| Lewis Akenji

Innocents Abroad

“Even if you don’t consider your journey as a shopping experience, travel agents and package tours are set to send you along commercial paths that would bring them profits.”

“The experiences of that cheery weekwere

varied and numerous for a short chapter

and I have not room for a long one.

Therefore I shall leave them all out”

Mark Twain

Sun, sea, sand and sex

From Phuket, south of Thailand,
dozens of us were herded into a small boat that, until then, had been a fishing
vessel. It was temporarily transformed to a human transporter by a smart local
upon spotting an immediate opportunity to make a quick buck from a bunch of tourists.
On another occasion we would have complained about the near canned-sardine
arrangement to which we were subjected. But no one did. There was sun, sea and
sex – or at least the promise of non-committal sex between and among strangers
temporarily in a foreign land with little or no incentive for moral
inhibitions. We ignored the smell of rotting fish, got caught in fishing net
threads, and made shifty apologies for limited space, flirtatiously introducing
ourselves to each other while popping open cans of beer.

The moon over Ko Phi Phi is a crescent cut
of luminous silver, sharp and bright in the night sky. As it shines over the
sea surrounding the island, the reflections are like confetti of tiny stars on water.
The boats dance to the small waves as local fishermen go about the last duties
of the day. Looking at the island from the pier, there’re several lines of lit
up bungalows towered over by silhouettes of palm trees. This was my view upon
arrival. Early next morning, as I strolled along the white-sand beach, it
seemed even more impressive – the water is so clear one can see the rocks at
the bottom and little fish playing around. From the shore, I could see a few
more islands, smaller, but equally inviting.

Thailand is the poster destination for travel brochures. In fact, at the
surface the country boasts it all, unrivalled in its supply of cheap
“everything for everyone”. Sex tourists on a hunt for 10-year old kids; backpackers
wanting to export their confusion; religious pilgrims seeking the wisdom of
Buddha. The street food in Thailand alone
excites one’s appetite in a way that would make a French chef jealous. In a
single day one can have an elephant ride through thick forests; go snorkelling
or scuba diving with colourful sea creatures; or take a hike up one of the
mountains that never fails to dish out a stunning panorama from the peak.
Feeling lazy? Lie down on a sun-kissed sandy beach and watch the emerald waters
of the sea stretched before you. Or you may prefer to walk into a massage
parlour, or seek out a drug dealer with something to numb your mind, and then
party all night long. For all these and more, Thailand,
perhaps ahead of others closely contending as tourist mecca in the Developing World,
is stunning for both its natural beauty as it is for the amoral behaviour of
its visitors. At any one of these tourist hotspots, one can be easily convinced
either way: that he or she is in the biblical Garden of Eden or in Sodom or Gomorrah.

On the day after Christmas in December
2004, the world’s second most powerful tsunami, unleashed from the Indian Ocean floor, generated
waves as high as 15 meters that razed out coastal settlements and killed some
6000 people. Phi Phi island was swallowed and chewed to ruin. Three years on,
the people are still trying to rebuild their lives. With limited sources of
income, they depend heavily on the tourism industry.

Tourism numbers took a nosedive the year
following the tsunami, but have now revived. Its activities contributed to 7.7
percent of the GDP of the country between 2000 and 2004. During the same
period, it employed some 3.3 million people. To achieve such high numbers, Thailand has
had to starve other sectors such as agriculture and industry.  Instead of developing local communities,
massive resources have been drawn into areas favoured by tourists. The best
roads in Thailand lead not to where locals necessarily live but to ruins and other
places tourists would enjoy.

Reconstruction in Phi Phi is in full swing.
New houses are popping up to court and accommodate paying tourists. They
swarm everywhere, dodging heaps of debris, reminders of the recent tragedy. On
their way to the beach, half-naked tourists parade the streets without noticing
the embarrassed but polite looks on the faces of fully clad locals. Here and
there they haggle over prices, never discounting the value of the products.

Variations of behaviour at such low ebb are
commonplace in Indonesia, Mexico, India, Kenya or other countries that combine natural beauty with low income and
lax regulations. In Cameroon, I endured a day with a tourist who told of how, in spite of being
housed by a family, “I have to buy 20 litres of bottled water everyday to bathe.
You know, the pot in which they boil bath water for me is black with soot and
just doesn’t look right.” 

This reminded me of an acquaintance I had
to meet up with in India. He wouldn’t accept an Indian restaurant for a venue, nor anywhere
that was not around one of the tourist hives recommended by his guidebook. When
I finally convinced him to come to a park not too far from his secured
location, he arrived with a liquid disinfectant which he frequently applied to his
handkerchief before holding it over his nose and mouth. The flies kept buzzing
around generously.  He’d been hatched out
of the sanitized western world where he was incubated, in his new environs
everything moving was a bacterium he must protect himself from. Yet he expected
to have pleasure in this country without coming in contact with its people and

Then there’s the tourist that flies to
another continent and only eats in McDonald’s or Pizza Hut. A literary
translation of “home away from home.” Other milder but equally discriminating
behaviour is common. 

A comparable pattern of anti-social
behaviour would be that of English youths who take low-cost flights for binge
drinking trips to eastern European capital cities – to them the backwaters of Europe. They flaunt the obvious
difference between the British Pound and local currency. On streets they shout
out obscenities at elderly people who cannot go apace. Start fights, urinate on
national monuments, destroy property, and spit or puke on women who refuse to
fall for their English charms. An embassy attaché in Budapest,
embarrassed by such behaviour, recently confessed to switching to Spanish
language whenever he’s out and encounters a group of English tourists. In Latvia,
the embassy has resorted to distributing leaflets on moral decorum to the queen’s
subjects arriving the country.

But tourism to places like Thailand
has become some other – what I would call consumer tourism. People go there to
visit not Thailand as such but to fulfil travel fantasy on a trip of which the place,
the people and their culture are just a proxy, pushed to a background shadow that
vanishes once the visitor’s desire is satisfied. From the gorgeous beaches in
the south, the suffocating commercial bustle of Bangkok, the
awe-inspiring temple ruins of Sukhothai, to the grand vistas up in the north,
the only real interaction between Tourist and Thai or Thailand
is commercial, where the local is needed to enable the consumer tourist further
on his pilgrimage.



West of Sydney, Australia, two hours by
train into the Blue Mountains is Katoomba. There’s little about the town to entice an innocent
passer-by. Its main street, unavoidable on arrival, though charming is easily
monotonous. At a glance it has the temperament of a place coming out of a

This suddenly changes once one gets to the
edge of the town, to the so-called Echo Point, the balcony which serves as a
viewpoint to a canyon with some of the most breathtaking geological formations
the eyes can witness. A series of cliffs cut off from plateaux, exposing vast,
steep sandstone walls at the very bottom of which is thick valley forest. Rugged
eroded gorges open left and right running as deep as 750 meters, so wide one
has the feeling of flying over the canyon. The darlings of the Mountains are
the gigantic Three Sisters. They are indeed three but are not really, well,
sisters, but a trio of vertical rock formations at a commanding height of over
900m above the valley.

As for how the Sisters got their name, one
version according to dreamtime legend by Australia’s
aboriginals goes thus: once upon a time there were three beautiful sisters who
lived in the tribe of Katoomba.  The
sisters fell in love with three brothers from a rival tribe but tribal law
forbade such a union. The three brothers, seeing a chance at love, wouldn’t let
go of their sweethearts. They launched a tribal war against Katoomba. The
father of the girls, being a witchdoctor, decided to turn his daughters into
stone in order to protect them from harm. Unfortunately the father was killed
in the war. Because he was the only one with the key to unlock the spell on the
girls, after the war no one could return them to their former human form. The
girls have since stood there for generations. Waiting for love. (It goes
without say that no geologist of modern times has found the right scientific
formula to the girls’ hearts either.) The romance is not stone cold though. Floodlit
at night, the giant Sisters’ dance is in a class with a Cinderella waltz.

The Blue
Mountains maintain their own microclimate,
one that is just as dramatic as the cliffs and waterfalls in the area. On our
first day, the sun was out in full glory, beaming over gentle and sharp features
of the landscape for as far as the eyes could survey. And what a sight!
Thinking we had a whole week out there, we refused to hurry through the trails
and consume the sights at a fast-food pace. In the tourism business maxim of
“consume all the places you can while the sun shines,” our guidebook would say
our restraint was a major mistake.

Anyway we picked a spot, stood on the
balcony of Earth and took in tiny bits of the grand view – the results of
geological drama acted out over millennia by the disquieting ecology of natural

I would start observing something else – the behaviour of other tourists.
Several luxury travel buses kept arriving, offloading middle-aged tourists in
safari hats, sunglasses, khaki shorts and sandals. While some strolled
effusively, hands in pockets, towards the viewpoint, others dashed ahead,
cameras ready. There was frequent sighing and multilingual alterations. “Amazing!”,
“Que bonito!”, “Wunderbar!”, “Mon Dieu!” The tour guide, with exaggerated
enthusiasm, would give a few lectures on the history of the place, punctuated
with recited jokes, and then herd his followers around some “must-see” places.

of the buses offloaded younger groups. In a few cases, while the students
rushed with excitement towards the viewpoint, the bus engines would be kept
running, waiting to take off again to the next landmark. A group of Japanese
students with a show of high-tech cameras barely had enough time to race each
other to the viewpoint, pose for pictures and rush back to the waiting buses.

a shopping list of hot spots to be ticked off while on a consumer tour. To see,
even if only for a few minutes, and to take a me-in-Australia picture. By the
end of the trip, having darted from one hot spot to another, clicking, the
memory card of the digital camera would be full. Photoshop, PowerPoint and
myspace.com would handle the rest.

not pouring out of tour buses in drones, it was singles, couples or small
groups of backpackers who arrived on foot or bicycle, hugging their “Lonely
Planet” guides as bibles. While not seeming to be in as much a hurry, some
backpackers took no behavioural limits to their search for adventure. They’d
climb over the fence, break into sealed off areas or look for the most
high-spirited spot to smoke a hand-rolled cigarette and toss the stub on the

observe consumer tourism is to peek into the nature of commerce that thrives on
blunting human curiosity, that brings out the craving for instantaneous
satiation of physical senses (sights, sounds, smells); temporary fulfilment, a
high then a low until the next stop. According to the United Nations World
Tourism Organisation, of the 898 million people who travelled abroad in 2007,
over half of them were after the excitement of physical senses – leisure,
holiday, recreation.


——–Paradise in a box——–

Package deals. A Big Mac menu; a software
bundle with a new computer; gift-wrapped box under a Christmas tree – the
packaging looking more beautiful, even more expensive than the present
contained within. 

Strapped for time, overwhelmed by options,
and eager to run away from home for a bit, travel agents and tour operators
have done us the ultimate favour of packaging our desires into one. We just
need to sit in the back sit of the bus and enjoy as the scenery of our package
tour unfolds outside the window.

In keeping with the consumption drive, the
most glittering packages promising costumer satisfaction easily sell out. Every
year, millions of people go on “An all-inclusive weekend in Paris, the city of
romance”; “A luxury week in Egypt,
the land of the pharaohs”; “An authentic wildlife experience in the Kenya,
with the best rangers and secured accommodation.” Skip the preparation,
anticipation, culture shock, discovery, enlightenment. Tour operators have
reduced the experience of travelling to just another commodity in our flooded
marketplace. Hence, that we can package “authentic travel experiences” as
commodities for sale almost always end up in disappointing holiday trips for
the buyers.

How companies unpackage the package tour
has little variation, with a little add-on based on the type of experience
promised by the package. Take an ad which reads, “A unique weekend in Prague.” This
translates as a hotel; breakfast in a sequestered environment; a walk around
some streets, ruins, and monuments; a bus trip to some natural location where
one can stand out of the fence and watch in; a visit to a “peasant” village
where the villager has new, brightly coloured traditional attire and does
nothing all day but wait for arriving tourists; a visit in the evening to a
traditional restaurant that offers food at prices which locals cannot afford; and
a rehearsed “traditional” performance accompanied by tired, overused folk

Later at night, the group might be allowed
to “socialise”. As if in a Freudian experiment, unfailing patterns of behaviour
emerge: the flirtation and sex-hopefuls; the ones boasting of their last trip
to another exotic location that was far more interesting than the current one; the
all-important one that easily says to everyone, “call me when we get back home,
we can do something together.” Eventually everyone returns to bed, tired and
frustrated but not understanding why.

This is the cynicism of package tours. That
it uses a basic of human traits, curiosity, to wrap trips in photos and words
that promise authentic experiences in exotic destinations. After working hard
for several months, burnt out people are easily lured by such “exclusive
vacation trips” on which they hope to unwind. When such high promises don’t
work, it becomes a failure of the traveller to be open-minded enough or the
lack of beauty or hospitality of the destination. Never the fault of the tour
operator that did its part in taking the vacationer to the promised land.
You’ve gone, you’ve seen, you’ve not conquered. Back in the office, you find
yourself tired, really tired from a holiday. And not looking forward to another
half year of work.

comfort of strangers

The travel section in bookstores is also
growing. To assess the shallowness of travel experiences nowadays, a good
indication would be to read through the titles of guidebooks. Yes, one can
judge a guidebook by its cover -in fact, given the attention span of consumer
tourists, one must. ‘Let’s Go: India’ –
as if India, a subcontinent, was a fast-food meal to be swallowed in one bite. ‘Top
Ten Budapest’ – Budapest has become a Britney Spears CD for sale. ‘Rough Guide to Guatemala’
– an unapologetic approximation of a place and its people. ‘Lonely Planet Central
Europe’ sold to millions of “independent travellers” looking for exclusive
insight each year. Whatever happened to individual experiences? Vocabulary that
expresses our fast-paced, pop, consumerist societies is tellingly comfortable
in the literature of the mass tourism industry. By that measure alone, even
before one flips to those pages that summarise centuries-old cultural hubs in single
passing sentences, travel literature has become a deliberate misappropriation
of unique destinations and a shameless example of turning cultures into

In countries like France
and Austria with much control and less dependence on tourists for immediate
cash, there are indications of some benefits to tourism. But even so, there’s
overuse and fatigue. You’ve heard of how the French cling to every vowel of
their language as a vestige of identity in a fast globalizing world. Speak to a
Parisian waitress in English or with a German accent and test her receptivity
to “étrangers”. With millions of tourists fumbling into every crack of the city
and keeping residents up all night, tell a Venetian how beautiful his city is
and wait for a twist to Italian hospitality. With the Magyar population falling
below ten million, and the national borders not expanding, hold out a map and
ask for directions in a foreign tongue on the streets in Budapest and learn
the meaning of self-preservation.

The muscles that hold a smile do also get

Contrary to the uninformed assumption that
tourism is usually good for local people and their economy, extensive research
shows little to support this claim, especially in the case of developing
countries.  In several cases, long term
studies show the opposite effect: most of the income stays with tour operators
and catering industry with little trickling down to help local communities.
Local people are employed in low, unskilled positions. There’s destabilization
of economy when tourism wavers – as it almost always happens. Cultural
homogenization; commercialization of traditions. Foreigner fatigue and

The UN World Tourism Organization has begun
to recognize the mounting effects of unsustainable tourism. On top of these
issues is the cost to the environment. With more frequent and cheaper travel,
especially by air, increase in emission of greenhouse gasses contributes to
climate change, along with related effects of floods, acid rain, and other disasters.
Tourism causes destruction of natural forests, otherwise habitats for now-threatened
animals and indigenous tribes. This also causes loss of biodiversity, the
plurality of natural species upon which we depend. Invasive species of plants carried
in from other regions can be destructive to sensitive local species on which
local populations have depended for ages. The catering industry competes with
local populations over basic resources, leading to pressures on water, like
shortages and pollution. Farmers are under duress to cultivate food that
satisfies tourists instead of their own sustenance. Most of these things are
lost in calculations of the cost of tourism.

In the Blue
Mountains, while the sun was shining we
missed an opportunity to rush around and see the area in one afternoon. Just
before evening a heavy fog descended on the mountains; I could hear voices of
people a dozen meters from me but couldn’t see a thing. The next day, much
against the optimism of weather forecasters not much changed. In fact, the fog
was sporadically joined by short bursts of rain. In addition, though it was
warming up to an early summer in Sydney, Katoomba was in no mood to indulge by-the-hour guests.

After a brief discussion with myself I
decided against leaving. As planned, I’d still spend the week in the area,
although by now I’d been informed by locals not to expect any miraculous
sunlight. What Katoomba doesn’t have is a bustling night life with girls in
g-string underwear glowing under club lights, or testosterone-infested men
drawling indiscriminately after any sight of exposed skin. This is why Katoomba
is only a transit place or a quick stop on consumer tourist’s itinerary, on
course to attend to the craving of physical senses – for a place with the highs
of a throbbing night life.

One would suppose a week buried in the
mountain fogs is a traveller’s nightmare. Not so. I sat bored and watched the
fog refuse to clear up. I sat in quiet corners in contemplation but couldn’t
give the great answer to the meaning of life. I read books and read the local
papers. I went for bushwalks, pretending to be an amateur botanist in the
depths of the local vegetation. I joined the locals for chats in off-track
cafes, managing to get invited into some of their homes more than twice. I
spent two afternoons in an antique shop and listened to the owner tell
background stories to her collection. Before I knew, a town that seven days
before had been simply a road to a view began taking a meaning of its own, and
in so doing challenging me into areas I’d not intended to stumble upon. I was
no longer just there to visit and see, but to be or become. I’d inadvertently
discovered what had been wrong with my previous trips.



We travel now more than ever before, but
we’re no longer travellers per se. Communication technology has shrunk the
globe, remoteness and virgin lands are now bound in history books. And – or
perhaps, but – this access, while fast-tracking our physical senses has numbed
our curiosity – that tinkering voice in our mental suitcase that always wants
to learn more, to lift us higher.  

French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss
in 1955 made a distinction between those who travel seeking knowledge and
enlightenment on the one hand, and those who travel seeking thrills. “I dislike
travelling and explorers,” he said, perhaps with a little more sentiment than
expected back then, in his book “Tristes Tropiques”. Although the
Frenchman may have smacked of elitism back then, in the current age of low-cost
airlines and internet-fuelled global trampling, his distinction now sounds like
an understatement.

There were just 25 million international
tourist arrivals in 1950. That number jumped up to 898 million in 2007. The UN
World Tourism Organisation forecasts that by 2020 international arrivals will
surpass 1.6 billion people. That’s to say, the equivalence of the total
populations of Europe, North America and Africa will travel abroad. As the UNWTO states, “the business volume of
international tourism equals or even surpasses that of oil ‎exports, ‎food products or automobiles.‎”

Observers have increasingly lambasted the
combined cheapening of what constitutes authentic travel while progressively
lowering the bar of expectation. It is now worlds apart between the eras of
Captain Cook and the fleeting disciples of Lonely Planet. This separation is
not only in terms of time, transportation mode and (lack of) comfort of
travelling, but also in effort involved, purpose and consciousness of the

Before tourism there was travel, and before
travel there was exploration. Writing in Harpers Magazine in 1979, Paul Fussel explained
the differences thus: “All three make journeys, but the explorer seeks the
undiscovered, the traveller that which has been discovered by the mind working
in history, the tourist that which has been discovered by entrepreneurship and
prepared for him by the arts of publicity. The genuine traveller is, or used to
be, in the middle between the two extremes. If the explorer moves toward the
risks of the formless and the unknown, the tourist moves toward the security of
pure cliché.”

As nearly every remote corner of the world
has been invaded, explorers have disappeared; Knighthoods like those of Sir
Edmund Hillary and Sir Francis Drake no longer exist. Once in a while, one
stumbles across a real traveller, yet these occasions are getting fewer and
farther between. Travel books in the tradition of D.H. Lawrence, Mark Twain,
Anthony Burgess, have virtually disappeared. Even tourism is gone, simple
journeys that combined pleasure and an openness to learn, that retained the
capacity to surprise. We now have consumer tourism.

And so we have popular destinations of
which we already know everything before arrival, package tours to flock about
in groups and not get lost among locals, insurance to cover broken finger nails,
luxury hotels in which we peek back home through TV channels. A consumer
tourist is limited to the physical aspects of his surrounding – sites, sounds,
smells – and never embodies or lives the experiences around him.

In consumer tourism, the fact of having
been to a place earns more points than the experience of it. Once there,
there’s a stamp in the passport and it can be ticked off the list. Mass tourism
consumes cultures rather than enriching them; it imposes itself on the local
context without trying to learn from it.

The traveller, on the contrary is on a
search of the self, for wisdom, for the larger context within which our diverse
cultures fit in the same bowl. For the traveller, the ‘how’ is just as valuable
as the ‘where’.

Yet to talk of travel, let alone
exploration nowadays with the same expectations of what it was a century back
will be illusionary. The constant “discovery” of remote lands and “primitive”
peoples was always going to catch up with our insatiable desire to conquer
them. There can only be so many “virgin” places on a planet of finite size.
(The new venue for exploration is now Mars; we already have space tourism.)

While acknowledging that exploration on
earth is now limited to reading historic expeditions and early anthropological
accounts, there are still paths for some limited travel experience, one that is
not over-diluted by consumer tourism.

Even if you don’t consider your journey as
a shopping experience, travel agents and package tours are set to send you
along commercial paths that would bring them profits. Your “Pocket Guide” book
is less necessary, and sometimes lacking in authenticity, than you would think.
Do read up on your destination well beforehand. For better measure, learn to
say at least “excuse me” and “thank you” in the local language. With a map in
hand and your mind open, getting lost and asking the locals basic questions is
the beginning of a differing experience. While there, ditch the bubble wrap
insulation of the five-star hotel. Especially if you’d be living there for more
than just a passing weekend, consider that there’re almost always more locals
willing to host travellers than travellers taking up on such opportunities.

Whether an employee asking to be transferred
to a branch office in another; a volunteer for a course abroad; or a curious
mind wanting to learn to cook, dance or paint as in another culture, an
increasing number of people are opting for lengthier times abroad that would
give them deeper and more direct involvement in the host communities and thus
translate to more authentic and meaningful experiences. 

Away from the giant air-conditioned bus that
stops at a vantage access spot to a landmark and starts spitting out a stream of
middle-aged people in safari hats, sunglasses, khaki shorts and sandals. Shun
the English backpackers in self-styled fashion hugging their “Lonely Planet”
guides like bibles and doing a faithful pilgrimage of recommended sites. Me-in-Egypt
photographs do not translate into an Egyptian experience. Beware of the
self-acclaimed anthropologist who drops in with a notebook and pen and shoves
her way into a community to make physical descriptions of others’ spiritual
experiences. Keep your distance from the “fellow traveller” you’ve just met at
the beach bar who says he’s been “everywhere” and spews out patented knowledge
of his exploits among tucked away “primitive people” and secret “pristine nature”.
Ignore the retired civil servant in the seat next to you who says he’s “been to
as if the continent is one homogenous village or a little box to be ticked off
on the checklist of destinations on the world map.  Walk away from the baggy-pants mate in the
Youth Hostel who’s every sentence is a reference to a “cool website” and who
never misses an opportunity to immediately flip open his laptop and show you
his internet blog entries of which countries he has “done”.

Technology has given wings to our bodies.
But when our minds are being submerged, our curiosity blunted, and experience
being commodified in packages, it is our ability to learn and become better
that pays the price. Travelling is a privilege; one that can only yield as much
meaning to the traveller as he is open to take and is willing to give to the

Paradise is an ordinary place on the eve of arrival of the tourist bus.


The author, Lewis Akenji, is a
consultant on sustainability research, communication and management. He
currently serves as the Central and Eastern European Network for

Mi nem csak a „szuperzöldekhez” szólunk! Célunk, hogy az ökotudatos életmód és az ehhez vezető vásárlási szempontok bárki számára elérhetők legyenek, éljen bárhol, bármilyen végzettséggel, bármilyen szemlélettel is ebben az országban.

Tevékenységünk a gyártók támogatásától és reklámoktól mentes, nem fogadunk el termékmintákat tesztelésre, nincsenek céges támogatóink, sem reklámbevételeink. És ezt továbbra is fenn akarjuk tartani.

Ahhoz, hogy olyan ügyekkel foglalkozzunk, amikre nincsen hazai vagy más pályázati forrás nagy szükségünk van olyan magánemberek támogatására, mint amilyen Te is vagy! Lehetőségeidhez mérten emiatt kérünk, támogasd munkánkat rendszeres vagy egyszeri adományoddal.

Ne feledd, a pénzed szavazat!

Támogass minket!

Képezd magad a webináriumainkon!

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