FAR EAST & ASIA
AFRICA & INDIA
by George Olden
Travel has become the great leisure pursuit of our
age. Every weekend paper has a supplement or at least a section of pages
devoted to it. There are columns of advertisements for cheap flights
and independent tour operators, and usually a few articles about some
exotic place for the dreamers. Or some established writer will hack
out a thousand-word memoir of their gap year twenty years ago when they
went round Europe or America or India and discovered themselves. There
is even now an industry award for the Travelex Guidebook of the Year.
There are guidebooks for every walk of life: Fodor's, according to The
Observer, is for "the aspirational American cocktail and cruise set",
Lonely Planet for "straggly-haired, dope-smoking hippies". However,
whatever your wallet size or travel intentions, certain unpleasant truths
now dominate modern travel. It is certainly no longer a 'lonely planet.'
That ironically named series, more than any other, has probably destroyed
any remoteness that remained.
Unless you want to venture into war zones, or extremes of climate, the
probability is that wherever you go you will find hordes of other tourists
with the same guidebook. Being well travelled has become a late twentieth
century western cliché. Places are no longer visited, they are doneı,
consumed in the way that most culture is now. Do Paris, do Goa, do Morocco,
do the Inca Trail, do London. Places become fashionable through the
same processes as clothing and music, which is the real clue as to how
much travel has been assimilated into our western culture. The influences
of travel can be seen across culture, affecting clothing and fashion,
food, television and literature. Millions watch the endless early-evening
holiday shows on BBC1 and ITV, which offer superbly edited ten-minute
snap-shots of exotic locations.
The process is much the same, I believe, as accounts for the appeal
of Through The Keyhole. The travel shows offer ideas, and for millions
of us, save us the bother of actually going to the places. An interesting
judge of the power of television would be to see if there was a marked
rise in bookings for a place after it being featured on a travel show.
Similarly, travel writing has become a hugely popular genre, and one
wonders how many places there are left in the world to write about.
The answer to that, of course, is plenty most travel writing is uniformly
terrible (with notable exceptions such as Jonathan Rabanıs superb books)
and therefore places can be constantly recycled as travel writing subject
matter. This has even spread to fiction, so that a book as bad as Alex
Garlandıs 'The Beach' can become a bestseller.
Garland cleverly tapped into his own generation, an accomplishment many
writers fail to achieve, and wrote the Far East travel adventure that
drug-snorting, movie-watching, Loaded-lad would love to have. But it
is the guidebooks that are the true stars of travel literature. Two
series have dominated travel culture in recent years: Lonely Planet
and Rough Guide. They have been successful by offering a promise of
adventure and independence, but with the safety net of the guide to
point you towards the hotels that are in your price range, the location
of the bus station, and which streets to avoid at night. But where the
hell is the adventure in that? There is a great docu-soap somewhere
in the making that would whip the guidebooks out of peoplesı hands and
strand them in the middle of a strange and foreign city. Their reactions
and dealing with the situation would, I am sure, make great, uncomfortable
television. How we would love watching their reactions and imagined
perils. Even better, lets strand Michael Palin on a desert island with
nothing but a collection of Monty Python videos for company. Now get
out of that!
What people want, and what these successful guidebooks offer, is convenience
dressed up as adventure. The innocent young person could not walk out
on a midsummer morning, as Laurie Lee did in the 1930s, and wander around
Europe living off his earnings from busking with a violin. Sadly, and
against the supposed direction of developing societies, the world is
a much more dangerous place to live in now than it was then. The rucksack
and guidebook translate, in some cultures, straight into "yes, please
rob me." British hotels specialise in it through the ridiculous pricing
of their rooms. The guidebooks are helping to sell us a lifestyle
part of that middle-class norm that we all supposedly aspire to is now
a fundamental right to at least one exotic holiday a year. Everyone
yearns to go somewhere unique or different, for status or genuine interest.
But at the fundamental level, there is little difference between the
coach-load of elderly American tourists being ferried from sight to
sight, and the trail of backpackers all with the same guidebooks, taking
the same buses, staying in the same hotels, eating in the same restaurants.
Instead of a guide holding your hand, there is a guidebook in it.
The conformity remains, no matter how much window-dressing of independence
is put on it. Travel companies were quick to jump on this particular
boat, as hundreds of independentı agencies have now sprung up. They
offer tours and treks, expeditions and adventures. There may be a bit
of hiking and climbing involved, but it is still an organised tour with
a company watching over you and planning it all. Of course, they give
you plenty of free timeı to explore a city on your own, but the itinerary
is always there, at some point you must report back for the next organised
bit of your holiday. At least you will be safe from any danger. Meanwhile,
the search for more remote or undiscovered holiday destinations goes
on. One senses every corner of the earth falling under the spotlight
of commercial tourism potential. The ominous prospect of Antarctica
being opened up to tourists looms ahead of us. Soon there really will
be no untouched wilderness left. You can already buy tickets for the
first passenger flight to the moon. Theyıll be taking bookings for Mars
and Jupiter soon. And I hear Baghdad will be the
trendy destination next year. Me? I think Iıll stay at home.
İ GEORGE OLDEN
And a reply from Mitch in Romania
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