How to Burst the Tourist Bubble

| July 27, 2009 | 19 Comments

Charles Caleb Colton was a minor English writer of the late-eighteenth century. And although you may have never heard of him, it’s more than likely that you’ve quoted him on more than one occasion. While the majority of his works are largely forgotten these days, his pithy quotations have lived on—preserved for posterity in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

You’ll recognize one of Colton’s most famous quotes almost immediately: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. And although his writings may have been wildly popular in their day, less well known was his penchant for travel. He was a consummate vagabond, however, and while a two-year stint through the United States may have been motivated more by his creditors, who were seeking compensation, than it was by his desire to see the world, his observations from the road were nonetheless poignant. Of travelers, he wrote:

Those who visit foreign nations, but associate only with they own countrymen, change their climate, but not their customs. They see new meridians, but the same men; and with heads as empty as their pockets, return home with traveled bodies, but untraveled minds.

Almost 150 years hence, scholars would term what Colton was describing as the “tourist bubble”. In short, the tourist bubble is a cushion that the travel industry has created, complete with it own infrastructure. It’s a hermetically sealed environment—reality supplanted—and depending on the destination, may come complete with its own transportation, its own currency and its own law enforcement system.

The Tourist Bubble

In some destinations, socialist states such as Cuba and China for example, the government often seeks to separate the tourist population from the local population, forbidding locals from entering certain hotels, patronizing certain beaches and even excluding them from certain ‘resort cities’. Western democratic or capitalist-friendly destinations are not immune to the effects of the tourist bubble, either. However, here the cushion is  a function of the tourist industry rather than the state.

tourists How to Burst the Tourist Bubble
Photo by Jen SFO-BCN (Creative Commons)

Why do the state and the travel industry go to such great lengths? To put it simply, it’s about two things: control and money. Thanks to widely available and relatively cheap airfare, the tourist industry is the fastest-growing segment of the global economy. And controlling that segment is easiest when the tourist experience is standardized, modified and commodified. Unfortunately, however, the commodification of travel is for the benefit of the travel industry and rarely, if ever, the traveler. And what it leads to, ultimately, is the type of holiday wherein the vast majority of local knowledge of the area is imparted to the tourist by a bus driver. And in such cases, to paraphrase Colton, many tourists return home with emptied pockets and traveled bodies—but untraveled minds.

Unbeknownst to Colton, nearly 150 years later, his observations would be reflected in a whole subsegment of cultural anthropology—the study of tourism. One of its central texts, revolutionary when fist published but now somewhat dated, was Valene Smith’s Hosts and Guests: The Anthropology of Tourism. Smith’s book became a staple for those interested in the inter