David Bouchier: The Tourist Test
Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island and a great traveler himself, once remarked that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive. As a philosophy of life, you can scarcely argue with that, since we all know what happens when we arrive and, as a prophetic description of the tourist experience in the twenty-first century, Stevenson's words hit the mark exactly.
If you travel at all you must have noticed that the world is becoming a very crowded place, or at least parts of it are. Millions of people now go abroad every year in search of new worlds and new civilizations, boldly going where almost everybody has gone before. We are in the pursuit of a romance, that elusive moment of solitude and discovery that justifies the pains and costs of leaving home.
Well, we won't find romance in the Sistine Chapel or Canterbury Cathedral, or Notre Dame, or Venice, or Stonehenge, or even at the Taj Mahal or the Great Wall of China, or any of the culturally-approved tourist destinations. These places are swamped and almost obliterated by the tidal waves of tourism. Only one million people went abroad in 1939. About a billion people are expected to travel internationally in 2016 – that’s a billion - plus another two billion people travelling in their own countries, almost all of them heading towards the same few tourist magnets like ants to sugar water.
Travel is good, and I love it. There's nothing worse than the parochialism and suspicion of people who never leave home. The problem with modern mass tourism is precisely that tourists, in a sense, never do leave home. They are herded in groups from international-style hotels to a few pre-selected destinations or "sights." The "sight" is something that must be seen, and that certifies in a mystical way that the tourist has participated in a travel experience.
The problem with the "sights" is that not many people truly want or need to see them, or have any idea what they are looking at when they get there. You can't blame the majority of tourists. It’s easy to see that they're not enjoying the experience. The most popular places are so overcrowded that you have to reserve ahead, like booking a theater ticket. So is there a way to save the most popular tourist destinations from suffocation, and save tourists from themselves at the same time?
One solution might be for travel agents to help customers plan their vacations more sensibly by answering a few simple questions. For example: "Would you prefer to look at a lot of dark incomprehensible pictures painted by people who died five hundred years ago, or would you prefer to play blackjack?" This would quickly distinguish between those who would really enjoy the Uffizi Gallery in Florence from those who would have a better time in Atlantic City.
If we could all be persuaded to admit what we really, honestly want from a vacation I suspect that the problem would be solved. Each part of the world would receive only those tourists who had a genuine desire to be there, and the regular inhabitants of Venice and Paris, London and Stratford on Avon would no longer have to leave town in summer to avoid the crowds as they do now. They could stay at home, and see the sights.
Copyright: David Bouchier