Wednesday, August 8, 2012


We have lived in a succession of places that were also tourist destinations. It is troubling. Yesterday we were in a traffic jam, in the Old Port of downtown Portland, Me. Thousands of tote bag wielding small spenders criss-cross the streets in search of; the perfect lobsta lunch (lobster from Canada), the memorable tchotchke (made in China), the "real" Maine (starts one mile inland). 

We grew up In Washington, D.C. Markie sent me the following article from the POST,  in which the author, a D.C. native, bemoans the fact that venues are opening that market to blacks, in traditionally black neighborhoods, that scrub the "reality" of the black experience, off the block. 

When we lived in LA I came to know that Universal City, Los Angeles has a "ride" called Hollywood, that simulated the real Hollywood Blvd less than a mile away.  Of course the girls and the players, the junkies and the gangsters have all gone missing from the "city-walk experience".

Let's chalk it all up to bumpkin travel. Though we may disdain this kind of activity it is the fastest growing economic development activity on the planet. 

We can ratchet up a notch and rationalize other forms of tourism that appeal to a more sophisticated traveler. The eco-tour, the adventure tour, or the special event. The Olympics certainly qualify. Those of us that watch on TV notice the towers in the long shots of the venues. Those towers are council housing and you can bet that NBC is not going to take you on a tour of the real East End experience. The following is an excerpt from a Reuters piece filed last week from the games 

"Millions of foreign visitors descending on London this month may not notice, but within sight of the gleaming Olympic venues are some of the city's most troubled neighbourhoods where the unattainable glamour of the Games has only fuelled resentment.
It was here, in worrying proximity to the Olympic sites, that gangs of masked teenagers went on the rampage last year, looting shops and turning streets into battle zones - a trauma that still hangs heavily over the socially segregated area.
People in big cities complain the world over and London is no exception but in the British capital problems are confounded by the proximity with which the rich live next to the poor.
In contrast to the million-pound town houses of London's plush West End, the East End is a scruffy, post-industrial world where alienated youths live side by side with immigrants, young aspirational families and artists squatting in old warehouses.
And with the Olympic bandwagon rolling into town, complete with electric fences and soldiers, many are struggling to see how they will benefit from the regeneration of east London". 

We start to get a glimpse that our indulgence in travel may have consequences beyond the minor inconvenience of a traffic jam. This disconnect between the classes is made all the more hurtful when busloads of tourists choose to look past the reality of the situation to indulge in their personal fantasies. We validate the exploitation of the indigenous to serve our needs for security, comfort, and a decent cup of coffee. 

This article  highlights the facts that despite the economic disaster that befalls Spain, their tourism is actually up this year. Ironically some of the increase is attributed to the Arab Spring making those nations in turmoil no-longer suitable destinations. I can't imagine the feeling that the formerly middle class Spaniard suffers on watching the more fortunate frolic in his homeland.

The same disconnect between the tourists and the population they are rumbling through is just as exquisite in Greece, Italy, France, the zone on the brink of economic collapse. We are revisiting the days of Weimar, and it didn't end well. 

Of all of the forms of travel that are insensitive to their impacts is the self righteous, the journey of discovery, the march through the bad lands, camera in hand. The process of enlightenment. This article re. Henry Rollins advice on travel was brought to my attention:
   "You’re going to see that global climate change is very real. And that for some people, their day consists of walking 12 miles for four buckets of water. And so there are lessons that you can’t get out of a book that are waiting for you at the other end of that flight. "Your showers will become shorter."
Imagine, don't dig a well, or volunteer to help alleviate the problem, or do anything other than document how the other 9/10 live and then take a shower. This kind of behavior is so well documented, and historically criticized,  it is a wonder that it still exists. Not only exists, but is growing. We see films like Slumdog Millionaire, or Exotic Marigold Hotel extol the splendor of Mumbai while millions of its residents are starving. The Rollins piece provoked the following comment: Davis Says: 
"It is difficult to learn anything about a place when you are passing through, even as close to the ground as a backpacker. You will have no idea what caused the things you see or what they mean to the people there. You will be insulated by your language and culture and comparative wealth and the natural limitations of your observations. You will privilege the few conversations you have with locals and have no good way to judge whether what they tell you is accurate. You will, for these reasons, tend to see what you expect to see or what you are told you are seeing. You may see a poor person, but can you really see the cause of his poverty? You will return home convinced that you have seen much more than you really have seen, and convinced that you have seen the proof of things that may not be so. So many of the important thing that shape our life are invisible to the eye.
Let me propose an experiment that cancels out the gross problems of language, culture and wealth: Imagine someone from New York City spending three months on the ground, not in India, but in Indiana. Would he, after three months, understand the Indianans, their values and view on life and the forces that shaped their existence to the same extent he might imagine he did of the Indians he passed on the streets of Delhi?"

Nor will the sybarite sipping her Negroni by the pool in Tuscany, or the students taking the side trips to the "Great Houses" of Britain have a clue to the meaning of their experience. Or, the consequences of their acts.