The Return of Tourism: Away

Written By: Your host, Chris Christou

While national borders were closed for most of last year, wanderlust swelled. The quarantine and confinement gave people good reason to dream of anywhere but here.

This otherworldly fantasizing continues in places where Groundhog Day brings lockdown or other authoritarian measures the moment the promise of “normal” presents itself. 

At the same time, passport privilege and destination addiction has brought those who can afford it to the gates of places like the one I live in, places where the gates went from being barricaded to dismantled overnight. The tourist hordes have arrived, wandering and lusting and it is giving rise to a kind of xenophobia that’s ready to turn the fear of the stranger into the hatred of the stranger at a moment’s notice. It is giving rise to unmanageable spikes in COVID cases and a divided, yet vaccinated-only world that would “manage” its hunger for tourism. For many locals in tourist destinations, COVID-19 and the tourists are understood, however subtly, as a braided strand of viral DNA.

Below and inside and behind everything we took for granted in the last year, quarantined times exposed the rotted roots of western cultural myths – of the freedom of mobility hitched to the freedom from obligation or responsibility. They have shown us that each of these myths permitted a pandemic to arise and that even a year into its fallout, we continue to feed those myths, unaware, while doing so at the peril of people and places worldwide.

These cultural narratives are part and parcel of tourism and vice versa. Such myths are responsible both for the creation of tourist destinations and their recent, yet inevitable collapse. Without a deep commitment to apprenticing the causes that led to both the COVID-19 pandemic and the temporary death of tourist towns worldwide, we condemn future generations to repeating the history that many choose to forget. Our history. So, then, how did it get like this?

Coveting and Greenwashing

Up until a few months ago, quarantined tourists, caged like rabid mice, were dying to travel. Some are finally getting their wish, and as such, they are showing up and killing the places they covet. While this might be news to some of you, it’s still the status quo bulletin for tourist towns and the people that live in them. 

For years, if not decades, people in countless tourist destinations have fought for, and sometimes implemented, sustainable or regenerative tourism strategies. First, there was eco-tourism as an extension of the environmental movement in the 1980s and beyond. Then came “sustainable” and “positive impact” tourism, which were essentially more eloquent and contextual riffs on ecotourism. Most recently came “slow,” “regenerative,” and “rejuvenative” travel. All trying to make the world a better place, all greenwashing the shit out of their business plans, and all resolutely in denial about tourism’s cancerous consequences. Still, these so-called “activists'' persisted.

Then, a totally unprecedented pandemic resulted in a global shutdown and erasure of tourism and international travel. This, the sustainable advocates figured, was their moment. This was their chance to change things, to recreate an industry based on principles over profit, ecology over economy, and community over consumption. They screamed righteously from the rafters, “we can reform tourism for the better.” Finally, they were heard, but what were they really saying? Moreover, was anyone actually listening?

Interruption, Crises, and Dreams of a Better World

A few weeks ago, sitting under the swelteringly-still countryside sun, a friend of mine stated the unconsidered obvious: “It seems that people are still trying to figure out if this is an interruption or a crisis.” Still?! 

I meditated on this as cities, like the one I live in here in southern Mexico, have more-or-less “returned to normal,” despite hospitals being full. I wondered about how my time was spent when crisis was clearly upon us, and me. 

I asked myself if I understood this moment as an interruption or a crisis. I then began to wonder if in a time of crisis (and not interruption), if you refused to acknowledge the moment as such and proceed accordingly, what then were your politics, heading in? 

In other words, if you dream of a better world, and fight for it when given the chance, but did nothing of the sort in a time when the world was upside down, in a time when real change was possible, what then becomes of those dreams? 

Now, let me ask you, is this an interruption or a crisis?

Here in Oaxaca City, the traffic and the rat race and the overconsumption and the crime and the politics has returned, trying to make up for lost time. Tourism has followed suit, which means “overtourism” isn’t too far behind, followed by the looming ecological and cultural collapse it previously ennobled. I imagine my family and friends still quarantined in Toronto, wishing for it all to be over, themselves dreaming of a return to normalcy, and I think “this? This is what you so desperately want to go back to?”

So, is this an interruption or a crisis? If it’s the former, the world was perfectly fine previously and the pandemic arose, more or less as a random event, predicated on nothing at all. If in any way you don’t agree with this, then you would properly understand us to be living in a time of crisis. Whether we act accordingly or not is another question, but it is the question. What did you do when things were so bad, knowing things were so bad, and had the opportunity to do something about it?

Rebuilding a House of Cards

The sustainable tourism saviours are contending with this, just as the industry executives are. For each, this is a critical interruption, but an interruption nonetheless. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the word for “vacation” in Greek is diakopez (διακοπές), meaning literally “interruption.” And how could this be anything other than an interruption when what collapsed a year ago was the industry and its critics’ very investment, their very existence? How could the result of their ambitions ever consciously be considered as a crisis? (This is not a rhetorical question). 

For the hoteliers and bloggers, for the tourism boards and tourism guides, each of them had helped to build, in their lives and in their locales, a house of cards. In one fell swoop, it came crashing down. And so, without questioning the fidelity of the foundation, they began with plans to rebuild. Construction in a time of collapse.

Throughout quarantine, the major players in global tourism suddenly looked to the people shouting “sustainability” for a way forward, no matter the costs. For the former, the future of travel is not a question, but the next generation’s marketing strategy. For the latter, it is exile-for-all, equitably inviting all peoples to adopt the mantle of homo turista, while mitigating its consequences. Among other coalitions, they formed “the future of tourism.” 

They pulled out all the greenwashed stops, from publishing manifestos to carbon footprint commitments, each understanding that only a radical reformation of the industry could keep it alive long-term. In other words, and with other eyes, what this sounds like is life-support, in part, because that’s exactly what it is. One foot in the grave, asking for a hit of spectacle in one arm while the IV in the other keeps the beast alive.

And yet, and yet. What was predicted and predicated by the shutdown of global tourism more or less across the board has yet to come to pass. In fact, the opposite is true. Where tourism is happening now, it is happening as it did previously. Nothing has changed. 

In many places-turned-destinations, things are returning to normal and “normal” is now understood in ways it couldn’t have been previously: as the nightmare daily life of local people. All those dreams of sustainable tourism hide the catastrophic consequences of what tourism does. Now, with a vacation from the tourists themselves in the rearview mirror, tourism destinations and their citizens can finally see what “normal” is and what “normal” does. The question becomes, will anyone do anything about it?

Let it Die

The death of tourism was at hand this past year, and almost everyone, everywhere who had their cards in the tourist game understood this. Instead of letting a monstrous industry go the way of the dinosaurs, instead of letting pandemic causes and consequences properly have their way with us, the tourist world got to work with its interruption. 

In this light, sustainable, slow, and regenerative tourism campaigns (and those like them) are the echo chamber protests of people who refuse to let tourism die, for whom the scope of consequence only reaches as far as their own lived memory, ambitions, and hopesand. The consequence of not proceeding as if this is a crisis is that the consequences of the crisis will continue to visit themselves upon us long after it is imagined to be over. This is what we are living now.

The not-so-awkward bedfellow hook-up of ecotourism activists and overtourism enablers seemed to fit, and even to hold. A match made in pandemic hell. Together, they predicted and welcomed a responsible revolution in tourism once the virus was contained. Well, the virus hasn’t been contained, but (some level of) tourism has returned and to the sullen surprise of the hopeful, it is nothing like they expected:

A Tourist Town Found, and Undone

A few weeks ago I was visiting a friend in a small town on the Oaxacan coast. I have visited this spot off and on for about eight years, backpacking, spending a week here and there. In that time, this town had been designated a pueblo magico or “magic town” by the Mexican government. Like UNESCO World Heritage sites, these places were given prime real estate in the marketing campaigns of regional and international tourist boards. And so, year after year, this village grew. Little by little, it became more well known among Mexicans and foreigners alike, even during a pandemic, even when town was closed to foreigners. In 2020, it became was a ghost town, in part, because the locals too had leveraged everything to build their own village-scaled house of cards.

About a year went by and the tourists started to return, trickling back in response to the Mexican government’s decision to vale verga or not give a fuck about the transmission of COVID-19 in the country and especially in tourist destinations, such as Tulum or Puerto Vallarta or this very town. So, when I checked into my apartment rental and the owner had told me I “would see some changes in the town” since my last visit, I corrected him by saying I had been there just six months previous. “Yeah, well, you’ll see some changes,” was his response, referring to the intensive gentrification of the place (in less than six months time!). 

As an aside, I will not mention the name of this town in order to spare it, in whatever way I can, the kind of exposure that has already festered a gaping wound and it turned it inside out for the world to see (and sadly, do little about).

In the week visiting my friend there in this town, I had never seen so many people there before (not even on a holiday weekend). The place had become overrun with North American and European New Age yogis and hippies escaping the lockdowns back home in order to “find their tribes,” or some equally telling and unconsidered confession. Alongside them were the weekend-warriors arriving from Mexico City in the thousands. Nobody wore masks, even in the stores that billed them as mandatory. I remember feeling like I was in some kind of Floridian spring break horror movie. The magic had gone. This place was finished. Found. Conquered. Gentrified. Undone.

Patience and Virtue

On my second, sweaty day there, I walked into a convenience store. Upon going to pay for my snack, the young girl behind the counter suddenly said to me (in Spanish), “There’s a lot of people here, no?” This was bizarre because she asked as if she knew me or had remembered me from a previous visit, which was more-or-less impossible given the mask I was wearing. 

I responded by acknowledging the obvious, telling her that in all my years, I had never seen so many people there. She nodded, and I said, “Well, it must mean a lot of money coming in after a year of lockdown.” And then, a hesitation on her part. I asked, “What do you and your family think of this – this inundation?” She lifted her head, eyes still down. Her shifting tone and words acknowledged that she was speaking to a foreigner and a stranger. With her Oaxacan kindness in tow, she said, “Well, we just don’t know where they’re coming from.” And that was it, at least on the surface of things. 

What she said (and what she didn’t say) was her way, and in my experience a way that certain people here have of not letting their hospitality be overtaken by hostility. Patience and virtue, amid uncertainty. This was her way, this adolescent girl, of saying, perhaps even speaking on behalf of her family or her community, that there was little they could do to stem the tide of tourists that suddenly outnumbered them. It was her way of whispering, perhaps, that the very presence of the hordes on the scene, and their manner of being there, would have dire consequences for the times to come.

Truth be told, those times are already upon us and they have been here for a long time, longer even than my eight years as a tourist there. This fate comes at the hands of both locals and foreigners alike. That is, nobody is immune from such behaviour and entitlement, but thankfully not everyone has conspired to condemn, to sell, and to eviscerate such places. 

What’s certain is that tourists unpack their escapism, their entitlement, their need-gratification desire, their cultural poverty and set up shop, selling it at bargain prices to locals, the locals often following suit. The current plague has not yet passed, but the plague these locals know best has been at home in their towns and cities for much longer than the COVID-19 virus, in part, because they invited it in, unbeknownst.

So, how does anyone contend with this anti-gravity vacuum that marks every last place and people it touches, that seems just as viral as the other current pandemic?

Of Consequence

In most instances, blame appears to arise only insofar as we’re unwilling to approach consequence and responsibility. So, that’s where we’ll start and stay, with the latter.

I have been visiting this beach town off and on for eight years. Each year the town grew a little bit in popularity. Unbeknownst to me and perhaps the locals too, that growth became exponential. Eight years later, its fame is killing it. In the rearview mirror of that, I have come to wonder, and properly so, if me being there eight years ago hadn’t played a role in the madness I saw just a few weeks ago. While I’m one among many, the answer is, absolutely it did. Undoubtedly, me showing up there over the years, like many others, completely unaware of our consequences, has contributed to the slow death of this town.

This is not misanthropy, nor is it a confessional. It is how we might begin to take into full consideration the unwanted, unwelcome, and unconsidered rippling wake of our travels and of our unwillingness to consider such things. The truth is, we can’t fully know. We can’t sit in the watchtower, watching the waves of our waking life wash out over the world, elsewhere. And yet, that doesn’t mean they’re not there. It doesn’t mean they don’t matter. Of course they do. Of course they are. And so we proceed, then, with that in mind, that we are people of deep consequence and people of even deeper calamity when we refuse to do so.

If You Love a Place...

Tourists travel to places enduring the consequences of those who arrived previously. This is non-negotiable. All time in a particular place is predicated on the past and who was there before us and how they were there. The thing is, we don't know how old that consequence is or exactly where it came from, but it is a way of saying and understanding that our place in the world and especially in foreign lands has immense consequences far beyond our time there. The disco-hardcore band, “At the Drive-in” sing, “A single spark can start a spectral fire,” and this reality, unconsidered, has us tiptoeing through sylvan infernos, altogether engulfed in our cultural obliviousness.

Now, the fame and gentrification that flooded the Mexican beach towns of Tulum and Sayulita and places like it in the last decade as a result of the presence of so-called conscious people, burners and whole-foods shoppers, yogis and party people appears to be lurching towards Oaxaca. In fact, it’s already happening, which means it’s already happened. Tourism development is become the boom and bust of scenester, destination addiction, micro-industries. The retreat centres. The parties and drugs. The cartels and the violence. All sponsored by western wanderlust and privilege.

The Death of Tourism

When it comes to travel and tourism, if you love a place, leave it be. Don’t go there. Such is the fate of my eight years visiting this beach town, is that there won’t be a ninth. Even that seems to come too late. If a place is worth loving, a place you don’t live in, then your manner of loving it proceeds from a distance. Not spectacle, but respect. Not consumption, but consideration. This is solidarity, for our times. From that can arise not only the possibility of a home worth staying in and being properly tended to, but perhaps even a recognition from other cultures that we might, one day, be worthy guests in their lands, people worthy of an invitation.

No matter the immediate fate of tourism, locals will continue to refine and promote their respective spectacles and sites just as tourists will continue to act as if their presence on the scene is mandatory, even after tourism’s true colours have been laid bare. While this is certain, what isn’t certain is if it will persist. 

There’s not much time left now, and in fact, we could’ve very well run out of it a while ago. Our options are either the death of tourism or tourism as the cause of death for the lands and lineages of those places tourism deems “destinations.” If we fail to proceed towards the former in an honourable way, the latter will continue to spread and infect the world until it has arrived in the neighbourhoods of the very people who refuse to consider the unintended consequences of their freedom. And by then, it’ll already be too late. So, I ask you again, is this an interruption or is it a crisis?

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