Round the World in 80 Ways

Round the World in 80 Ways

John Ghazvinian is completing a PhD at Oxford University on the early history of tourism.


Few things, it seems, have the capacity to make people as nervous as tourism does. Here in Britain, in the nineties, many cultural critics began pointing out that the country was in danger of making a mockery of its own history, in a vain effort to maintain a steady flow of tourist dollars. It seemed sometimes that as the declining post-imperial nation had increasingly less to offer the modern world, its most interesting tourist draw was something called “heritage”–queens and castles, lords and ladies, lawyers wearing silly wigs–but there was the risk that the country would turn into a giant heritage theme-park. Was this a country, many critics asked, or a royal safari park? Was all Stratford a stage? Along with London, Oxford and Bath, Stratford-upon-Avon had come to form a quadrivium of inauthentic “heritage destinations” without which no visit was complete, but which was thoroughly unrepresentative of modern Britain. Would the United Kingdom soon go the way of the Magic Kingdom? Walt Disney’s History World?

Most of us have a knee-jerk revulsion from the mock authenticity of “tourism,” which conjures up images of Kodak moments, National Lampoons and once-splendid monuments reduced to mass-marketed clichés. However, most of us, when pressed, would also admit that while tourism is hardly a new phenomenon, and that people have been traveling for centuries, whether as pilgrims, Grand Tourists or “jet-setters,” the real tackiness only seemed to arrive with the introduction of package tours and mass travel. This, unfortunately, is about the extent of our historical understanding of tourism.

And little wonder, since, for a subject that causes such anxieties about national identity, authenticity and experience, tourism has not always benefited from the most skilled of biographers. Traditionally, the study of travel and tourism has fallen under one of three general rubrics. First, there were the bad old days of whiggish history–tweedy men with double-barreled names who would pronounce from their leather armchairs on things as diverse as the “rise” of the British Empire or the “influence” of the Italian Renaissance, and the role that travelers played in their grand colonial narratives. Then there were the sociologists, like Thorstein Veblen and Dean MacCannell, who were more interested in the structures of travel, quantifying and categorizing their way to a Durkheimian synthesis of Western tourism. Finally, and most recently, there have been literary and cultural critics focused on things like Orientalism, the “tourist gaze,” exoticizing the other, etc.–Stephen Greenblatt’s work on early exploration of the Americas, for instance, or Mary Louise Pratt’s excellent Travel Writing and Transculturation.

Each approach has certainly had its merits, but each type of scholar has made tourism a handmaiden to a larger project–a way of tackling another, bigger problem, or sometimes even just an illustrative chapter in a book on something else entirely. Tourism has rarely been allowed to stand on its own as an independent rubric, poised and ready to be historicized, problematized and, inevitably, balkanized. However, in recent years, there has been an encouraging trend away from confining tourism to this kind of ancillary status, as historians have begun reclaiming the narrative for themselves, rescuing it from their own past whiggish tendencies as well as from the lit-crit barbarians at the gate. Only recently have historians begun to realize that a “cultural history of tourism” does not have to mean an obsession with subjectivity and discursive modes of representation, and it does not have to mean just the history of travel writing and exoticization. Leisure, surprisingly enough, can form a distinct subject of study in social history. Why, in short, do people take holidays? How did it all begin?

Three books have come out in as many years that have tried to answer that question, at least for the nineteenth century. First, in 1997, there was Lynne Withey’s excellent introduction, Grand Tours and Cook’s Tours: A History of Leisure Travel, 1750-1915, the closest thing there has ever been to a textbook history of the heyday of tourism. That rather impressive call to arms was followed in 1998 by Harvey Levenstein’s Seductive Journey: American Tourists in France From Jefferson to the Jazz Age, and just this past summer by Cindy Aron’s Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States. By the time Aron came out with her book, it was clear that an interest in the history of tourism had been established among the literate public and was no longer the preserve of humdrum anthropologists. A feature article ran in the Arts and Ideas section of the New York Times this past summer (the article, perhaps predictably, was shamelessly dependent on Aron, whose book had just come out and who was given an Op-Ed in the news section of the same day’s paper).

There is now no denying this kind of historicizing, and a sufficient number of people are hard at work on delivering it. And with such foundations now finally being laid, what is encouraging about Orvar Löfgren’s excellent new book, On Holiday: A History of Vacationing, is that it gives us a little glimpse of what awaits us on the other side of the hype. Although he calls the book a history, Löfgren doesn’t purport to offer another potted narrative of tourism, shrewdly recognizing that this has now been done. Instead, he cherry-picks his way through a sampling of Swedish beach cottages, Mediterranean islets and advertising campaigns to deliver an impressionistic guided tour through the highlights of Western tourism, as perceived by the author.

Löfgren begins his book by brushing aside some of the most persistent bugbears that have plagued tourism studies, pointing out that people who study tourism too often “feel a need to legitimate their seemingly frivolous topic by pointing out its economic and social importance” (it is, after all, the world’s biggest industry) and insisting that “surely tourism is too important a topic to confine within the boundaries of ‘tourism research.'” And, while he is unabashed about the importance of tourism, he does not overstate its coherence as a topic of study. Although the book covers an impressive sweep of time, Löfgren cautions against the sort of longue-durée catch-all narrative that “fall[s] into evolutionary or devolutionary traps, like ‘from the Grand Tour to Europe on $5 a day.'”

The structure of On Holiday is borrowed from a distinction first elaborated by the French sociologist Jean-Didier Urbain, between what he calls “the Phileas Foggs and the Robinson Crusoes of the tourist world”–i.e., those traveling on a neurotic empiricist quest to gather information and knowledge, and those just looking to “get away from it all.” The first section of the book is called “Landscapes and Mindscapes” and follows the inheritors of the Phileas Fogg tradition of educational touring–the manufacturing of experience, the creation of the picturesque, the meaning of motion, postcards and memorizing.

To find the roots of this empiricizing tendency in tourism, Löfgren rightly goes back to the gentleman’s Grand Tour of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, trotting out a young Carolus Linnaeus with his obsessively detail-oriented journal and the unforgettable Joseph Plumptre and his bag of “knick-knacks”–notebooks, telescope, barometer and the indispensable Claude-glass–all to help him in his “collecting” of the picturesque.

From the “picturesque” Löfgren moves on to the “sublime,” sketching out how industrializing nations set about “nationalising the sublime” in the nineteenth century, with expressions like “a Swiss view” and “the American sublime” gaining currency as a result of their endeavors. This is followed by a rather intriguing chapter on transportation and the relationship between various types of motion and the packaging of experience. He correctly points out the revolutionary significance of the standardized journey time that came with the advent of railway and steamship travel, and he takes us through the “rediscovery of walking” that resulted. He concludes the “Phileas Fogg” section of the book with a discussion of postcards and the production and narration of experiences.

The discussion of walking contains a number of interesting insights, among them the assertion that the vogue for promenades and hikes was “related to the new forms of landscape patriotism in the early nineteenth century. Roving the countryside, you came in contact with the real folk–you could ‘walk yourself Swedish,'” as one Swedish author put it. This discussion of walking is skillfully handled, but it also offers a perfect opportunity that Löfgren overlooks. It is the figure of Thomas Coryate, one of the most fascinating characters in the history of tourism. In 1608, this eccentric English courtier walked from Venice to London, just for a lark, and published his account under the title Coryats Crudities, Hastily Gobled up in Five Moneths Travells. Coryate was not just a consummate tourist but a devilishly effective publicity hound. It seems a shame that this book should pass him over.

From Phileas Fogg, Löfgren turns to Robinson Crusoe and the other side of Western tourism–the desert-island tradition of getting away from it all. The growth of spas is looked at, as is the Swedish tradition of owning a summer cottage on the coast. Here, as indeed throughout the book, there is perhaps an excessive and rather random-seeming reliance on examples from the Swedish experience, a fact Löfgren acknowledges in his introduction and that, at its better moments, can even make for a refreshing change from most Anglo-American studies. It is, nevertheless, a definite limitation.

It’s the kind of limitation that’s quickly forgotten, however, when one reads the discussion of gender that graces the pages on cottage culture. Löfgren paints a delightfully tragic portrait of the “Vacation Dad,” who drags the family out to the coast for a summer in the family cottage. Inevitably, his handyman skills pale next to those of the local men, writes Löfgren, and

the cottage world can thus become a testing ground of conflicting projects. The men may feel like visitors to a female-dominated universe of flower garlands and picnic baskets or feel they can’t live up to the expectations of the vacation Dad. And the women can feel imprisoned in a male world of endless practical projects and quests, like the woman in Margaret Atwood’s poem Bored, who is “bored out of her mind” as she helps in her husband’s do-it-yourself schemes: she patiently holds the log while he is sawing or the string while he is measuring, weeds out the garden he planted, or just sits still in the boat he is rowing, the car he is driving.

With spas and cottage cultures under his belt, Löfgren turns to perhaps the most daunting challenge in the tourism studies repertoire: the Mediterranean package tour. Here he takes a daring approach, as one must with a theme that, after more than thirty years, has become an instantly recognizable topos in the Northern European imagination. He looks to Fernand Braudel, the granddaddy of the “Annales” school of cultural history, which in its heyday emphasized the importance of using bits and pieces of random material culture from the past to build a picture of the mentalité of one’s subjects. Braudel is relevant because his subject was the Mediterranean world in the sixteenth century, whose narrative he constructed on “the fate of a rumor, the itinerary of a Venetian skipper, or the effects of a winter storm.” Löfgren suggests that he will do for the Mediterranean in the age of the package tour what Braudel did for the sixteenth century–combing through discarded Nivea bottles, sandals and snorkels. Unfortunately, “taking Braudel to the beach” is a conspicuous failure–not so much for want of applicability as for Löfgren’s utter lack of interest in following up his own premise.

The lost opportunity is far from fatal, however, as Löfgren goes on to skillfully break apart and piece back together the process by which sun, sand, sex and “local colour” became the building blocks by which Northern Europeans otherized destinations as disparate as Israel and Gibraltar (and later, Thailand and Gambia) into oblivion, leaving behind a manageable and familiar homogeneity he labels “the New South.” “South,” as he puts it, “became the territorialization of a certain kind of holiday, rather than a fixed geographical region.” He introduces here a particularly interesting leitmotif in the intermittent discussions of palm trees, whose enforced ubiquity, he argues, is part of the language of “escape” tourism. The power of this discussion is that it brings us straight to the sad, rotten core of modern tourism: the fact that as an industry it is succeeding in obliterating the subtle human differences whose discovery it once sought to promote.

On Holiday gives us great reassurance about the direction of scholarship. Somehow, Löfgren manages to take us beyond even the encouraging trend toward a social history of leisure. Embracing the return to narrative in the study of tourism, he undertakes a study that is as delightfully anecdotal as it is indebted in equal measure to all the various intellectual approaches that have preceded him. There is something of the historian’s narrative, but there is also an examination of tourists’ otherizing of local cultures, itself accompanied by the appropriate caution against excessive interest in the “tourist gaze.” And finally, there is the gentle admonition in the conclusion that despite our belief in our own sophistications, “we are all tourists”–an elegant reminder of the persistence of Dean MacCannell’s contributions thirty-five years ago in The Tourist. In Löfgren’s book, willy-nilly, the study of tourism has finally come of age.

This maturity is most in evidence when one realizes that for all its clever insights and pleasant syntheses, On Holiday is in large part actually a compendium of much of the recent work that has quietly been taking shape over the past ten or fifteen years. It is particularly reliant on the work of Urbain, who, in L’Idiot du voyage, introduced the concept of “post-tourism,” which is explained in Löfgren’s conclusion. When a destination that was previously an “undiscovered” haunt, known only to a few discriminating travelers, becomes a popular tourist mecca, drawing hordes of lower-middle- and working-class package tourists, the “connoisseurs” have traditionally reacted in one of two ways to the parvenus. Those with the means to do so have simply ponied up more cash in exchange for privacy, exclusivity and seclusion–this he calls “elite tourism”–while those lacking the wherewithal have simply grown to resent the invading hordes and slipped into self-righteous “anti-tourism,” constantly pointing out “those tourists” and wishing there weren’t so many of them about. However, a third response has more recently availed itself, according to Urbain, and that is “post-tourism,” in which discerning bourgeois have “decided to join in with those other tourists, but always with an ironic distance.” Put another way, post-tourists are just anti-tourists who have given up.

That, at least, is the theory. But in layman’s terms, “post-tourism” is essentially an extension of postmodernity’s love of kitsch. It’s that wry chuckle we get when we watch other people’s cheesy home movies–the naïveté of those Technicolor mediascapes, the Campbell’s soup children and the Kodachrome smiles. It’s the post-everything amusement derived from a visit to the manufactured realities of Las Vegas or Hershey Park USA. It’s a recognition that in these days of commodified experience, our vacations are fake as fake can be but that, hell, we’re going to enjoy it all anyway, slurping Italian ices on the Coney Island boardwalk, playing the slots at the Excalibur and laughing all the way to the simulacrum.

Of course, a little discomfort always ensues from the knowledge that we may really just be aping our own family albums and burlesquing our own childhoods. But there is no reason to let such psychohistory get in the way of a good laugh. In Löfgren’s words, it’s comforting to know that “you don’t have to worry about any systematic demystification by Jean Baudrillard, Umberto Eco, or all those other tourist researchers who rush impatiently through the gates of Disneyworld–you can just enjoy the place.”

To say that we live in an age in which irony is the dominant aesthetic force is no great insight. However, there is more to Urbain’s idea of “post-tourism” than mere camp-for-camp’s-sake, and there is so much more to Löfgren than merely a fascination with tourist kitsch or layers of untethered meaning. He puts his scholarship where his mouth is. In the introduction, he wastes no time in dispensing with the absurd notion, propagated by Daniel Boorstin, among others, that there is somehow a difference between a “traveler” and a “tourist,” the former in all respects superior to the latter. Löfgren dutifully lays such tired old distinctions aside. And throughout his entertaining and highly accessible book, he maintains an evenhandedness that is not to be taken for granted in studies of tourism, refusing at any point to paint a caricatured or condescending portrait of even the tackiest of his subjects.

Löfgren’s introduction and conclusion in fact turn out to be the most intellectually striking parts of the book, as they represent the most original thinking, packed with keen insights and peppered with bons mots. What’s in between the bookends–though perhaps occasionally falling prey to the anthropologist’s nagging tendency to presume the dubious and belabor the obvious–is a highly memorable bricolage of anecdote, observation and truism. It is what makes On Holiday not just a valuable addition to the shelves of students of tourism but also an enjoyable and accessible read. Whether it’s Urbain’s post-tourism or Colin Ward and Dennis Hardy’s work on the history of British holiday camps or Stefan Kanfer’s book on the borscht belt resorts of the Catskills, it’s all there, peppered with Löfgren’s unique insights and interwoven with the dexterity of a scholar who knows how to tell a good story.

And the story he tells, inevitably, is the story of tourism, but it is also of something a little bit bigger. It is a story about the making of authenticity and experience, and the anxieties and oblivions that are unleashed by that process. It is the story of HeritageLand UK, and the sorry trajectory of Cool Britannia. It is, in short, the story of postmodernity, with all its posturing and strutting about manufactured experience. MacCannell suggested, in 1965, that we should think of tourism as the universal experience of modernity. We may only now be realizing just how right he was.

Löfgren offers the twin eighteenth-century characters of Phileas Fogg and Robinson Crusoe as the rock and the hard place of Western tourism, but his work suggests that it may be time to introduce a third character–a sort of (my apologies for this) Andy Warhol of “post-tourism”–one with a schizophrenia and a nervousness about experience and authenticity that transcends either empiricism or escape. The Campbell’s soup cans we see in our family albums. Perhaps that, after all, is the occidental tourist.

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