Tourism is big business, and Paris, Rome, and New York welcome millions of visitors each year. The Eiffel Tower, the Tower of Pisa, and the Empire State Building are, despite their familiarity, perennial favorites. Why, exactly? The Eiffel Tower, other than an iconic image of Paris, is no more than a Victorian, early-Industrial Age construction, surprising and remarkable at the time, but only an architectural curiosity now.
The leaning Tower of Pisa even less remarkable as a structure and insignificant as a historical moment with no particular iconic value is on most Italian tours. The Empire State Building has historical interest as one of the important skyscrapers of the modern era, but it is of far less immediate significance and interest than the many contemporary glass towers surrounding it.
The Roman Coliseum does have an allure. Place cannot be entirely minimized or disregarded; and there is something to be said for standing where gladiators, lions, and Christians fought. Yet most tourists give it little more than a click on a checklist before the Uffizi and the Baths of Caracalla.
The Taj Mahal is grander than any visitor can imagine. It is impressive and majestic, and the legendary story of Shah Jahan who built it in honor of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal is romantic and appealing. It evokes images of sumptuous Persian courts, courtesans, imperial power, high art and culture, and the serenity of a holy place. Yet it too is a stop on the way before or after the Jaipur Palace of the Winds, Udaipur, Qutub Minar, or Khajuraho.
No expectation can prepare the visitor for the Grand Canyon. It is beyond imagination, on on unearthly scale, more powerful and spectacular in scope than anything natural or manmade. For most, however, it too is a stop on the way. A marker on a map. A point of interest and American reference.
Why, then, do we configure our vacations around monuments, places of interest and historical significance? Why do we not spend our valuable leave time on more intimate and modest expeditions. Was a trip up the Eiffel Tower or the view from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon worth more than a week on the Chesapeake or in the Shenandoahs? What is the relative value of a random trip to San Francisco, New Orleans, or Vienna? How relevant is the Golden Gate, the French Quarter, or the Opera House to our lives?
Travel, particularly solitary travel, has always been an almost spiritual journey. Paul Theroux in his The Tao of Travel has reprinted the thoughts of many explorers who have found enlightenment or at least something profound in their voyages.
You go away for a long time and return a different person – you never come all the way back.
Travel is at its best a solitary enterprise: to see, to examine, to assess, you have to be all alone and unencumbered…..It is hard to see clearly or to think straight in the company of other people. What is required is the lucidity of loneliness to capture that vision which, however banal, seems in your private mood to be special and worthy of interest.
Travel which is nearly always seen as an attempt to escape from the ego, is in my opinion, just the opposite. Nothing induces concentration or inspires memory like an alien landscape or foreign culture. It is simply not possible (as romantics think) to lose yourself in an exotic place. Much more likely is an experience of intense nostalgia, a harking back to an earlier stage of your life….What makes the whole experience vivid and sometimes thrilling is the juxtaposition of the present and the past.Travel and tourism are clearly two very different things; but expressions of the same enterprise. Both the sophisticated traveler and the tour bus tourist sense the need for perspective, distance, and the other. No matter how prosaic or planned, a trip outside of one’s familiarity, can enlighten if only to food, dress, and manners.
Vladimir Nabokov, a unique traveler and one who valued the inscription of events on memory and the importance of place and time said:
To a greater or lesser extent there goes on in every person a struggle between two forces: the longing for privacy and the urge to go places: introversion, that is, interest directed within oneself toward one’s own inner live of vigorous thought and fancy; and extroversion, interest directed outward, toward the external world of people and tangible valuesTheroux agrees, but adds:
Africa seemingly incomplete and so empty, is a place for travelers to create personal myths and indulge themselves in fantasies of atonement and redemption, melodramas of suffering, of strength – binding up wounds, feeding the hungry, looking after refugees, making long journeys in expensive Land Rovers, recreating stereotypes, even living out a whole cosmology of creation and destruction. That’s why many travellers in Africa are determined to see it not as fifty-three countries but rather as a single, troubled, landscapeThose who can afford personalized, individualized travel to unfamiliar places in search of personal or philosophical perspective and insight can be intolerant and dismissive of those who travel without intent. Class differentiated by education, upbringing, and a privileged worldview.
Some travel writers have noted that packaged tours are often the first step to more personalized travel. A five-day, five-country European tour is simply an exploratory expedition, based on which the interested traveller can pick and choose places to consider in depth.
Yet it is more likely that the packaged tour traveller will simply sign up for ‘Turkey, Greece, and the Aegean’ or ‘The Land of the Incas’, ‘The Danube and Old Europe’. Few people will follow in Theroux’s footsteps let alone those of Mungo Park, Paul du Chaillu, Wilfred Theisiger, Richard Burton, T.H. Lawrence, or Peter Mathiessen –explorer/adventurers/philosophers for whom travel was spiritual.
All such explorer/philosophers will at times wonder what they are doing and why they are where they are.
There are times when what is left behind is very hard to forget. Sometimes it is the place that is not welcoming; perhaps the circumstance of leaving; but the sight of people going about their normal daily business often gives one the same nostalgia that Theroux mentions. The longing to be back in the home routine. Why am I so far away? they ask.
Travel holds the magical possibility of reinvention: that you might find a place you love, to begin a new life and never go home.The desire to travel is function of age. Most younger people see travel as an exciting adventure – new, unexplored places, the unexpected. Welcome surprises, steps out of the ordinary. Most older people have turned inward in an attempt to figure out what’s what before it is too late. Death is the consummate journey, all the more frightening and compelling because of its unknowability. Why on earth would one want to tour Ireland, Scotland, Italy, or Morocco facing that?
Those who have travelled unaccompanied and unencumbered; those who have had had chance encounters, close escapes, and unlikely romances have the least patience with tourism. In their later years they have the least interest in ‘seeing’ things. So many years of experience have enabled imagination in such a way that no unvisited place is unknown. And a full life of adventure , risk, and romance, wants and needs no more. The past is enough.
It is hard for us, then, to look dispassionately at tourism. Travel is transformative and can be spiritual. Peter Mathiessen’s The Snow Leopard was a book about Himalayan expedition, climbing the high mountains; but it was more about personal discovery. Wordsworth while climbing Mt. Blanc had his own epiphany.
- The wilderness has a mysterious tongue
- Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild,
- So solemn, so serene, that man may be
- But for such faith with nature reconciled;
- Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal
- Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood
- By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
- Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel…
- Power dwells apart in its tranquility
- Remote, serene, and inaccessible:
- And this, the naked countenance of earth,
- On which I gaze, even these primeval mountains
- Teach the adverting mind...
How, given such possible transformation, can one be content to look at the Coliseum or the leaning Tower of Pisa? Or the Golden Gate, the Las Vegas strip, or Broadway? How can seasoned travellers not look dismissively at those who do?
Travel for the sake of travel is no more than an expensive diversion, a sidetrack from far more important intellectual and spiritual enterprises.
Those who dismiss travel as inconvenient and unnecessary are relegated – old stick-in-the-muds who have become set in their ways, timid and fearful, and so rooted in the past that they are unwilling to chance new encounters.
Wrong and ill-informed, say those who prefer reflection and intimacy. Tourism is a complete waste of time.