Travel vs Tourism: a sad story of how little we know

Travel Guides
Travel Guides (Photo credit: Vanessa (EY))

Umberto Eco once said “I know the present only through the television screen.” It seems to me the same can be said about most of us today.

Our lives are ruled by two things and two things only. The first is television. Television has been our constant companion (to some their only companion, sadly) and our sovereign for several decades now. The second is the Internet, of course. Though a fairly recent addition (or addiction, if you will), its power is almost beyond measure. Television can be turned off, or at least turned down. The ever-present Internet has no off button.

Before the massacre of general knowledge by such compendiums of unreliable information as Wikipedia and Google Search, people used to travel in order to learn. There once existed a whole class of Europeans who traveled in order to understand foreign lands and peoples. This class was mostly made up of young people, university students who longed to know. Know anything. Know everything. The young people comprising this class didn’t necessarily come from wealthy families with aristocratic family histories. My mother came from an unspectacular middle-class background, a Serbian family that never had a stash of cash hidden in some foreign bank but always lived in comfort and relative safety of her father’s steady (though not very large) monthly paycheck. Traveling for her generation never was a luxury imposed on the rest of the family in order to satisfy their adolescent wanderlust. Travelling was an essential part of growth, an important tool in the journey towards maturity. Her generation couldn’t have done without it any more than mine can do without yet another online community or social network to which they can pledge eternal allegiance.

No one travels to learn anymore. Today’s travelers are merely tourists. In the words of Paul Theroux, “Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going.” I have no respect for tourists. If you are one of them, and especially if you’ve been on one of those 12-day tours of European cathedrals, I urge you to stop reading right now. This post is not written for you.

There are two types of tourists one sees here in Europe today. The first group is made up of young Japanese travelling in clusters and moving from one big city to the next with no more knowledge or understanding about where they’ve been and what they’ve seen than I have of quantum physics. Unlike American tourists, the Japanese do not buy souvenirs. For this reason, having seen nothing and learned even less than nothing, they take home little more than a few thousand meaningless photographs they’ve taken at every stop of the tour. They behave as if they’ve never seen a pigeon, a boy riding a bicycle, or a tree with leaves on it. Often, the pigeon, the boy, and the tree do not interest them as exotic objects to be admired or wondered at as examples of a European lifestyle. The pigeon, the boy, and the tree simply form colorful backgrounds against which they can photograph one another. Because, you see, the point of Japanese travel is to take as many pictures of oneself as one can possibly accomplish in twelve or fourteen days. The point is to stand in front of a pigeon, or a boy, or a tree, and then snap a photo with a blurred background in which you, the Japanese tourists, look like you’ve just landed on Mars. Thank god for digital photography! Imagine having to develop the millions of pictures taken by these people everywhere from Paris, Berlin, Moscow, and that small village in the south of Bulgaria where they accidentally landed after taking a wrong turn.

The second group is made up of Americans and/or Germans. These tourists are easily impressed by the commonplace objects of everyday life. “Oh my god, you have a faucet in your kitchen!” Or, “I didn’t know if you use toilet paper here, so I brought my own. Oh, you do!” American tourists have an appallingly poor grasp of geography. Everyone knows that. They could be in Spain, Siberia, or Serbia, and think it’s all the same place. Few of them could actually locate any of those countries on the map of the world, though they might be standing in the middle of any one of them. I think they base their travel plans entirely on American movies in which a young girl meets a young European prince, blah, blah, blah…and they live happily ever after in a beautiful villa from which they rule all of Genovia. And by the way, thank you Hollywood, for always inventing new European countries; I guess it’s just easier that way. I just don’t know why your audience allows you to treat them like retards.

German tourists possess a grasp of history equally mindboggling. They often conveniently forget that certain parts of Europe suffered horrific consequences of their past desire for more “living space.” They have a curious ability to stand in front of a memorial marking the spot where nearly 3000 people lost their lives when German military leadership issued an order to kill 100 Serbs for every German soldier killed, and act as if the place has absolutely nothing at all to do with them. Sure, it happened back in 1941. High time we forgot about it and moved on, isn’t it? Excuse me for not being able to stomach the sight of fifty geriatric Germans trampling the graves of innocent Serbian children. Note to self: learn to be more tolerant. Oh wait, I’m Serbian, I don’t get more tolerant than this!

It is really astonishing to me that people pay good money to go touring around Europe, looking at museums they’ve never heard of or cruising down rivers on boats that make them “feel right at home” (what exactly is the point, then?), without actually caring to learn anything about the people and places they’ve supposedly come to see. Nobody knows anything about anything, anymore.

In Serbia the cult of summer vacationing is alive and thriving, despite the economic troubles of recent years. It is unthinkable for us not to take almost a month off each summer to go sit on some Greek or Turkish beach and bake into a crispy tan, just so we can come home in September and show everyone what an excellent time we’re capable of having in a foreign land. When I was a kid the ugliest kind of vacationer was the one travelling to the coast loaded into one of those hideous campers. A family crammed into one of those looked exactly like a bunch of vagabonds looking for a way to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Honestly, I was afraid of those people. Since I’m on a quoting spree today, in the words of Tolstoy, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I always thought any family travelling by camper had to be miserably unhappy and, more importantly, nearing a state of collective mental breakdown. Always best to stay away from those people.

Today we travel far more stylishly, in cars families often buy for the express purpose of being driven once a year, when they make their way south to the sunny ancient lands of Greece. But the point of travel has remained the same in recent years: to tune out the world and see, hear, and learn as little as you possibly can.

But don’t take it from me. I don’t know much about anything. Like most of the rest of you out there, I’m trusting National Geographic Channel and pictures of celebrity vacation spots to teach me everything I need to know about the world.

3 Replies to “Travel vs Tourism: a sad story of how little we know”

  1. great points. i agree with many of them. i actually worked/traveled around Central America for a year after college—i didn’t want to take a trip. I wanted to experience life through a different lens. my romantic notions about latino culture and living in the tropics didn’t last long, but i learned a lot. it is an education. those days influence a lot of my creative projects today actually. i just started a video blog on the creative process/observations as an artist from my perspective as a singer/songwriter. i’ve discussed my lessons from traveling in several episodes of it already because they were so formative. anyway, great post. glad you speak from a wise perspective!

  2. Love this post. A lot of people are so caught up with the whole ‘gotta see the whole world before I die’ concept that they lose the idea of why they want to see it. It becomes a meaningless bucket list, just something to tick off. Awesome write-up on this 🙂

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