First, let me apologise for the amount of time I have left since my last posting. It has been a busy summer, and I am still in the process of organising a schedule whereby I can devote regular postings to this blog.
Some of the blame for my extended silence must be attributed to two recent trips abroad, to Umbria and the Dalmatian coast respectively. The former was a yearly pilgrimage to Assisi, while the latter was an opportunity to get away under the justification of research to see what remains of medieval Zara (not much, as it turns out). Both were lovely trips, filled with all sorts of sites of cultural and religious interest (in the Mediterranean, the two are often the same thing). The natural beauty of the places was breathtaking as well, and I managed to get in hikes to the top of Mount Subasio and around the Plitvička Lakes, and my girlfriend got to bask on the pebble beaches on the island of Vis (not usually much of a beach person myself, I have to admit that I was pretty reluctant to leave the unbelievably clear and blue waters around the fishing village of Komiža). But to change tone from what seems quickly to be turning into a travel advertisement, both trips impressed me with an (admittedly hypocritical) anxiety for the preservation of all that beauty, not only of the woods and beaches, but also of the quiet, cool stone churches with their small red lamps burning reassuringly. And I couldn’t help but worry that I was contributing to the peril I feared.
Growing up, I remember being taught as an axiom that travel gives one a wider worldview, broadens one’s horizons, expands one’s tastes, and generally instills in one a love of the Community of the World. This mantra was repeated throughout secondary school and into university. What my educators meant by all this was that travelling intrinsically helps to make one a Better Person. Travelling, even gratuitously, so the argument goes, increases the number and diversity of people with whom one interacts, thus expanding one’s conception of community. By expanding that community to embrace the world, one has made everyone his neighbour, and with that accomplished, he can all turn to the much easier task of loving his neighbours. If only we could get more people to travel, we would be that much closer to achieving world peace.
There are a number of problems with this argument, chief among them being the weight of contrary historical evidence. My research for my doctoral thesis has lately had me looking pretty closely at the Fourth Crusade. Certainly both the kingdoms of western Europe and the Eastern Roman Empire benefited materially and culturally from the centuries of interaction preceding 1204, but that commerce of goods and ideas also sowed deep misunderstandings, resentments, and arrogance between the two spheres of Christendom. The sack of Constantinople that brought the Fourth Crusade to its end was superficially the result of immediate circumstances of perceived necessity, but it was only made possible by the long history of traffic and competition between two cultures that fundamentally failed to understand each other, both in spite and because of that history. The same can be said, I believe, for most wars, right up to the Second Iraqi War.
In the end, this stems from the fact that in trying to make the world our neighbour in order to love them, we’ve forgotten that we don’t really love our actual geographical neighbours. The point of Christ’s parable about the Samaritan was not to go out looking for people or cultures to love (Samaria, after all, is not that far from Jerusalem or Jericho), but to love first those that come across our path. When we limit ourselves to our communities of choice and convenience, both in our suburban homes and in our foreign holiday destinations, we fail to love our neighbour in any meaningful sense. ‘Charity begins at home’ is not only a maxim for families; indeed, it is usually applied to families precisely because they are the most basic manifestation of community.
This problem is compounded when, in our vast and vague interaction with other cultures, we begin to believe that we really do understand them. We develop a smug feeling of transcending our own traditions and those of others, like that of an anthropologist who has figured it all out. But in reality we can never truly transcend our own cultural heritage. Perhaps we never have an opportunity to start with a clean slate culturally, but we certainly don’t once we reach maturity. As much as we may discover about other cultures, we cannot ever fully adopt them for our own, and if we instead try to stand above all of them, we both delude ourselves and run the risk of surrendering a crucial element of what it means to be human: a sense of home. We can play the anthropologist, but in trying to study humans we may quickly find that we have lost our fellowship with them.
Finally, I have observed fellow tourists often enough to have seen that travel does not have beneficial, broadening effects on everyone. The British couple annoyed that the Roman restaurant doesn’t have air conditioning or the American woman panting out her frustration that the towers of Notre-Dame de Paris aren’t furnished with lifts are anecdotal examples of a wider phenomen: people travel because they are encouraged to, only to find it further entrenches their convictions that everything back home is best. This might not be a bad thing in itself (though I would hope for a more nuanced understanding that one might prefer things at home, rather than believing them to be absolutely ‘best’; the best antidote to jingoism is truly loving the place one is from, and thus understanding why others love their own homes), but people seem to be less likely to conclude that they should therefore stay at home than to decide they should use their power as consumers to convince the places they visit to accommodate their expectations.
Thus the tourist trade becomes another victory for the forces of globalisation, but also one of the clearest proofs that globalisation’s supposed egalitarian mission, to lift up other countries to the level of material comfort enjoyed by the United States and other industrialised nations, is really just the modern form of imperialism. Through a variety of means, tourism exports included, the ‘modernised’ economies and political systems force, through hard or soft power, other cultures to fall into line. We may appreciate Italian cooking, French churches, or Croatian wilderness, but when we engage with them selectively, divorced from the rest of its culture, we turn them into museum pieces, robbing them of their life and turning the rest of the world into a sterilised exhibit for the benefit of the English-speaking world (I know English speakers aren’t the only countries to export tourism on a grand scale *ahem Japan and China ahem*, but I do find the wild proliferation of English among foreign countries, while convenient, troubling from a cultural perspective). Because other cultures often do not have the material means for their members to travel with the same volume or frequency as Americans and western Europeans, they continue to be importers of tourism who must accommodate the visitors. But even if they could influence the cultures of more industrialised countries, and globalisation was actually egalitarian in any meaningful way, the best for which we could hope would be a grey, amorphous universal ‘culture’ that would not reflect any true historical human experience and would, on account of its scale, be completely alien to any significant sense of community.
Throw on top of these cultural issues the environmental damage caused by high volumes of travel, both through transportation and general sightseeing, and the problem becomes further compounded. The Croatian beaches and mountains were incredibly pristine, and this despite already high levels of traffic, but what happens when Croatia’s reputation as a prime tourist destination continues to grow, and the country joins the European Union in a few years?
Of course, this all sounds incredibly hypocritical; after all, I have just enjoyed spending time in all these places, so to discourage others from travelling sounds very selfish of me. Furthermore, I don’t intend to stop visiting other countries, for both academic and recreational purposes. But the purpose of this article is not that travel (or even tourism) is a modern phenomenon to which we need to put an end; cross-cultural travel has been a consistent feature throughout history, and medieval pilgrimages could be considered a (less frivolous) form of pre-modern tourism.
However, I would like to challenge the way we think about travel and tourism. We need to acknowledge that the maxim that travel has positive effects on everyone, while conforming to a certain liberal ideology and worldview, does not correspond to reality. Furthermore, even in those cases where an individual evades the Scylla of having his bigotry and distaste for things unfamiliar confirmed by experience, he may plummet into the Charybdis of detached (and perhaps even cynical) anthropology in his approach toward both foreign cultures and his own.
Instead of insisting that the key to world harmony is for all of us to participate in tourism a bit more, perhaps we might relax the pressure to travel as a morally beneficial experience, and allow people to discover the beauty that surrounds them in their own homes and communities. Of course people would still travel, and there would still be tourists. And those who had a deep curiosity, interest, and love for a distant place would still go to explore it. But if tourism was seen less as something that everyone (or at least those who can afford it) simply did for doing, as less of an industry that had to constantly encourage people to go places they would not have been interested in going otherwise, the experience for those who truly do wish to engage with foreign cultures would likely be more rewarding, as the places they would visit could better defend themselves against the temptation toward kitsch and convenience. Let’s not stop exploring the beauty of distant shores, but let’s sally forth out of love, not because we’re bored with the beauty we haven’t even yet discovered at home.
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