco in 1985 and 1982.
Then there is that great modern invention: the guided tour. The Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman once wrote that this experience is like an ‘extensive ceremonial agenda involving long strings of obligatory rites’. Indeed, part of the holiday experience today is to hand one’s life over to one’s guide. During the travels of my younger years, I once congratulated myself on being adventurous – drifting around in a malfunctioning boat in the middle of Lake Titicaca as the Bolivian navy (Bolivia is landlocked but does have a navy) surged past. Even then, though, part of me was telling myself that I did not have to worry: I had paid for this experience and had an inalienable right to be rescued.
Tour companies do their best to provide what tourists expect, rather than educating them to enjoy what the country can provide. The touristic world is filled with people who are just passing through, a world furnished by the social production of highly fictionalised versions of the everyday life of traditional peoples, a museumisation of their quaintness. Inevitably, there is a tension between the moderns’ nervous concern for the authenticity of their touristic experience and the traditional folks’ difficulty in acting out someone else’s fantasy version of their life. Culture is tailored to suit those who pay for it, until, in the words of a Masai man, ‘We have ceased to be what we are; we are becoming what we seem.’ Today, the Masai are being evicted from their lands so that tourists can have an ‘authentic’ experience.
There is a short distance between commodification and exploitation, sightseeing and voyeurism. Don Delillo wrote in his novel, The Names:
To be a tourist is to escape accountability. Errors and failings don’t cling to you the way they do back home. You’re able to drift across continents and languages, suspending the operation of sound thought. Tourism is the march of stupidity. You’re expected to be stupid. The entire mechanism of the host country is geared to travelers acting stupidly. You walk around dazed, squinting into fold-out maps. You don’t know how to talk to people, how to get anywhere, what the money means, what time it is, what to eat or how to eat it. Being stupid is the pattern, the level and the norm. You can exist on this level for weeks and months without reprimand or dire consequence. Together with thousands, you are granted immunities and broad freedoms. You are an army of fools, wearing bright polyesters, riding camels, taking pictures of each other, haggard, dysenteric, thirsty. There is nothing to think about but the next shapeless event.
My first long-haul trip was under the aegis of an upmarket package company. In its brochure, the company was clearly, albeit in heavily-coded language, marketing prostitution. Hotels in Thailand were described as ‘popular with bachelors’. Nudge, nudge! Again, because the tourist is just passing through and has money to pay for ‘services’, what might be unthinkable back home becomes possible, nearly any taboo can be broken. Monbiot has a related aphorism: ‘Tourism extracts the differences between ourselves and other people’.
There is a joke in the travel industry today: What is the difference between an ‘eco-holiday’ and a normal holiday? The answer: 30 percent surcharge. Eco-tourism has long-term negative effects. Between 1999 and 2005, the total gross domestic product of the Galapagos Islands grew by 78 percent, mainly due to eco-tourism. GDP per head only grew by 1.8 percent, because the population increased by 60 percent. Although this is an extreme example, it highlights the possibility of fragile ecosystems crumbling under increased population directly caused by eco-tourism.
The great travel writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, sadly recently deceased, described travel as ‘that gregarious passion which destroys the object of its love.’ Indeed, over the past century it often feels that the Earth itself has been commodified and tossed into the trash. Mayer Hillman, a public-policy scholar, has shown that for each passenger on a round trip from the UK to Florida 1.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide is discharged. In 1998, marine biologists reported that between 70 and 90 percent of the coral reefs they surveyed in the Indian Ocean had died, because of increases in temperature caused by increases in carbon dioxide. If the coral reefs die, coastal communities all over the tropical world will be at risk of repeated natural disasters. Coral reefs are an important tourist attraction but long-haul flights bringing tourists cause their destruction.
Enjoy the virtual world; the real one is fast disappearing. Extinct is forever. I now prefer to follow Pascal’s maxim: ‘I have discovered that all human evil comes from this, man’s being unable to sit still in a room.’ I endeavour to move as little as possible, though earlier I used to travel a lot, even having spent a night in Las Vegas and more than one night in Carlisle; visited India, Nepal, Thailand, Turkey, Peru, Morocco, most of Europe, the Pacific northwest states of America, Louisiana and Virginia and British Columbia; and explored the interstices of just about every town in the UK. Now I find quite enough to interest me in my garden beneath the Namunukula mountains.
~ Padraig Colman is a freelance writer and poet who has lived in Sri Lanka for nine years.