Face It: You Are Nothing More than an Obnoxious Tourist
It's summer, and as you plan your vacations, you may be thinking it would be good to see some exotic part of the world. And you probably think you are an exception to the ugly American stereotype, that you respect different cultures and customs, and in general leave travel destinations exactly the same as you met them, except with a few more dollars of tourism money in the locals' pockets. However, in the newly released Travel Issue of Lapham's Quarterly, the author Simon Winchester argues that-no matter how conscientious you are, how many guidebooks you've read about which hand to shake with, how in touch with the plight of the world's poor you are-you almost certainly make a place worse by traveling there.We have an unceasing capacity to make ourselves nuisances, basically. Students of tourism science can and do construct elaborate theories from physics, of course, invoking such wizards as Heisenberg and the Hawthorne effect and the status of Schrödinger's cat to explain the complex interactions between our status as tourist-observers and the changes we prompt in the peoples and places we go off to observe. But at its base is the simple fact that in so many instances, we simply behave abroad in manners we would never permit at home: we impose, we interfere, we condescend, we breach codes, we reveal secrets. And by doing so we leave behind much more than footfalls. We leave bruised feelings, bad taste, hurt, long memories.While perhaps not that exciting a solution, Winchester argues that the best way to not leave a mark on distant cultures is not visit them at all. While there is very little room in that philosophy for any of the societal benefits of cross-cultural contact, it's still worth a look to remind yourself that, no matter what steps you take, you are a problematically obnoxious tourist.Winchester's personal tale of realizing these truths is well worth reading, as it involves him being banned from a remote island for life for revealing an island secret in print. In fact, the whole of Lapham's Quarterly bears reading. For those not familiar, the magazine consists mostly of historical readings on a theme, along with a few contemporary essays. History, they say, repeats itself (in fact, the Quarterly has a blog on that very subject), and it's remarkable how pertinent things written centuries ago can sound in context.