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Tourism Is Just Another Form of Narcissism

Travelling should be about discovery, not taking selfies in front of temples.

Some hippy holidayers (Photo courtesy of Sam Voulters)

Years ago, I bumped into a Canadian couple in Patagonia whose every step had been pursued by serendipity. They’d arrived in the Los Glaciares National Park on the day the ice-bridge calved off the Perito Moreno glacier – a once-in-a-decade event. On the Valdes Peninsula, they’d witnessed a procession of killer whales beaching themselves to hunt for baby sea lions from the very same windswept promontory where, two weeks earlier, I’d stood for six hours without seeing so much as a fin. And how did they articulate their astonishing good fortune?


“It was pretty awesome,” the man shrugged in a monotone drawl.

And that was it – the sum total of their response to the world’s wonder surmised in one drab pronouncement.

Recently, I’ve found myself thinking about this pair of bon vivants again. They’ve become my personal emblem for an increasingly common phenomenon: that of the tedious, uninspired traveller.

Anyone who's spent their fair share of time in the world’s hostel dormitories should be familiar with the stereotype. He sits there on the bottom bunk – tanned, emaciated limbs protruding from a Bintang vest and a pair of baggy dragon-print trousers – and starts to brag about where his journeys have taken him.

He’s been away for a two-month stint, most of which he spent dancing on the beach, addled on diet pills and local grain alcohol. Perhaps the partying was punctuated by a week of hungover volunteering where he built a retaining wall that's destined to collapse within the year. His destination’s merits can all be encapsulated with the brain-dead epithet “amazing”; the natives were “so friendly”. But this facsimile, off-the-peg experience has invested him with unprecedented insight into South East Asian society – indeed, into the very essence of the human condition. Suddenly, he is Marco Polo returning from the court of Kublai Khan. He must write a blog, post endless photos on social media. Everyone must benefit from his remarkable new wisdom.


Perhaps a touch of inanity is to be expected in an age when everyone seems to travel. Tourism is a rapidly democratising business. Fifty years ago, as granny and granddad holidayed in Eastbourne, sheltering from the drizzle with bingo and haddock and chips on the pier, the experienced traveller was a storied soul, a seeker possessed of genuinely unusual knowledge. Only as the baby boomers came of age did the foreign holiday enter the quotidian. Not until the 90s did going to more exotic climes – the ubiquitous "gap year" – become a post-secondary school, middle-class rite of passage.

Tourists being tourists in Egypt (All photos below courtesy of the author)

The received wisdom dictates that travel makes us more interesting, that it is an essential ingredient of a life well-lived. But somewhere amid the collision of widening global curiosity, runaway self-absorption and ever more insidious technology lurks an unavoidable sense that travel is losing its capacity to make us wonder.

The internet, that great reductive slag-heap of YOLO hashtags in the sky, has been one of the main instigators of this phenomenon. Walk into a hostel bar nowadays and there’s a good chance that half the patrons will be ensconced in their digital worlds. Expressionless faces illuminated by the deadening LCD glare of tablet screens, they sit around, plugged into the home they had intended to leave behind, able to research every flight, hotel and restaurant in advance based on countless peer reviews. By shrinking the world, the tyranny of the web has stifled our capacity for independent discovery.


With the arrival of Google Glass, shameless self-obsessives everywhere will soon be able to access travel information by conversing with a pair of spectacles: “OK, Glass,” we’ll say, “please go ahead and expunge any last shred of motivation I might have to rely on the kindness of strangers and hand me everything on a screen beamed directly into my jaundiced fucking eyeballs.”

In a homogenising, fast-paced world, our appetite for foreknowledge has demystified foreign places. Instead of taking time to absorb and consider, many people seem more inclined to travel quickly, tick off the "don’t miss" highlights and form broad-brush assumptions based on the bare minimum of immersion. Yet the axiom that all "travel" (as opposed to tourism) is by definition enriching and transformative persists.

Except it’s not. Not always. Going on an overland truck tour through Tanzania, travelling with people from your own country, from your own demographic, on the same prescribed routes, stopping only to point at animals and get leathered in westernised hostels does not make you an authority on all that ails post-independence Africa.

Perhaps my Canadian friends’ yarns about their time in Argentina electrified Ontario, transforming their previously leaden dinner-party presence into something more akin to Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn. More likely, they bored friends and family to the brink of violence with Gringo Trail anecdotes that had been heard countless times before – of delicious steak, cheap cocaine and the hilarious severity of the diarrhoea.


In part, our impatience with people blowing on their travel trumpets is born of envy – who, after all, wants to hear about someone else’s hedonistic escapades while their own six months has evaporated in a barely remembered routine of workplace drudgery and escapist binge-drinking? But it’s also the solipsistic delusion implied by the conviction that every traveller’s story is worth relating – the automatic assumption that your experiences hold some inherent value to everyone else.

Like the dude on safari who doesn’t lift his head from the lens, many of us have started holidaying to accumulate – stories, photos and experiences – rather than just letting the unfamiliar wash over us, and revelling in the surprise of unexpected things. We have become a generation of travelling consumers, convinced that the image of a misty dawn over Macchu Picchu just wouldn’t be the same without our mugs gurning in the foreground.

It’s as though we’ve lost sight of the fact that it’s not the fact of your experiences but how you perceive them that really matters. The apocryphal cosmic adventurer who lived an entire imagined lifetime inside an orange after necking ayahuasca – that’s the fellow I want around my dinner table, not some dunce who’s Eaten, Prayed and Loved their way through a week-long wellness retreat in Rishikesh, but had already decided upon the myriad ways the journey would alter their life before they’d stepped off the Shatabdi Express.


The author, inserting himself into his travel memories

This stance is part-confession. I’m a travel writer, which is short-hand for saying that I’m a workshy dilettante with an over-inflated respect for the value of my own experience. What started as a means of investing my inveterate wanderings with more purpose has become an exercise in ego-massage, and a burden: each turn in the road reconnoitred in advance, the camera never far from my side.

The life my stories project has little basis in my daily reality. For each hour I spend scribbling notes in some remote Shangri-la, I spend 20 more hunkered in a spine-degrading keyboard hunch, hammering out articles that only contribute to the problem, exhorting people to visit places that may well be better off without them. And, in moments of honesty, I know that I may never recapture the “first pill” magic of my earliest independent trips abroad: the naïve kid perpetually rudderless in Asia, without a guidebook, mobile phone or map to steer me.

Look, I’m not saying that certain types of travel are without value. Get away, get some sun, write a journal, prostrate yourself before the altar of benumbing technology and record every step of your journey on social media if you really must.

Just realise: If your travelling is a box-ticking exercise; if you predicate even one iota of self-worth on how many countries you’ve visited; if you think in "10 best" listicles appealing to the lowest common denominator, from one self-regarding wayfarer to another, travelling isn’t making you interesting. It’s just confirming your position as one of the crowd.


Henry Wismayer is a freelance travel writer whose work has appeared in over 50 publications, including The New York Times, National Geographic Traveller and TIME Magazine.

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