News & Politics

There's No Such Thing As Eco-Tourism

Tourism in the post-9/11, post-colonial era remains a minefield of moral issues -- and living as a sin-free travel writer is damn near impossible.
Colonialism isn't dead.

Colonialism is alive and well every time you travel from the First World to the Third and come home bearing photographs of sharks and storms and slums, of scorpions fried for snacks, sunflowers bigger than your head, stalled buses whose aisles are slick with spit, and then you tell your friends and co-workers, "Oh man, it was so great, you gotta go."

We call it ecotourism and adventure travel. That sounds sensitive. We think Ugly Americans are the fat ones on cruises and on package tours -- anyone but us. We think we're different because we don't have a stars-and-stripes patch on our backpacks as -- buckle your seatbelt -- this summer's travel boom defies the presence of not one but several wars around the world right now which may or may not become a world war. This is the busiest summer on record for air travel, according to USA Today, with 207 million Americans expected to board U.S. planes for domestic and international flights, up from last summer's 205 million.

El Salvador has enjoyed a 20 percent jump in its number of visitors for each of the past two years. Colombia is up 18 percent. Record numbers are arriving in Cuba. When the Philippines' Mount Mayon started spewing lava and car-sized boulders in mid-July, the government evacuated locals, but tourists arrived in droves. Hotels were packed. Real travelers mock the drones who flock to Rennes-le-Chateau in France because they adored "The Da Vinci Code," or to Botswana because a Scotsman writes bestselling mysteries set there, or to Namibia because of Brad and Angelina, or to Vietnam for sex.

We think our motives are purer, that in the correct frame of mind, a trip to exotica means independence and not exploitation, as we come and see and -- well, not quite conquer but globalize with every dollar spent. It's easy to say: "My aim is true, my morals are on track," but Christopher Columbus and a million missionaries said so, too. Easy to think it's not corrupting or condescending or anachronistic but cool to collect snapshots of the other, trading smiles with strangers to brag about at dinner parties later: souvenirs. Off we go, from Berkeley and Brooklyn, we Marco Polos, Attilas the Hun, Captains Cook, Rudyard Kiplings with tattoos.

Takeoff. That plane transporting 207 million of us to giant-flowerland is causing global warming. That's what Ian Jack writes in the latest edition of the literary journal Granta, whose theme is "On the Road Again." Carbon emissions from aircraft into the higher atmosphere are thrice as potent as those rising from ground level, Jack writes. To slow the coming debacle, "because all we can do now is to modify the severity of the inevitable," he makes a radical proposal that we go virtually nowhere: "We would need to ration the carbon dioxide produced by traveling to an allowance of no more than half a ton a year for every human being alive today." That translates to 2,200 kilometers (1,320 miles) by car a year, with no air travel, or 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) by car a year with a round-trip international flight once every 15 years.

"Fortunately for the climate," Jack half-jokes, "a lot of the world's population is too poor to do much traveling at all."

OK, so we the corporate shills -- having shelled out to the airlines and big oil and then fouled the air -- arrive abroad. Here we are now, entertain us, spurred by the same selfish yearnings as every pioneer and pirate and imperial passenger from eras past. Yet despite the boom, Lawrence Osborne laments in "The Naked Tourist" (North Point, 2006) that there's "nowhere left to go," because "tourism has made the planet into a uniform spectacle," with everyone "wandering through an imitation of an imitation. ... The entire world is a tourist installation." As a New Yorker travel writer who has come to loathe his own profession, Osborne ought to know.

Tourism began not for fun, but as a form of torture: the medieval pilgrimage, a mortifying slog. The word derives from travailler, French for "to toil or labor." Certain murderers escaped execution by being sentenced to perform a pilgrimage, in chains.

Nearly a thousand years later, nearly all trips are pleasure trips. But after 9/11, travel became yet another loaded activity, far from automatic. Strangers wand your body, scan your shoes. And while a passenger aboard planes and trains it's so hard not to flirt with mental pictures of flying into things, of arms on fire. Maybe that's part of what fuels this summer's boom: the tingly frisson of potential danger, of denying that danger, of accepting it but not knowing its source, of not being certain that you'll actually arrive. With the airline industry on ultrahigh alert after mass arrests in Britain and talk of a thwarted plane-bombing plot, travel lurches yet another notch out of neutral, out of normal. To go anywhere now, you have to really want to go.

Although Osborne's diction evinces an elite British education -- "hoplites," "decalcomaniac," "stalactitic" and "helots" pop lightly off his fingertips -- he is too broke to afford dental work before starting his own trip through the Mideast and Asia, where every destination resembles a theme park at which "you are asked to play a part in the racial memory of others": Consumer. Invader. Crusader. Seducer. Self-hating Westerner. Buffoon.

In Dubai, Osborne wonders what anticolonialist scholar Edward Said would say about a booming emirate that, with its faux-Arabian Nights shopping malls and steel palm trees, "Orientalizes itself." Andaman Islanders act scary, then cynically hawk their handicrafts. Korowai tribesmen in remote Papua are "persuaded to change out of their T-shirts and shorts, put on hornbill penis gourds, and climb into traditional treehouses" by the operators of a tour company whose German name means "Back to the Stone Age!" Osborne develops a tremor as he quaffs more and more whisky to kill "the awful taste of simulacrum." But even the Thai health resort to which a doctor sends him -- a place where fresh flowers stud the swimming pools -- exudes a sense "of dejection, of pointlessness." Osborne flees in a cab.

Anthropologists haunt him as he prepares to enter Papua, hailed as the last truly primitive aerie on Earth -- a jungly puzzle where, in the 1930s, Margaret Mead "found all the material she needed to overturn what she perceived as the patriarchy, racism, and puritanism of her native America."

Despite time marching on, Osborne observes, "Papua has stayed wild. Almost nobody experiences it." Even people he meets in not-so-far-away India have never heard of it. Thus Papua feels like the last possible source of a buzz for someone so shamed and callused by his "long collusion with the forces of global tourism" -- which, he notes, is the world's fastest-growing industry and one that pretty much defines and confines the economies of entire nations. Osborne regrets having been "induced" to roam, to spend years on end in thousands of hotel rooms in 204 countries while having no home of his own: "Passing one's time in this way is a novel form of dementia."

I know. I used to travel. Now I don't go anywhere anymore. I even used to write travel books, and talk about them on TV. I have seen mummies whose still-perfect hands shimmered like caramel. I have seen rainforests and a shipwreck, and found shampoo bottles washed ashore. I spoke Chinese. But now I wonder whether it is right to guide anyone anywhere that he or she could not find on his or her own. Travel writing is advertising; it's turning foreigners and their landscapes into commodities.

And tourism, as James Hamilton-Patterson writes in Granta -- in an essay titled "The End of Travel" -- "is an industry determined to embrace you. ... It wants you to spend as much as you can on fatuous souvenirs; it wants you to do Machu Picchu or the Taj Mahal; it wants you to have the rainforest experience or the Mysterious East experience or the Rose Red City Half as Old as Time experience, and it doesn't terribly mind if you also have the fleeced-by-muggers-on-Copacabana-Beach experience."

First Worlders penetrating the Third World aren't the wild rebels they imagine themselves to be, he snorts. They're deluded children, lulled by the convenience of their own electronic toys and their longing to make the folks back home envy them for where they've been. More and more trips these days, he writes, are "apparently influenced more by the Guinness Book of Records than by a desire to travel per se. People aspire to be the first to swim the entire length of the Mekong backstroke or become the only dude ever to go snowboarding in Antarctica. Take a camera crew along to capture your waggish ego!"

And sure enough, the last few years have seen a flood of adventure-memoirs whose authors undertook exactly such stunts: John Pollack's "Cork Boat," about building a vessel from wire and 165,321 wine-corks and sailing through Portugal, because that's where cork comes from; Rory Stewart's "The Places in Between," about walking across Afghanistan in 2002; Jeffrey Tayler's "River of No Reprieve," about motorboating into Russia's Arctic; André Tolmé's "I Golfed Across Mongolia"...

In an ever-flatter world where simply seeing is no longer enough, where adventure travel gets spun into "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race," neoswashbucklers feel compelled to traverse entire nations and waterways on foot or in unorthodox boats, suffering and sometimes only barely surviving. An Afghani official warned Stewart: "You'll die, I guarantee it," and he almost did. Tayler was marooned. But even this -- even what appears to be anti-travel writing, with its horror stories about power outages and Taliban gunmen and canned meat and house-sized icebergs and whole populations afflicted with what Tayler calls "broken souls" -- is travel writing nonetheless. Because in its perverse way, it still makes you want to go. Because you'll feel like a coward or a dork if you don't.

Go on, sneers Hamilton-Patterson, who has lived all over the world: Ski down Kilimanjaro before the last snowdrift melts on a planet whose "accelerating demise is helped along by the mounting effluent of our journeys."

For me, travel is a misty dream, like a fairground ride in a landscape now dismantled. I miss it. Am I saving some tribe from extinction by not looking for it, much less telling you about it? Or am I starving some shopkeeper by not buying his sandals? Both. Neither. I am out of that game now.