On the Road

Consumer Travel, Guidebook Hype

An article on how the travel culture affects the world.

Countries crawling out of the mayhem and destruction of civil war are often the preferred tramping ground of the budget traveller. The shattered economy ensures that it will be cheap to travel there and the locals are grateful for the influx of foreign currency and contact with the outside world. It’s also a last chance to see the country before big business picks up the courage to invest in five star hotels and fast food chains.

The million or so unexploded land mines in Afghanistan effectively limit it’s future tourist potential. One can imagine though tour groups of Americans following the trail of Bin Laden’s cave hideouts (“And who knows, folks, maybe he’s hiding in these very caves still!”). But for now El Salvador, Nicaragua and Cambodia top the list of hotspots for the adventurous backpacker.

In the case of Cambodia it’s been the vogue in the past couple of years to visit the torture chambers of the Khmer Rouge and see the piled up remains of the tens of thousands who died under the regime of Pol Pot. The skulls alone make a small mountain and tourists stand next to them to have their photos taken.

Is it just me or does there seem to be something rather macabre about all this? Okay, every year coachloads of Israelis head to Poland to visit the old concentration camps like Auschvitz and see the gas chambers with their own eyes. But that has more to do with grasping a sense of the troubled history of their ancestors rather than an idle voyeurism for the genocide of a foreign culture.

I suppose what plays on my mind is that, like with the Holocaust, everyone seems to show a far greater interest in such magnitude of human suffering once it’s too late to do anything about it. Anyone can be outraged and moved after the event but these things are going on all the time.

True, the Western media takes precious little interest in the suffering of undeveloped countries that are far from the central spheres of political interest (when was the last time you heard about the exploited people of say, Kirkistan? How many people even know where it is?) but what seems more pertinent is that we can’t understand what’s going on in the world by watching television. It’s all too distant and far removed from our own cultures to really be understood simply by hearing about it. When someone walks through the dungeons of some former tyrant the whole thing becomes real to the senses and can therefore be accepted as real.

Be that as it may, there still seems to me to be something a little opportunistic about the whole thing. Not that i’m any exception either. I’ve spent years living in the poorest countries in the world stretching western currency to the maximum extent possible. One week’s pay in England can cover two months living in India and affords the traveller the time and space he needs to ‘find himself’.

And if visitors from the West want to come to Third World countries and mill about eating cakes and taking the odd photo of a church or a temple, that’s their business, no? It’s not like they’re hurting anyone.

But then I remember returning to my favorite village in the Himalayas early one spring when the roads had just reopened after the heavy snowfalls of winter. It was fantastic to escape the plains of India that were already unbearably hot and return to the snow capped valley with its gushing icy rivers.

The locals didn’t seem quite so happy at my return – in my white face they saw the first arrival of the annual invasion of foreigners. Once they recognized me as one of the long-termers in the village their attitude softened and a few of them remembered my name.

The impression stayed with me though and as I looked around the village square I realized how much had changed since I’d arrived for the first time some five years before; most of the traditional wooden houses and the old wooden temple had been pulled down and in their place had been constructed shops that looked like concrete air raid bunkers.

They sold chocolate, cakes, Kashmiri handicrafts, camera film, breakfast cereals and Duracel batteries – things that only the tourists had the money to buy. There were no less than four bakeries within a twenty meter space. By one of them a German girl in party clothes bought a chocolate cake that equaled half the day’s wage of the Nepalese porter behind her. He was filling up his basket with 70 kilos of rocks to carry up the hill.

It’s not like she or I bear any of the guilt for the economic indifferences in the world but again, when i saw it like that it made the whole thing more intelligible to the senses and therefore more real. None of us had asked for all the construction that had turned this beautiful village into a concrete mess and we would have preferred that it had not changed. Nevertheless it was all prompted by our tourist dollars.

It’s a cliche on the trail to talk about the ‘footsteps of doom’ that a traveller brings to a quiet, undiscovered place that he visits but it’s also largely true. There are villages on the coast of Thailand that went from bamboo fishing huts to 5 star hotels within five years.

I don’t believe that an individual can take responsibility for the whole world but there it is all the same. This is one of the most common debates on the backpacker trail and I’ve heard each side of the argument so many times that i wince every time someone brings it up.

On one hand the locals earn enough money from us to educate their kids, buy medicine and elevate their standard of living. On the other they become greedy, families begin bitter disputes about ownership of land that was previously quite worthless and the alcohol and drugs that come in the wake of the tourists is nothing less than culture pollution.

And as each quiet place makes its way into the guidebooks to be visited by thousands more the following year, people like myself head even further out into the sticks to find another temporary paradise. I don’t think we cause what happens next but it could be said that we’re catalysts for human nature. The urge to profit is sparked by our arrival and the repercussions of this crush the culture and values of the society underfoot.

So should we all stay at home? I think the most pertinent issue is not whether we should travel but how. The huge influence of the guidebooks seems to promote a kind of consumer travel where people talk about ‘doing’ a country. We all want to know what we can get out of a place. Rarely do we think about what we can give back.