The Eco-Tourist

“One pair of pants, two t-shirts. If I need more I just buy it when I get there,” said the diminutive, grey haired man on the forward deck, as he held the front seam of his wind-whipped T-shirt conspicuously in front of his groin. His introduction, by way of unsolicited advice, was quickly followed by a necessarily loud boast over the ship’s engines, of having visited all but three countries on Earth. Our destination—Antarctica—presented an additional challenge to his touristic hegemony, and he was eager to set foot on land, getting the entire continent, in one step, under his belt.

What was under his belt at present though, was a broken zipper. It turns out his packing routine was more apology than advice, since buying more clothes at a destination only works in places one expects to find more people.

After a few embarrassed pleasantries he let go of the bottom of his billowing shirt, turned to look off the bow, and gazed toward the advancing Drake Passage. He was, if not the consummate, then the archetypal tourist: standing impatiently at ship’s prow, imagining his imminent conquest of new lands, his fly wide-open to the winds and wilds of the southern continent.

Western tourists have, of course, a long and storied reputation for vulgarity’s many forms: inappropriateness, insensitivity, patronization, disrespect… But the eco-tourist represents a particularly profane evolution of the species. For beneath their camouflage of enlightened worldliness, remains the same pleasure-seeking leisure class, but with strikingly less regard for context or shame of exploitation.

I understand the bump in status that comes from a selfie atop a glacier, or the thrill-seeking of a zipline through a forest canopy. But the degree to which the average eco-tourist distances themselves from the realities of the landscapes they visit can only be described as willfully offensive. And while I also understand the point of a vacation is to leave your cares behind, perhaps one should consider the indelicacy of doing so when jet-setting consumption is the very reason so many photogenic landscapes and animals are now rare.

Indeed, there is a kind of breathless gall in the associative conceit of posing with endangered animals or regaling dinner guests with the heroics of heli-hiking in (ever shrinking) wilderness, when any sense of responsibility is as isolate as the destination. And while some travellers are motivated to both visit and defend nature, it is fair to classify such altruists as endangered species themselves (to whom I offer full pardon for these remarks, and full support for their endeavours.)

Dean MacCannell’s 1976 general theory of international tourism and sightseeing, The Tourist—considered a classic of the genre—is entirely more forgiving of its subject. MacCannell believed “that sightseeing is a ritual performed to the differentiations of society.” And that tourist attractions were “precisely analogous to the religious symbolism of primitive peoples.”

His introduction to the 1989 edition went on to describe tourism to the “horrors of modernity”—Hiroshima’s ground zero or the ovens at Dachau—as “an alternate strategy for conserving and prolonging the modern and protecting it from its own tendencies to self-destruction…Sightseeing, rather than suppressing these things from consciousness, brings them to our consciousness, “as if” we might assimilate them.”

But nature is not a cultural artifact. And contrary to the deliberate memorialization of modernity’s horrors, nature parks and reserves foster an illusion of limitless space, pristine environments, and abundant fauna, thereby bringing to consciousness—when considered in the context of our global ecological dilemmas—a false reality, and thus hastening rather than protecting our “tendencies for self-destruction.”

Nature is also not a historical artifact. It is not a relic of the past to which there is no recourse but sombre reflection. It exists in the present and is eminently responsive. It is not an object, but a subject—to which we have an inextricable relationship. Passively “assimilating” nature’s pastoral surface elicits no questions, no search, no moral quandary. In fact, nature sightseeing yields the reverse effect: equanimity. It reinforces a sense of enduring harmony. And it excludes the reciprocal and discomforting questions of what nature assimilates—or absorbs—from us.

Besides the physical toxins accruing throughout the environment, each time wilderness is fenced into a preserve it achieves tacit certification as an object of voyeurism. It is stripped of its intrinsic worth and reduced to an aesthetic commodity, forced to participate in pornographic contests between competing vistas for the highest peak or deepest valley. The objectification makes the grotesquery of physical extremes or the indignity of a remnant ecosystem (valuable because of its rarity) “interesting” to the eco-tourist. (Also interesting is the fact that tourists once found the defeated personage of Geronimo a spectacle for leisurable scrutiny, and I think the distastefulness generalizes.)

The eco-tourist is not only more spectator than witness to environmental decay—less inclined toward meaningful testimony on nature’s behalf because implicated in the scarcity-economics of eco-tourism—but also more participant than spectator, and for the same reasons. Modern eco-tourism makes a virtue of dwindling access. And the modern eco-tourist, whose only agency comes from purchasing power, effectively buys against their own—and everyone else’s—ultimate self-interest.

This normalizing framework of supply and demand, combined with the parklands’ hold on the imagination as the “quintessential” nature experience, makes further decay inevitable, in part by simultaneously neutralizing the public (personified in the eco-tourist) from intervening in nature’s favour. This is the predictable outcome of a system that misapplies market principles to “assets” of inherent and universal merit: life.

The concurrent manifestation in the late 1980s of eco-tourism among the middle class and the adoption of a new vocabulary of environmental stressors in mainstream discussion is no coincidence. The anxiety of global warming, acid rain, ozone holes and species extinction manifested in the sojourns of the eco-tourist, whose photographs sought to catalogue a diminishing world. As MacCannell notes, “The act of sightseeing…helps the person to construct totalities from his disparate experiences. Thus, his life and his society can appear to him as an orderly series of formal representations, like snapshots in a family album.”

Despite the eco-tourist’s professed motive of bearing witness to nature’s grandeur or participating in something greater than themselves, they are as a group compelled by societal angst and a need to transcend culpability. So few eco-tourists are themselves activists for that very reason—eco-tourism assuages environmental responsibility through the status garnered by leisure travel and the agency of consumerism. Instead of the hard work of organizing for systemic change, the eco-tourist reorganizes the complexity of environmental collapse (and its associated burden of blame) through the compartmentalizing lens of sightseeing. Thus, the genteel quality of nature parks not only provide a sense of voyeuristic decorum, but disarm a growing sense of environmental trepidation in the public.

In many respects, eco-tourism is the co-opted maturation of the environmental consciousness of the 1960s. The same generation of baby-boomers pioneered both. And that generation, who benefitted so greatly from a corporate economy, now considers their activism as youthful naiveté. Eco-tourism represents the attempted reconciliation of the broadened consciousness of the Age of Aquarius, with today’s capitulation to the status quo. While nature is recognized for its importance to the human spirit, its ratification depends on conformity to market-driven managerialism.

But the limitations of the status quo, in light of the existential seriousness of environmental problems, is now apparent. Widespread coral bleaching, oceanic dead zones and chronic drought are among the new faces of modernity’s horrors. And bus driven “disaster tourism” to places like New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward represent the latest attempt to assimiliate our predicament. While the concept once again imbues the tourist with indecent undertones, it at least provides an honest picture of both the recent past and not-too-distant future. And who knows? With any luck, the famous indelicacy of the tourist might one day soon be used to offend the benefactors of our current, troubling state of affairs.


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