Thursday, July 19, 2007

Traveller or Tourist?

I have put it upon myself to be disciplined and write at least once a week. After all – I must have at least one thought a week that is worthy of fleshing out in some form. But the week is slipping away from me, so I have to get down to work, and try to get something together before today is over.

Last week, there was an article in the Globe and Mail about how the “new seven wonders of the world” are being destroyed by over-tourism. It talked about the bind that developing countries are in to exploit their sites while wanting to preserve – tourism can often be the best way to preserve ancient sites (as opposed to, say, oil and gas development . . .), but it can also do them in in the end.

So this got me thinking about travel and tourism. To me the difference is that a tourist goes somewhere to consume and experience (check off the box in the travel guide, get the picture by the landmark), while a traveller goes somewhere to experience it (move a bit slower, get to know people, get out of your comfort zone a bit).

I have always tried to be a traveller, but of course have not always succeeded. When I lived in Scotland, I spent my weekend jaunts within the country, really getting to know it, rather than rushing off on an EasyJet special for a weekend in Venice. When I was in Ecuador, we didn’t go to the Galapagos. This was partly because it would have doubled the cost of the trip, but also because I didn’t think that it was fair to tread on an incredibly fragile ecosystem when I am not a huge animal person, and would be doing it just because it’s what you do in Ecuador.

But then there’s the side of me that wants to just see things that I have always heard about, like Angkor Wat in Cambodia (mentioned in the news article as one of the spots that is being worn down in tourists). Should I not go because I would be adding to its destruction? Or, since it’s something that particularly captured me (I remember reading about it in high school French, and thought it sounded amazing), is it more acceptable for me to go there, whereas for others who are fascinated by animals, it would be acceptable to go to the Galapagos?

And deeper into that urge to be a tourist is the truth that I also have the desire to consume experiences. Where does this urge come from? It is because we think that having these experiences, which have been talked about by other people and built up in books and movies and TV, will fill something in us? Is it rooted in a general dissatisfaction with our lives, that we always want to go somewhere else to find something that will change us (the latest issue of Geez is about “finding the wonder” and a lot of the articles are about slowing down and finding the wonder right where we are)?

One of the most prominent times when we had to face this tension between wanting to be tourists and wanting to be responsible travellers was in Brazil. A big part of the reality of Brazil is the favelas (slums). Growing up the side of hills, overshadowing the luxury of life in Ipanema and the other ritzy neighbourhoods, these neighbourhoods of shacks are hotbeds of poverty and crime, and examples of the huge divide between rich and poor in Rio. If you are in Rio, you get a sense that to really understand the city, you have to understand the slums. And so, there are favela tours. You can join a group in an SUV and view the slums. Meet people who live in them. For many of these companies, the proceeds of the tour goes directly to the community. So – we were torn. Would going on the tour be a way for us to gain compassion and understanding for these people, and to give them the means to pull themselves out of this situation? Or, would it be some kind of sick human zoo experience, like when rich Victorians used to go to Bedlam to view the crazies? In the end, we didn’t feel like we had enough time and information to make an informed decision, so erred on the side of caution and didn’t go on the tour.

Where does this leave us? I wanted to go on the favela tour, but didn’t know if I should. I want to go to Angkor Wat. Should I? I want to spend 4 months travelling around the Mediterranean. If I don’t have 4 months, should I go to Greece for a week, or not go at all? I guess in planning trips, we should examine our motivation. Why am I going? Am I going to consume an experience so I can write home about it, or am I going so that I can really EXPERIENCE an experience? If we are going to consume an experience, maybe we should stay home. Or, can even that mode of travel be saved? Should tourism continue, in the hope that every now and then, someone who just wanted to snap a few pictures will unexpectedly have their life changed by a real interaction with another culture, with nature, or with herself?

Another Globe Article on the subject today:Space Travel


Cynthia said...

Dearest travel torn El Maggie,
I too like to scratch my itch for travel, but am trying to follow the example of a environmental friend from Nova Scotia who travels for work in Canada: she takes the train. I predict that train tourism, and walking, and trekking, will now dominate as new forms of 'slow travel'. I wonder if it will take off like 'slow food'?

el Maggie said...

Cynthia - we can only dream. But then we read about space tourism, b/c rich people are bored by jetting around the world, and need something more, and I lose hope.

Paul said...

I still don't know what we should have done in Brazil regarding the favelas. Many tourist (or travel) sites seem to me to have a real controversy about whether or not tourism is helping or hurting the area.

It's weird that we vacation in other countries. If our main goal is resting, can't we do that much easier in our own homes, or nearby?

I think that one of the absolute best things for a human being is trying to understand the ideas and life of other people. In this sense, travel is important.

When Carolyn and I were in Scotland, we found a settlement that had both pict and viking ruins. In order to get at the pict ruins you would have to dig through the viking ruins. I think they were still debating what to do when we visited. In other places, they had restored old buildings, and in some they left the buldings as ruins. Which is better?

These are some unrelated ideas that popped into my head.