Tourism Paradoxes: Glorifying How A Place Used To Be

Table of Contents

ABOUT THE PARADOXES OF TOURISM SERIES

This is part one of our Paradoxes of Tourism Series. In it, we discuss why travellers tend to glorify how a place used to be before tourism while failing to recognise that they are the cause of the problem and appreciating a destination for what it is.

The concept of tourism can be problematic. As a travel blog, we want to address these issues and discuss them critically. We promote travelling actively with each one of our posts. By making a living from full-time travel and encouraging others to do the same we need to consider the impact we have on local communities, the environment and society in general. With this certain paradoxes arise that are inherent to the idea of travel. Most of them cannot be solved easily, however, by highlighting their existence and discussing how we as travellers can help adjust our own habits we can spread awareness and maybe take on a different perspective the next time we travel.

Nevertheless, these are opinion pieces and need to be seen as such. Everyone is entitled to their own point of view and just because we assume something to be true doesn’t mean it is. In all cases, we need to be aware of our own privilege and how lucky we are to be able to travel at all. By being a self-aware traveller you are taking the first step to acknowledge your impact and encourage others to do the same.

TOURISM PARADOXES: “YOU SHOULD HAVE SEEN THIS PLACE 30 YEARS AGO!

Deeply ingrained in the concept of travel is the idea that everything used to be better.

“When I saw Venice in the 90s you could just walk around without all these crowds”

“You used to be able to just go to the Colosseum at night with only a handful of people there”

“This beach just used to be palm trees before they built all those fancy resorts”

Does that sound familiar? Maybe you’ve even experienced it yourself. You went to a popular tourist place as a child and then came back 20 years later and somehow everything has changed. In many cases, people lose their appreciation for a place because “tourism ruined it” or “it’s just not the same”. While you can find lots of articles online of how Bali looked 30 years ago or that Santorini used to be just a little fishing village this concept of tourists ruining places has always struck me as odd. Because if you think about it it’s one of the most prominent and widespread paradoxes of tourism. There are a number of reasons why I think this glorification of the unspoilt is unhelpful and toxic in the context of our society.

THE ENTITLEMENT OF TOURISM

The most obvious problem with reminiscing of a time before tourists came is that we are the problem. The main question to consider is what is the alternative? If tourists ruin places then how are we supposed to keep travelling? And don’t make the mistake of thinking that we’re claiming that tourists make places better. Of course, tourism ruins untouched places on some level. Crowds, pollution, capitalism, poverty are all terrible side effects of travel. The question is how we can fix that issue and the unfortunate answer is simply: Don’t travel anymore. Now is that an effective solution to the problem? Definitely not. So when we as tourists complain of development and other travellers ruining a place that was perceived as “untouched” before tourism then why are we even there? No part of this argument and paradox seems to make sense

Venice how we imagine it to be

THE SELFISHNESS OF TOURISM

The root issue is the inherent selfishness of the tourist. “Tourists do not simply seek the experience of place, but the experience of self in place” (Source). It is not enough to see a destination, you need to put yourself in it to truly appreciate it. Every tourist experiences this concept and it shouldn’t be seen as a strictly negative thing. Of course, we want to experience a new place from our own perspective, that is the whole point of travelling and tourism in general. The problem with tourism is that we assume that the sole purpose of a place is to serve us and our travels.

People come back from a trip and claim that it was nice but the beach was too crowded or the hotel was too far from the city centre or there was too much trash in the ocean without considering that maybe they are not the centre of the universe. Of course, everyone wants to have the best experience possible. But if that’s not the case sometimes then we need to backtrack, put everything into perspective and appreciate our privilege.

If you are a tourist complaining about a crowded beach then you are the problem as much as everyone else. You are a walking advertisement for what you’re complaining about. You cannot expect time to stand still and everything to stay the same. If you’re planning to visit a beautiful place chances are thousands of others worldwide will have the same idea. Popular places are crowded for a reason. Our world is meant to be shared and although that can be hard it is the way travel works.

“A tourist, usually, is somebody else.” – DAVID NICHOLSON-LORD in his article “The Politics of Travel”.

TOURISM PARADOXES: WHY WE ASSUME A PLACE IS SUPPOSED TO BE A CERTAIN WAY

Why do we assume that just because we saw a place during a certain time and kept this snapshot in our memories that this is just meant to be the default? Maybe you saw Bali in the 90s and all there was were a few beach bars, some surfers and rice fields. If you come back 30 years later you’ll find packed streets, souvenir shops, surf schools and rooftop clubs. Although I understand the appreciation for a beautiful place that is rich in culture with incredible nature it is easy to fall into the idea of “perceived correctness”. When you saw Bali in the 90s it wasn’t untouched. Nor was it in the 70s or the 50s. You’re just seeing human progress which is the case for the majority of places in the world. Chances are your home town was a lot different in the 90s too.

This brings us back to the selfishness of the traveller or humans in general. We assume the whole world revolves around us and our experience. We’re scared of change and try to reap only the benefits of it. In the next section, we’ll explore the paradox of change and how we experience it.

A TOURIST’S FASCINATION WITH THE UNSPOILT

Travel has somehow developed “beauty standards” over time. Just as much as the media tells us people are supposed to look a certain way we have also adopted similar standards for travel. When you’re visiting Paris you want to return home and tell your friends of the cute café in a quiet side street that you found which serves authentic baguette or how you managed to find the best Airbnb with incredible views of the Eiffel Tower while living just like a local. Or you’ll come back from your trip to Indonesia and boast how you skipped Bali because it’s way too touristy but went to Sumba instead where you found this deserted beach and a friendly group of locals selling coconuts. No high-rise building on the beach and no crowds.

Tourists will spend the entirety of their trip desperately photoshopping people out of the background of their Instagram photos while trying to find the “true Paris” or the “Bali how it used to be”. As popular destinations like Paris, Venice, Rome or Santorini become overcrowded new ones pop up that claim to be “How it was 30 years ago”. The fascination almost seems reminiscent of someone’s Grandma telling you of the time when you could do the weekly shopping with only a dollar and when the TV was still black and white. So why do the much younger generation who appreciates smartphones, modern healthcare and the internet draw the line at tourism and just claim that everything was better back then?

The Colosseum in Rome without any tourists

THE VOYEURISTIC NATURE OF TOURISM

We love to go to places for a week, admire how untouched they are and then return to our lives of luxury. This voyeuristic approach exhibits elements of colonialism and can be extremely toxic. As tourists coming from a comparably wealthy society, we love to visit places that are “untouched” and then return home and tell everyone else about it. It is a harsh truth but the majority of us tourists are guilty of it.

We simply make use of progress when it is convenient for us like when we book an Airbnb with an infinity pool and a beachfront location over the internet but still assume that we’ll be the only ones on the beach. 30 years ago there was no Airbnb, no infinity pool and no villa on the beach. There was probably no plumbing or hot water on the island you’re visiting at the moment. So why do you pretend like you would have liked it better back then?

IS EVERYTHING REALLY WORSE TODAY THAN IT WAS BEFORE?

We’ve touched on the idea that idealising how things used to be can be problematic. We don’t get to pick and choose what used to be good while ignoring the things that have improved since. Imagine you’re visiting an Indonesian island in the 1970s. You’d have found immaculate beaches, clean waters and few other tourists. That’s great although right off the bat you need to consider that just by being there you yourself are spoiling the place just with your own presence and therefore are a part of tourism. We humans just love to keep something beautiful to ourselves and then get mad when others feel the same. This takes us back to the idea of selfishness and our inability as a human species to share.

But if we go back to the unspoilt Indonesian island in the 70s we need to consider not only what was “better” back then but also what was maybe” worse”. There would have been nowhere to stay, no health care should you get sick, no restaurant to eat at, no transportation, no one would be speaking English, no snorkelling equipment, no diving school or really anything to help you enjoy your trip. Of course, there are travellers (not tourists) and explorers for who this would be an incredible experience. However, a couple on their honeymoon or a family of four would most likely not be able to appreciate this untouched beach. So why do we pretend like we would?

Untouched beaches

WE NEED TO APPRECIATE WHAT WE HAVE

We as travellers need to appreciate what we have, especially modern technology, transportation and health care. All these things let us travel freely in the 21st century and see places we would have never been able to see before. Appreciate the luxury hotel you can stay in by the beach or the fast-food restaurant you can eat at if you’d like to or the direct flight from London to Perth. All these things enable you as a normal person to see the world just like millions of others every year.

Travel has become so convenient that there is really no excuse not to do it. You can buy a local SIM card and use your phone anywhere in the world. Accessing funds worldwide is easy with your credit card. You have the internet at your fingertips which contains all the knowledge you would ever need. You can document your trip with a modern camera that fits in your back pocket. So why are you complaining about the other people around you doing the same and living their lives? Or the locals capitalising on this new revenue stream by building hotels and restaurants. Just because you might have to wait in line to see the Louvre? Or because there is a McDonald’s in your favourite small Italian beach town? It makes very little sense to me.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TOURIST AND TRAVELLERS

As mentioned we need to make a clear distinction between tourists and travellers. This article applies mainly to tourists, not all travellers. With tourists, I mean people who travel 2-3 times per year and who have only limited time available to them. They want to see as much as possible in a few weeks while keeping a certain budget in mind.

So why did these tourists not go to Bali 50 years ago? First of all the travel industry was still in its infantry back then. Travel was a luxury commodity (which it still is) and most people went on shorter trips close to their own country. With globalisation, a mass market for travel appeared and suddenly it was accessible to all. As we are able to travel further and further our expectations rise. Disappointment is not uncommon when we realise we are not alone.

TOURISM PARADOXES: WHY AN UNTOUCHED PLACE IS NOT AS GOOD AS WE THINK

The truth is that even in the 21st century there are plenty of untouched places left in the world ready to be explored. So why don’t tourists take their annual trip and go to Papua New Guinea, the mountains of Russia or Palmyra Atoll, an incredible island in the pacific? No doubt these destinations are still largely untouched by tourism and probably very similar to what they were like 30 years ago.

The answer is because it’s not convenient. Untouched places have usually remained that way for a reason so idealising them as a sort of role model for how all other places should be is problematic. As a real traveller or explorer with lots of time and funds available you could go see an untouched place. But as a tourist, you’re looking for convenience. You’re not willing to give up your small luxuries like an airconditioned hotel room with wifi and an airport pickup service. You want to have a beer on the beach in the evenings and buy a postcard to send home.

So stop pretending you’d sleep on the beach with nowhere to charge your phone and no hospital in case you get sick from a mosquito bite. As a tourist, this is unrealistic while travellers are a different story. However, most of the people complaining about other tourists are in fact tourists themselves which creates the paradox.

TOURISM PARADOXES: HOW DO WE STOP IDEALISING HOW A PLACE USED TO BE?

It is important to note that I myself like most people am guilty of this. I do not mean to blame other tourists while excluding myself from the narrative. We all want to have the best travel experience possible and there is nothing wrong with that. As long as we’re self-aware we can find a middle ground somewhere.

Now that travel is more attainable than ever how do we fix the problem of idealising it the way it used to be? There is no simple answer to this question, otherwise, it wouldn’t be a paradox of tourism. The first step is to take a moment to appreciate how lucky we are to be able to travel at all. Maybe put into perspective our own privilege and see ourselves from someone else’s eyes.

Especially with what happened to the travel industry in 2020 we need to be aware of how quickly this privilege can be taken from us again. So try to appreciate every experience you get to have when travelling for what it is. They are all gifts in their own way even if they do not match your initial expectations. Don’t put too much pressure on your travels and never let others tell you what exactly your trip should look like.

There is nothing wrong with seeking out quiet places with fewer tourists. Just do it consciously and do not condemn a place if it turns out different from what you expected. If you make the best out of every situation life throws your way there is no way you can be disappointed because you’ll know you’ll always figure it out. You need to find your own place in the world of tourism so you can truly appreciate the beauty of it.

Inspiration for this article came from David Nicholson-Lord’s article “The Politics of Travel: Is Tourism Just Colonialism in Another Guise?” which can be accessed here.

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Hi, I'm Victoria

I’m 24 years old and grew up in Germany. Right now I’m studying at a university in Scotland and am about to graduate with a bachelor’s degree.

Full-time travel is my dream and I’ve spent the last few years slowly building my online business. Guide your Travel is technically a travel blog, but I also write about photography, social media and how you can start blogging. Don’t forget to check out my destination guides and travel tips.

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