Tourism and Travel Writing: Middle Class Privilege Entrenched in Colonialism?

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28th November 2016 ¦ Charlotte Kessler.

Postcolonial theory has helped to shine a light on the inherent cruelty of imperialism. The Western world has been highly criticised for its colonial past, treatment of other cultures and lack of respect for difference. Today, cosmopolitan thought promotes the ‘global citizen’ who embraces these cultural differences. Yet an examination of tourism and travel writing exposes how this cosmopolitanism is really received and performed by society. The growth in popularity of travel blogs raises important questions about contemporary colonialism.

Alongside established travel blogs such as Nomadic Matt and Ethical Traveller there are amateur blogs that are shallow and display a lack of awareness of the extremely complex and controversial heritage of tourism and travel writing. Posts are studded with inappropriate images, with the classic example being controversial selfies taken at tragic historical sites, such as the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Other blogs detail the typical ‘gap-year’ taken by school-leavers, often in the form of volunteering trips to developing countries. In many instances, the volunteers are not needed for their help on-site but are recruited for their governments’ funds. Harold Goodwin, Professor of Responsible Tourism, has asserted that, despite their charitable designs, such trips result in the continuation of an imperialist logic, as they disregard the real needs of other cultures and obfuscate the purpose of sites such as the Holocaust Memorial.

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Matthew Kepnes and Catherine Mack, authors of the aforementioned travel blogs, do however address the social and cultural issues of travel. In one of her blog posts, Mack criticises volunteering trips that claim to have a charitable purpose but are misrepresented to school children for marketing reasons. Kepnes discusses cultural issues such as LGBT travel to hostile countries and the maltreatment of animals for the purpose of tourism. Most travel blogs, however, are entirely apolitical and ignorant of the effects of their writers’ travels. What they all have in common is the pursuit of the most ‘authentic’ travel experience, with popular destinations being the ones that are regarded as exotic by the Western middle class.

Travel companies have responded to this longing for authenticity, resulting in a spike in popularity in ecotourism and volunteer tourism. As Goodwin has highlighted, there is a noble purpose in volunteering but this needs to be matched by an awareness of how tourists are also consumers. Attempts to address this include the foundation of online travel agency, responsibletravel.com. Responsible tourism is a means of negating the malign effects of ecotourism and volunteer tourism by recognising the impact that tourism has on the visited place, with the emphasis lying “firstly on creating better places for local people, and secondly for tourists” (‘Responsible Tourism. Travel Like a Local’).  Ideally, tourists should take some responsibility for, and make a financial contribution to, the local communities they visit and enjoy. The approach advocated by responsibletravel.com is designed to promote responsibility amongst travellers in this globalised age.

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(“Responsible Tourism. Travel Like a Local”)

This approach has been similarly adopted by Lonely Planet, the largest publisher of travel guidebooks. They also promote ethical travel, directed at responsible and individual travellers who make a conscious contribution to the countries they visit.

Debbie Lisle, scholar of International Relations, has evaluated these calls for ethical travel. She states that the ‘cultural confrontation’ found in the travel writing of both Lonely Planet and the responsibletravel.com blog is problematic as it endorses the benefactor/victim logic. This logic subtly echoes the colonial discourses still present in most contemporary travel writing. Despite the fact that these travel companies seek to turn travel into a humanitarian act, they do not acknowledge the inherent problem with performed virtue: that it is patronising to the local communities. Do these communities actually want tourists to visit, or is this simply another marketing trick, promoting such noble behaviour to make travellers believe they are attaining the desired authentic experience?

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(“Responsible Tourism. Travel Like a Local”)

In The Global Politics of Contemporary Travel Writing, Debbie Lisle calls for travel writers to be aware of the power relations perpetuated by the presentation of cultural difference. Edward Said’s Orientalism was crucial to exposing the power relations that were created through imperialism and we need to be aware that a colonial echo still exists even in contemporary travel writing that presents itself with a cosmopolitan outlook. Most travel blogs and contemporary travelogues fall into this category. We sometimes blithely believe that the cosmopolitan world view has overcome colonial logic through tolerance and respect for cultural difference. But Lisle argues that this cosmopolitan thinking is not enough and, in fact, often is deployed as an excuse to disregard the controversy of the history of travel and travel writing. Her concern is that “the Orientalist logic embedded in much contemporary travel writing cannot be resisted unless the genre’s much entrenched teleological understanding of history is exposed and critiqued” (Lisle 274).

With these criticisms in mind, the question becomes: are travel blogs the right medium for critiquing this “entrenched teleological understanding of history”? Can blogs appropriately address these deeply rooted issues, particularly given that the field is dominated by white, Western writers and that travel itself is the privileged domain of the middle class? If travel writing were to rid itself of this focus on cultural difference, there will still be a class difference to overcome.  Yet, if travel blogs, which receive so many thousands of hits every month and offer the foundation for many travel plans, do not address these problems, will we not continue to see selfies taken at memorials and elephants being abused for the amusement of tourists?


About Charlotte

Literatures, cultures, languages, theatre and art will never cease to fascinate me. Specifically, I am interested in the theory of cosmopolitanism in regard to literature and will focus my dissertation on the global outlook of contemporary literature. I am currently pursuing a MSc in Comparative Literature at the University of Edinburgh.

Article edited by Harriet MacMillan, Josh Simpson, and Kitty Ruskin.

Works Cited

Goodwin, Harold. “Tourism, Good Intentions, and the Road to Hell: Ecotourism and Volunteering.”
The Brown Journal of World Affairs 22.1 (2015): 37-50. Print.

Lisle, Debbie. “Humanitarian Travels: Ethical Communication in Lonely Planet Guidebooks.” Review of International Studies 34 (2008): 155-72. Print.

Lisle, Debbie. The Global Politics of Contemporary Travel Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Print.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. London: Penguin, 1991. Print.

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