CULTURE | Tourism Trap

Essay: The Tourism Conundrum

Alexander Winter Managing Editor

by Alexander Winter
Published March 2014 | The Problematic Issue

With two distinctly different sides, tourism can be a very delicate balancing act. On the one hand, it exposes us to new ideas, fosters cultural exchange, and serves as a vital economic base in communities around the world. On the other, it can be an exploitative force with the potential to turn a community into a “tourist ghetto” of uniformity and mediocrity, a place avoided by locals—a scenario in which vacationers flood to tourist destinations with nostalgic expectations, only to realize that every other little shop sells the same sort of touristy trinkets that are far removed from the genuine character of a locale. Understanding the history of tourism might provide us with a breath to tackle the question: How do you transform it into a healthy and beneficial force for communities, travelers, and businesses alike?

In the Age of Enlightenment, the European aristocracy entertained the custom of the Grand Tour, a model of travel that served the upper class as a rite of passage into society and worldliness. During a trip throughout Europe that could last up to several months, young aristocrats would stay in various cities and countrysides, socializing and learning about history, literature, and philosophy. Then the industrial revolution heralded the advent of machines, which enabled humans to be more productive in less time, and slowly led to the emergence of leisure time within the working class. The formation of initial vacation destinations in the Alps drew tourists in Europe to gorgeous natural sights in the form of beautiful lakes and stunning mountains. They offered a retreat from the overcrowded, noisy, and polluted cities and created entirely new towns centered around tourism. Simultaneously, new transportation technologies in the form of trains and steamboats shortened trips drastically to a mere days or even hours, making travel more affordable and allowing the middle class to imitate the aristocrats, who in turn reacted by seeking more exotic travel destinations like beaches. Dr. Ueli Gyr of the Institute of Popular Culture Studies at the University of Zurich calls the railway “the midwife at the birth of modern mass tourism” in his paper The History of Tourism: Structures on the Path to Modernity.

If the railway was the midwife to mass tourism, then the airplane was its adolescence, and soon, cross-continental distances were counted in hours. New niches quickly gave rise to viable business models, some of which evolved into chains, replicating in myriad locations to sell the experience that was the source of their success on a mass scale. Trans World Airlines (TWA) is probably best remembered for its 1950s and 1960s poster ad campaigns, which depicted colorful illustrations of exotic tourist destinations. In its marketing efforts, TWA used and perpetuated nostalgia associated with its travel destinations, harnessing the sentiment as a tool to attract customers by combining history and mythologies surrounding cities and natural sights. Places like Paris, Hong Kong, and San Francisco were turned into larger-than-life ideas, when in reality this nostalgia was often transcended by corporate chains like H&M or McDonald’s, to the detriment of local character and diversity.

There is a perfectly good reason why the term tourist has earned a stigma. It’s synonymous with a person who—while traveling—doesn’t leave the confines of a tourist ghetto, beyond which the dangers of the unknown may lurk; someone who exclusively focuses on sightseeing and eats at the overcrowded chain-style tourist traps that were pointed out by the hotel concierge; someone who has next to no interaction with the local population and history.

However, a new generation of traveler—especially embodied by millennials—is transforming tourism into a quest for authenticity. An advocate for traveling under the premise of living local, young professional tourists are fun-loving and excitable beings who, to leave room for spontaneity and to socialize, don’t excessively plan every single detail of their journey. This type wants to be swept away by joining the local experience, actively tackling the fear of missing out and often on the hunt for social currency, exchanged when sharing their best underground finds with others back home.

With more outlets offering curation than ever before, from magazines to websites and apps, travelers are empowered to take charge and navigate their experience beyond the overcrowded tourist traps. Services like Airbnb and Couchsurfing have opened up cities by enabling travelers to stay in neighborhoods where there are no hotels, bringing them closer to the sought-after authentic feel of a location. The result is more direct interactions and exchanges with locals, who are potential friends to offer guidance around town. Other services like Google Maps, Foursquare, and Yelp provide direct access to an array of options filtered from a flood of accumulated data, complete with customer reviews and ratings. Culinary explorations, nightly pastimes, neighborhoods, shopping, nature getaways, shows, events, etc. can all be combined in billions of ways at the ease of your fingertips, so any illusion of a premanufactured experience dissolves into the sentiment of living an authentic and completely personalized experience unique to the travel destination.

The living local sentiment and easy access to an array of data about things to do drives a touristic cash flow into local businesses, but how do we keep them from becoming a part of yet another tourist trap as they grow, and how will they maintain their authenticity when faced with the option to be bought out by a conglomerate? The Mission District in San Francisco is transforming at such a rate that it is increasingly becoming a tourist destination for travelers visiting the city. While the local businesses are benefitting from the influx, it begs the question of whether outside entities will move in to capitalize on the newly formed market. If the answer is yes, then ideally, they would make a positive contribution to the neighborhood; but the fear is that they will drive out other long-established local businesses and residents and turn the district into a new tourist ghetto that uses the nostalgia of a lost authenticity to attract tourists for profit.

Tourism also offers a bright side, with aspects of economic stimulus that provide work, especially when there are not many alternatives. Soweto, or South Western Townships, is in large part a shantytown in the municipality of Johannesburg in South Africa. Its Vilakazi Street is a popular tourist center with points of interest such as the Mandela House and the House of Desmond Tutu. Some say it is a tourist attraction for those who want to experience the Soweto culture without actually going to Soweto, but for others, it offers a means of economic survival in a place faced with an astronomical unemployment rate. There are street vendors, museums, restaurants, and bars, and the prospect of visitors coming from central Johannesburg via a 20-minute bus ride translates to investment opportunities to boost the tourism industry; the Soweto Theatre provides an architecturally beautiful example. If done right, tourism can be used as a tool for transformation and economic growth that help make a neighborhood or city more self-sustainable in the long term. This requires a long-term vision with an emphasis on infrastructure, rather than plans focused on a quick return of investment.

The framework of tourism is built on economic incentives. Tourism itself isn’t the problem, but how it is used determines whether it becomes a valuable tool or an exploitative and destructive force. The solution to the problem here may lie in our desires. As consumers, we can steer the force of tourism in a positive way, by using our money as if casting a vote on business models we want to support at home, especially when they promote a sustainable way of life for our civilization. A healthy tourism infrastructure is one in which mom-and-pop stores thrive and local economies are composed of small businesses whose owners take care of their communities by being actively engaged. Sustaining an authentic way of life in any given place can counteract the uniformity of chains and artificial experiences and foster a more individual expression of a place while allowing for creative growth and change. One of the best examples is ecotourism, in which the touristic force can be directed toward investment in the creation and preservation of natural sights. With all implications ecologically well considered, ecotourism can help sustain nature, the very thing that sustains humans, and also local economies, while educating and entertaining travelers at the same time.

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