Trapped in a tourism-spun matrix
Why pay to travel to commune with people, places and objets d'art we cannot possibly lug home? Perhaps it is the lure of things, places and cultures exoticised and romanticised. -ST
IT WAS so much easier to park at church last Sunday. The pews looked decidedly forlorn too. It is so every June - and December - when the faithful faithfully flock overseas for their holidays.
Little wonder last year was the fourth consecutive one of growth in global tourism since 2004. According to the just released World Travel & Tourism Council 2008/09 report, the sector grew 3.9 per cent last year, faster than global economic growth.
Though it may slow to 3 per cent this year, tourism would still account for US$5.9 trillion (S$8 trillion), or 9.9 per cent of total global GDP this year.
Between next year and 2018, it should grow 4.4 per cent yearly, rising to US$10.9 trillion by 2018, or 10.5 per cent of global GDP.
The sector employs 238 million workers worldwide, or 8.4 per cent of all jobs. The figure should rise to 296 million, or 9.2 per cent of all jobs globally, by 2018.
The rise of mass tourism since the mid-20th century is usually attributed to industrialisation, which raised disposable income levels and leisure time in the advanced economies.
Actually, it was politics that led to paid vacation time being construed as a benefit accorded by employers to US workers.
In Europe, about five weeks of paid holiday came to be seen as an integral part of the post-war social contract: A certain standard of living - including paid holiday time - was expected, and came to be politically assured.
Still, why pay to travel to commune with people, places and objets d'art we cannot possibly lug home? Karl Marx believed we consumed commodities with exchange value. But one cannot own a Bali sunset or the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde in Colorado. These things stay in place. Not able to fathom why Marco Polo sought to reach inaccessible places, 13th-century Venice dismissed him as a cheat.
Whence then the enthusiasm for travel? Perhaps it is the lure of things, places and cultures exoticised and romanticised. Perhaps it is to escape from the humdrum - a flight to freedom, a nostalgia for the pristine. Perhaps tourists buy an experiential commodity.
We yearn to travel away from a world of commodities, but the travel (package) itself is a commodity.
As some have suggested, desacralisation has led to the attenuation of old rules such as 'do not covet' or 'community before self'. Supplanted by norms that valourise excess, hedonism and self, softness has replaced ruggedness.
To mollycoddle such egos, ugliness must be papered over and concealed. Thus the tourist bubble, a soft space within the city to sequester them from the embarrassing squalor of a Geylang that even a Singapore has.
We domesticate unruliness by organising neat, self-contained spaces. Thus we have a climate-controlled, mosquito- free, make-believe rainforest at the Jurong Bird Park, complete with programmed rainshowers at appointed times. Only such fabrications can be safe for suburbanite tourists. No adventurer, discoverer or conquistador visits them.
Travel is said to be educational, but most tourists are really interested only in surface, not deep, things. Museums end history, wax museums do not have real people, while zoos dumb down any hint that nature is red in tooth and claw.
Umberto Eco called this 'hyperreality' - or that which is more real than real. He is a semiologist, someone who analyses signs - texts, pictures, man- made structures, actions and so on - so as to elucidate the messages they emanate.
His 1975 essay, Travels In Hyperreality, is an unremittingly sly take on the American pursuit of hyperreality, where copies reproduce reality - only better versions.
The copies - iconically Disney - are brighter, cleaner, bigger, more exciting, inspiring and interesting than the real McCoy. Disney is 'an allegory of the consumer society, a place of absolute iconism (but) visitors must agree to behave like robots'.
The happiness and freedom from worries it offers are mere simulations. Disney stands for the postmodern condition - the loss of the real and the death of the authentic.
Down at the Bay, there is a building boom in fantasy environments and fictionalised landscapes to suck the tourists in. The tourists' gaze, in turn, converts local realities into phony exoticisms.
We want the tourist dollar, but must we go down a path littered with the tacky and the kitschy? Do we want our story to be one bereft of subtleties, populated only by grotesqueries? We may well become what Jean Baudrillard called 'a hallucinatory resemblance of itself', always hawking something that looks better than the real thing just so we can sell something.
The profusion of images of reality could lead to the demise of the real. In a 1999 sci-fi flick, all reality that can be perceived is unreal. The body heat of perpetually sleeping people is used to power sentient machines that create that simulated reality called the Matrix, also the film's title. Humans are kept docile this way, but the hero stumbles onto this truth and joins an insurgency movement to destroy the machines.
The Matrix is a jeremiad against the postmodern fascination with and consumption of signs and images, the profusion of which has led us to lose our focus on the real.
Has tourist Geoffrey Somers consumed too many images of Singapore? His Forum letter published on Tuesday lamented the loss of our 'hail-fellow- well-met friendliness', our smiles being 'replaced by a cold, hard stare' and his breakfast bordering on 'pigswill'.
Our apologies, but the tourist is complicit in the loss of the real and the authentic: It is hard to say if we created tourism or tourism us.
Perhaps we should all stay home this June - and December too.
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