by Stephen Slater

Tourism, like the society that gives rise to it, has a remarkable inescapability.  Although it is undeniable that tourism would not exist without tourists, it is equally undeniable, and in fact more revealing, that people become tourists because of tourism.  It is the context which bestows meaning on – and in part begets – the individual phenomena rooted in it.  Tourism is a web of institutions, images and attitudes that, since the end of the nineteenth century, is always already there before the tourist sets out.  The modern guidebook, guided tour and travel bureau all have their prototypes in the early years of the nineteenth century.  The “tourist flood” first witnessed in Switzerland and Italy is something that took shape in the following decades.  Since then, tourism has become not simply one form of travel alongside others but rather, with exceptions such as the business trip and visiting relatives and friends, the form of travel itself, its incarnation in the modern world.

A definition of the term “tourist” which would seek to distinguish it from “traveler” in the period since the closing decades of the nineteenth century would have, at best, mere polemical value for those who wish to see themselves as travelers rather than as tourists.  The consulate officials who issue visas have understood this better than most: tourists are those who enter a country for reasons other than business or study or visiting relatives, for example.  To travel for the purpose of seeing and enjoying is, to a greater or lesser extent, to make use of the institutions, be enticed by the images and embody the attitudes, of tourism.

This piece of writing aims to be a description of the consciousness of the tourist.  It is here that these images and attitudes are rooted, here that these institutions reveal their power.  Other approaches are of course possible: the history and sociology of tourism, its economic, political and ecological effects, the prospects of a less obtrusive tourism, etc.  These are of course important topics, and have already been investigated to varying degrees.  Yet the subjective dimension has for the most part remained unexplored, with the exception of at least one of the texts assembled in Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (1957),  Hans-Magnus Enzensberger’s “Eine Theorie des Tourismus” (1958, in his Einzelheiten, 1962) and Dean MacCannell’s The Tourist (1976).

Fundamental to tourism is the notion of the sight to be seen, or the scenic.  The designation of certain areas, highways and views as being “scenic,” or certain buildings and monuments as being “of interest,” is by no means one which can be accepted or set aside according to preference.  Once brought into being, the scenic has a force of its own.  At most, individual designations or collections of such designations (in guidebooks, for example) can be rejected and alternative ones put in their place; but the scenic as such, as configuration of experience in advance, remains.  It is the organizing principle of this experience.

A city, for example, is approached by means of a particular selection of points of interest.  In the course of visiting these locations, some points of interest or scenic routes are added, others omitted.  A process of abstraction takes place: selected features of this city are highlighted as being Worth Seeing, and the rest of it becomes simply – The Rest.  It is not a matter of abstraction as such, which is a necessary component of experience.  The point is that this abstraction is also a process of reduction.  The city, divided up into what is scenic and what is not, is perceived by those who approach it this way as simply the sum total of all the scenic locations plus the local conditions governing transportation from one scenic location to the next.  What occurs, then, is a reduction of the city as a whole to a fragmentary constellation of enclaves of the scenic.

The search for the scenic has, within the last century, been powerfully reinforced by a technological development that performs this process of abstraction and reduction mechanically (and now, electronically).  Although the camera itself was invented in the early nineteenth century, it was not until 1923 that a portable, inexpensive camera was made available to the amateur photographer (after the Kodak camera in the late 19th century).  What this meant for the pastime of sightseeing was a shift from merely looking at sights to the activity of collecting them.

In her book On Photography (1977), Susan Sontag provides penetrating analysis of the psychic significance of photography.  “A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it – by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir. Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs.”  The search for the scenic thus brings into relief the common characteristic inherent in tourism and photography, these twin developments of the industrial age: both are permeated with an essentially accumulative attitude, not to things per se, but to experience itself.

This attitude is reflected in the touristic conception of “knowledge of the world,” which is measured by the number of cities, parks, beaches of countries one has seen, or at least passed through – and, of course, how many photos one has.  “Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter.  Unsure of other responses, they take a picture.  This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on” (Sontag).  These frozen reminders of what we have lived or seen (or – merely photographed) present the continuity of lived experience as an episodic chain of memorable moments, one following the other in a homogeneous series, with the implication that the more photos we have taken, the more memorable experiences we have had.

The increasingly available and nearly inescapable photographs of buildings, monuments, cities, beaches and landscapes have flooded the imagination to such an extent that that had tourism not existed, photography would surely have invented it.  That this is not simply idle speculation is attested to by the overwhelming success of modern visual advertising, which creates the demand for products and services well before they are actually on the market.  It is not, then, solely the taking of photographs by tourists, but also the nearly unavoidable presence of them which has contributed to the insidious power of the scenic.  In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), Marshall McLuhan observed that the photograph has reversed the purpose of travel, since it is no longer the strange and unfamiliar which is sought out, but rather that which has already been seen.  “Thus the world itself becomes a sort of museum of objects that have been encountered in some other medium.”  Travel is then a matter of corroboration of previously seen images, a project of confirmation in which the goal of the tourist’s undertaking is to “…check his reactions to something with which he has long been familiar, and take his own pictures of the same.”  To say of a place, “It wasn’t what I expected,” is to say that it didn’t look like its photograph.  If it is remembered that the Journey had been regarded among the educated and privileged in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Europe as the epitome of transformative experience (the Grand Tour), it will not be difficult to appreciate the significance of the change which has taken place.  (In fact, the Middle High German word ervarn (modern German: erfahren) meant both “to travel (through)” and “to experience,” i.e. “to go through.”)

The search for the scenic is one of the many manifestations of experience as spectacle so typical of modern urban life.  Rather than enumerating the criteria which would determine what should be classified as spectacle and what should not, it is more illuminating to characterize the sort of consciousness for which the phenomenon of the spectacle has come about.  The desire to merely see, to look at, regardless of whether any sort of adequate comprehension or receptivity can in this way be achieved, is the hallmark of a consciousness for which an avalanche of visual impressions is an everyday occurrence.  Today, this may seem to be due to the city as such, film, video and the internet, yet it has its roots in particular technological and commercial developments in the nineteenth century: along with photography, the steam locomotive (1830) and the emergence of visual advertising as an enterprise in its own right.

As a result of both the speed of modern means of transportation and the frequency of their use, a sort of dazed staring on the part of the passengers sets in, and an attitude of simply “watching it all go by” is generated, without any involvement with what goes on outside the windows of the vehicle.  In the century between the introduction of the steam locomotive and that of television, this tendency toward passive visual experience received strong support not only from other modes of transport but also from advertising, photo-journalism and film.  Although television was certainly very influential in this regard, it should be understood as strengthening a tendency which had already crystallized long before the electronic age began.

After the initial shock of the speed wore off, the “motion picture” of the visual flow presented by the windows of the railway car became the main feature of passenger railway travel.  Due to the nature of this sort of transportation, it was impossible to do more than simply look, unless one looked away; the physical constraints of such conveyance provided no opportunity for any further involvement with what was perceived for a brief moment.  Soon, an unquestioned “obviousness” of this visual experience was the unforeseen result.  (So much, however, cannot be said of most advertising, sensation-oriented photo-journalism or the more mind-numbing examples of Hollywood movies, television and the internet.  An unquestioned passivity is intended here: submission to that which is not meant to be inquired into.)

The spectacle as a way of experiencing is a uniquely modern turn of mind which tourism so remarkably exemplifies: the “museumization” of the world – not just of monuments, buildings and cities, but also of human beings and cultures.  This way of seeing the world as on display, simply there to be stared at whether purposely so arranged or not, is part of a worldview that has been generated by the department store, the supermarket, the show window, the illustrated magazine and indeed the museum itself. (Dean MacCannell has a very interesting chapter on “staged authenticity,” originally published in 1973, in his 1976 book The Tourist.)  As a corollary of the museum’s intended function of preserving the art and artifacts of the past and present, there is the inevitable “show” aspect which is to some extent present in every exhibition, due to the fact that a context which would render an exhibition is some sense meaningful, even just intelligible, must be to a significant degree supplied by the viewers themselves; otherwise an exhibition is simply a collection of curiosities, a mere juxtaposition of things often indistinguishable from the most random grouping of objects.

The scenic does not exist alone, but in relation to that which defines it as scenic.  Before photography became an instrument of such definition, the guidebook had already sketched its main features.  John Murray’s Red Book, which appeared in 1836 and covered Holland, Belgium and the Rhine region, was the first guidebook to evaluate sights by means of the “star system,” according to which the more stars received, the more worthy the sight is of being seen.  Through imitation of Murray’s approach, Karl Baedecker’s books attained the popularity which made the name Baedecker synonymous with the guidebook for so long.

The guidebook is more than one among several pieces of equipment that accompany tourists on their travels; as the text that channels intentions, desires and awareness itself into preselected paths, the guidebook is a primary historical root of the scenic.  As the annually updated catalogue of tourism’s world department store, it creates the demand for that which is described, thus falling within the scope of advertising, both in function and in use of language.  In general, it is a descriptive inventory of possibilities, relegating to non-existence what is not listed simply by virtue of not being listed.  In this sense the guidebook is an encyclopedia of the scenic: though modestly renouncing all claims to completeness, by the mere fact of its catalogue form the guidebook effects the reduction of what is there to what is listed, what is described.  James Bruzard, referring to a 1975 article in the New Yorker, notes: “German bombing attacks on British cultural institutions in 1942 earned the name ‘Baedecker raids’ because the bombs appeared to be aimed at all the guidebook’s starred attractions” (The Beaten Track: European Tourism, Literature, and the Ways of Culture 1800-1918, 1993).  The supposed objectivity of the map is surreptitiously invoked.  (It is noteworthy than some maps have come to approximate the tour guide: places of interest are prominently marked, scenic routes indicated, sometimes with photographs or cartoon-like illustrations of what is “typical” for a given location provided.)

  1. M. Forster’s novel A Room with a View, first published in 1908, contains a concise portrait of the guidebook mentality.  Lucy Honeychurch, a young English tourist in Florence, Italy, finds herself without her Baedecker and is at a loss as to what she should do.  Irritated and upset, she enters the church Santa Croce: “Of course, it must be a wonderful building.  But how like a barn! And how very cold! Of course, it contained frescoes by Giotto, in the presence of whose tactile values she was capable of feeling what was proper.  But who was to tell her which they were?  She walked about disdainfully, unwilling to be enthusiastic over monuments of uncertain authorship or date.  There was no one even to tell her which, of all the sepulchral slabs that paved the nave and transepts, was the one that was really beautiful, the one that had been most praised my Mr. Ruskin.”

This helplessness in the face of the thing itself – and Forster is by no means exaggerating here – is a classic example what Edward Said referred to in his book Orientalism (1978) as the “textual attitude.”  The textual attitude is in a sense a way of not seeing. By subordinating our perceptions to the interpretive schema of a book, we short-circuit the process of finding out as much as we can by ourselves.  The concomitant blind spots in our receptivity to the world are the subjective counterparts of the fineness of mesh which an “authoritative” text has.  It is by means of this filtering function in the text itself that some aspect of the world are allowed to pass through to us and others not.  “Travel books or guidebooks are about as ‘natural’ a kind of text, as logical in their composition and in their use, as any book one can think of, precisely because of this human tendency to fall back on a text when the uncertainties of travel in strange parts seem to threaten one’s equanimity. […] [T]he book (or text) acquires a greater authority, and use, even than the actuality it describes.”  As long as the author succeeds, or at least doesn’t fail too noticeably, the reader confirms the veracity of the author’s claims by reading more books by him/her/them, recommending them to others, etc.

The foreign and the exotic are sought out in the hope of shaking off the constraints of the familiarities of home.  The romance of travel and adventure has, after all, fed the Western imagination for centuries (e.g., Homer’s Odyssey), and since the European voyages of discovery there has been a growing body of travel literature.  The era of the European drives toward colonial expansion (primarily) from the 15th through the 19th century saw the aesthetic appropriation of the foreign and exotic in painting, the novel and poetry.  (That all of this has in our time been dwarfed, at least in lavishness of detail, by the exotica presented on film, television and the internet, is evident.)  Likewise, the importance of the Grand Tour for the education of young European men in the 18th century has been noted by many, including the author of the article “Travel” (original: “Voyage”) in the Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert: “Travelers develop and raise the level of the mind, enrich it through knowledge, and cure it of national prejudices.  Such study cannot be replaced by books or by the tales told by others.  Men, places, and things one has to judge by oneself.”  (Enlightenment indeed.)  In its description, categorization and enumeration of the elements and basic regularities of the various things it dealt with, the Encyclopedia (1751 – 1772) was in fact the predecessor of both the travel guide book and another phenomenon related to it: the retail catalogue.  First appearing at the end of the 19th century, by 1906 the Sears mail-order catalogue had become the “consumer’s bible.”  In its commodification of places, monuments and customs, the guide book can be regarded as a retail catalogue of the foreign and exotic.

Until the middle of the 19th century, travel for its own sake was the privilege of the few.  By the time the organized group tour (Thomas Cook), the printed guide book and the tourist hotel had come into prominence in the last decades of that century, “seeing the world” had been, at least for the middle class and the better-paid strata of the working class, democratized to a significant extent. What this meant for the realm of the imagination, the inner landscape where dreams of the far away are enacted, was a shift from being the closed realm of the unrealizable to becoming the initial planning phase of real possibilities.  Hopes are kindled that the World, as opposed to home, will allow one to shed one’s everydayness, at least temporarily.  As Dean MacCannell notes: “[…] somewhere, only not right here, not right now, perhaps just over there someplace, in another country, in another life-style, in another social class, perhaps, there is genuine society.”

It is in this attempt to escape one’s own everydayness that one of the paradoxes of tourism becomes manifest: the foreign and far away come to resemble the familiar and everyday in as many aspects as possible.  The easy access which new modes of transport created brought about the flourishing of the hotel business throughout most of the world.  Increasing comfort while enjoying the foreign and far-away is the principle here; accessibility itself is, in the context of tourism’s domestication of the foreign, an aspect of this comfort.  After all, what else is “comfort” in this context other than the protective bubble of familiar everydayness?  “Home away from home” and receptivity to what is unfamiliar cease to indifferently coexist after a certain threshold of comfort and convenience is reached: thereafter, comfort and convenience are present to the extent that the foreign and unfamiliar are absent.

The comfort which is sought is not only physical.  The uneasiness in the face of the unfamiliar gives rise to various defensive strategies.  Not only the activity of taking pictures but speech itself serves as a repository of the familiar in those innumerable discussions among tourists about the logistics and accoutrements of travel.  Such conversations, rather than exemplifying a concern for detail indicative of an active curiosity about one’s environment, are defenses against an alien environment – in short, they are expressions of homesickness.  But this homesickness is not that of being too long away from home, but rather that of having ventured into what is foreign in the first place.

Another aspect of tourism’s inherently paradoxical nature reveals itself in exactly the opposite of the comfort just depicted: the search for the native, the unspoiled and authentic.  An attempt is made to come into contact with what is genuinely foreign, undefiled by the quest for home away from home.  The tourist seeks to escape tourism, to be simply a visitor, a “traveler.”  He or she is often hostile to others who seem to fit into the category of “tourist.”  As James Buzard has amply documented, the traveler/tourist distinction (always with disapproval of what the latter term was taken to signify) dates back to the early nineteenth century.  He also quotes the twentieth-century novelist Evelyn Waugh: “Every Englishman abroad, until it is proven to the contrary, likes to consider himself a traveler and not a tourist.” “The term ‘tourist’ is increasingly used as a derisive label for someone who seems content with his obviously inauthentic experiences.”  There is a wish to become invisible as a tourist, a desire to pass as a “local,” if possible.  But as Jonathan Culler has persuasively written, “The desire to distinguish between tourists and real travelers is a part of tourism – integral to it rather than outside it or beyond it” (Framing the Sign: Criticism and its Institutions, 1988).

The flight from tourism has itself become an extremely popular mode of tourism, and has generated a whole range of “alternative” guidebooks, guided tours, hotels, hostels, etc.  But there is a grim truth concerning the very essence of tourism: the massive search for the unspoiled and authentic is one of the primary causes of its destruction.  As Bruzard observes, “No tourist ‘intends’ the transformation or violation of visited places; yet, in complicity with powerful social, cultural and economic forces, each tourist helps to effect such transformation.  In Tristes Tropiques (1955), the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss notes: “The fact is that these primitive peoples, the briefest contact with whom can satisfy the traveler […] are all, in their different ways enemies of our society, which pretends to itself that that it is investing them with nobility at the very time it is completing their destruction, whereas it viewed them with terror and disgust when they were genuine adversaries.”

The search for the scenic and the accumulative approach toward experience it involves compromise from the outset those contacts with native residents which, precisely because experience here is predominantly experience of things, are quite limited to begin with.  “A country’s humanity disappears to the exclusive benefit of its monuments” (Roland Barthes, Mythologies).  To the extent that contacts with native residents do occur, they tend to be within tourism’s pre-established socio-economic context in which the local resident is the merchant, the hotel clerk, the bartender, the waiter or the local tour guide, and the tourist is always the customer.  The tourist industry is, after all, an interlocking cluster of service industries, which in most cases means that the ultimate consumer of the product or service is personally waited on.  The server-served relationship is by no means unique to tourism; but what is striking here is the pronounced and nearly unavoidable tendency to the exclusion of other kinds of relationship.  The tourist as customer is there to be helped, accommodated, fed and entertained.  He or she may act according to whim, since what has been purchased is not simply a meal, a room, a seat or a souvenir, but the unimpeachable role of guest.  Though perhaps somewhat ill at ease due to lack of competence in the local language or to a vague and unexamined feeling of being out of place, the tourist’s nothing-to-lose attitude of the self-invited guest is there nonetheless.

The local resident whose job it is to serve the tourist does not have the luxury of such arbitrariness, since business and livelihood are at stake.  Moreover, in the anonymity of waiting on and being at the service of the tourist, the service industry worker is placed in the role of representative of his or her town, region or country.  The tourist addresses the person who serves him or her from a position of inherent superiority: the power to decide where and how to spend even a limited supply of vacation money is a crucial advantage.  This superiority of position never goes unnoticed by those who possess it.  It may or may not manifest itself as haughtiness, but even if it does not, the conditions for condescension and patronization have already been created.

The local service industry worker and the tourist who is served are thus bound to each other in a mutual embrace in which the instrumentality through which each views the other casts a shadow on any further attempts at communication between them, as if engaged in a parody of the dialectic of master and slave in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.  Although the resulting ambiguity of their simultaneous attraction/repulsion is mutual, the initiative lies with the tourist, as does the advantage throughout.