In the last decade I’ve been lucky enough to visit many of the world’s great cities. I’ve seen plenty of the famous tourist sites, from The Winter Palace and the Hermitage to Ancient Pompeii, from the Gate Museum in Berlin to the British Museum.
There’s little as testing as being surrounded by tourists.
Seriously, nothing strains ones faith in humanity as much as attempting to catch a glimpse of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre: it’s barely visible behind the mass of people, crowding forward, a veritable phalanx of phones and ipads clicking and flashing, bodies pressing together like an ancient Roman testudo.(Banning phones and cameras would immeasurably improve the museum experience.)
The most common sight for the tourist is not the Venus de Milo but the back of other tourist’s heads.
I’m aware of the irony – a tourist complaining about tourists. We’ll come back to this.
What interests me here is not the lack of respect to the art or monument shown by so many of these tourists – though that is galling enough – so much as the function the tourist experience plays within modern life. What is the point of these travel experiences? Why traipse around in great groups seeing the ‘famous’ sights? What role does it play within the structure of modern life?
I’m not sure I’ve quite worked it out, but stick with me. I’m about to generalize, but I hope you’ll forgive me.
The first thing is that most tourism is of little educational value. You’re not likely to learn anything from a five minute examination of the Mona Lisa or a potted history of the Kremlin. Quite often, whatever is gleaned from the semi-educated guide or electronic recording is likely to be forgotten quickly.
Rather, the experience seems to me entirely reified, entirely gutted of content and dominated by its formal aspects. It’s a mechanised process, in which each component is replaceable by another.
For example, entering the Vatican is strikingly similar to passing through passport security at a major airport, with long lines through various checkpoints. Indeed, the whole business is reminiscent of a Fordist manufacturing plant, the tourists like cows on their way into an abbatoir.
From that point, the tourist moves from disembodied item to disembodied item. Everything becomes mechanical, a thoughtless acting out. Exhausted, the tourist returns to their hotel or hostel (it, too, a replication of the others they’ve slept in), able to check that day’s sight off the list: Mona Lisa – check; Venus de Milo – check; and so on.
It’s not that, upon returning home, the tourist has learned anything much about life by contemplating the Mona Lisa’s famously ambiguous smile. Rather, the tourist can say, ‘I saw the Da Vinci, yes.’
The reason why a photograph must be taken by your camera/phone is not that it somehow captures the ‘essence’ of the image, but instead it’s to prove that you were there (If you want a good picture of it, you’re better buying a postcard or a book).
It is a profoundly individualistic experience.
Seeing other cultures does not open the mind to new kinds of seeing, to contemplation of one’s own place in society, to the relative nature of many of our own cultural mores, to the structure of wealth or power – it does not lead to a questioning. Instead, it leads to a reaffirmation of one’s own way of life. This goes for the ‘rite of passage’ six-month trek across a continent by twenty-somethings as it does for the luxury tours in air-conditioned comfort of those later in life.
In other words, tourism has become a part of The Culture Industry, as Adorno and Horkheimer have termed it.
What’s so infuriating is that it is almost impossible to step outside of this. Unlike other aspects of culture – film, books, and so on – it’s very hard to change the context of tourism. Yes, there are alternative ‘tours’ of cities (a friend of mine ran ‘red Berlin’ tours for some years), but these are few and far between and hard to integrate into the trip.
So in recent years I’ve found myself staggering along behind the rest of the masses, like some lost soul in The Walking Dead, always searching for the next meal, never satisfied. To my disgust, I have found myself, camera in hand, pushing aside the others, trying to get the right shot.