Traveling: how we try to distinguish ourselves obsessively from other tourists
The question of why we go on holiday, why we travel, is difficult to answer. A fact is that we travel. Man is a traveling being. An interesting view is the one from mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal. He once said that all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone. Although we like to say about ourselves that we are rooted somewhere: man is not a tree or plant with roots in the earth. People swarm the world, lead a nomadic existence. It’s just who we are. The question why we travel is so difficult to answer because it asks for an origin that is not actually there. There is only the fact that we travel. And that is of all times.
However, the way we travel has changed a lot, especially since the Second World War. And it still changes.
Traveling used to have a necessary purpose. Then I am talking about discovery voyages, colonialism and trade. From the Second World War you can see that people are traveling as tourists. Then mass tourism comes up.
Ironically, this happens with the rise of totalitarian states. Franco has been very important for Spain as a popular tourist destination and Hitler also played an important role in tourism. He sent Germans to the Baltic Sea for leisure. This was based on the idea that the people needed to be looked after. There had to be worked hard, but people also needed rest. That was a simple idea, which from then on was massively organized for the first time. It was accompanied by the emergence of new means of transport: train, plane and large ships.
Are there still travelers, or have we all become tourists?
I find that an interesting point, because there is a difference between the tourist and the traveler. But it is in particular a difference with which we, as a traveler, want to distinguish ourselves from the tourist. That distinction is inherent in traveling. Already at the beginning of the nineteenth century you see it coming back in travel reports. A good example of this is the French writer Gérard de Nerval, who made a trip to the east, to Turkey. In his time that was a very exotic place.
He saw a clear task for himself to write down what he was experiencing there. He was also annoyed by westerners whom he met there and who did not have the same mission as he did. They only got in the way, they were people that we would now see as tourists.
That distinction has always remained and can mainly be seen in the mindset of higher educated people. They often think: others, they are tourists, that's what annoys me. Personally I am not a tourist. I am interested in the people I meet, do not look at monkeys, look for the places where no tourists come. What we forget about that, and that is my thesis, is that this is by far the modern tourism.
Inherent to tourism is that you want to distinguish yourself from other tourists. We see ourselves as complete individuals and traveling has become one of the most important expressions of that individualism. That went pretty quickly. If a student went to the other side of the world 25 years ago for an internship, that was an exception. Nowadays it is an exception if you do not. That also gives a certain moral pressure, a moral obligation towards yourself. You have to get the most out of yourself.
That means above all: a lot of traveling. Someone who is interesting has seen a lot, someone who has been at home a lot, we find them boring. And then I'm not talking about a holiday closeby, we all know that. We have to go to places where others do not come. This has major consequences. It is no longer clear where people are going. It leads to new forms of tourism.
For example, it is about dark tourism. 25 years ago we could not have imagined that former concentration camp Auschwitz would become one of the major tourist attractions in Europe. We had found that perversely.
Another example is slum tourism, which has grown considerably in the last ten years. In Brazil you can get a tour of the slums of Rio de Janeiro. I do not want to be judgmental about that, but it does indicate how broad tourism has become. We want to see not only the sun, the sea and the beach, but also the downside of history, the misery of life. Again with the idea that that is a unique experience, which not many people have had. But the paradox is that what is presented as an alternative to tourism has become an option in the travel brochure.
The moment you say you are not a tourist, but an individual, looking for a unique and authentic experience, the tour operator says: "well, fantastic. I can help you with that.” As a kind of oil slick, tourism is expanding across the world, to places where it did not come before.
Everything is poured into a business model. The resistance to traditional tourism is fantastic for capitalism, or neoliberalism. That’s because capitalism is always searching for new opportunities. It is starting to count on your resistance. Tourism has become a supermarket of beautiful places, and now we start to oppose to this idea. We want to be original. Tour operators and websites know this. Their business model becomes: “pay me and I will give you an even more authentic experience.” It is not for nothing that tourism has become one of the largest industries in the world.
Is that bad?
I would say yes. Because what we forget is that tourism is in fact more and more a form of neo-colonialism. To give you an example: a phenomenon that is growing tremendously is voluntourism. People go to South Africa to help the local communities there. They do not want to be a passive tourist, but really roll up their sleeves. What you see then is that all kinds of patterns of colonialism come back.
Because what are we going to do? We are going to build schools, provide people with education and build infrastructure. That's exactly what the old colonialists did. It has nothing to do with the real need of the people there. We do not even ask for that. No, we fill in what those people need and we start to accommodate them. Because it feels good to build a school.
Do not get me wrong, those people want nothing but help the local population and it’s often a gesture of pure kindness and goodness. I find it really difficult to criticize that, but I think we should have a discussion about it. Tourists often pay a lot of money to be able to do volunteering for two weeks. Money that ends up with marketers who have no idea what the local population really needs. Like I said, everything is poured into a business model. The problem is that if we all individually try to do the right thing, problems will never be solved structurally.
We have become individuals and all looking for a meaningful life. We are no longer able to collectively organize that sense of purpose. We are slipping into individuality. “You can make the difference” is such a slogan of today. That is utter nonsense. The last thing you want is a society in which everyone distinguishes himself from the other. That is the recipe for a society that does not work.
The materialization of running away
Of course I am not against traveling. In the end, I also went on a world tour where I did some voluntary activities. But it would be good if we could better realize what tourism is. Also remember that it's allowed to be a bit disappointed. As much as we want the world to be beautiful and fun, it is also disturbing.
Finally, what I often say is that when you travel, you always flee something. The real conversation does not start with the adventures, with everything you have seen and how beautiful it was, but with your own life, with your own unhappiness, with the things you are trying to get away from. Because that too is a journey: the materialization of running away...