By Anastasia Dyakovskaya
As modern society advances, social paradigms have been steadily shifting. Today’s people have amassed such an incredible amount of material goods, cutting-edge technologies, services, and understandings that we have reached a point where we want something new and different, something intangible. Within the realm of travel, the well-off tourist has a multitude of luxuries at his fingertips – first class flights, lavish resorts, courses upon courses of gourmet foods - but this is no longer enough. Nowadays people are more concerned with the experience they can obtain, rather than another souvenir to add to their collection.
Because of all of these things, as of late we have been preoccupied with a new objective: the search for authenticity. And, as with most of the other factors that influence our lives, this new and controversial quest comes with it’s own positives and negatives. The interest in authenticity alone has stimulated academic debate on novel ways of travel, such as ecotourism and geotourism. The latter refers to the practice of having tourists contribute to vacation spots by fostering a cultural, economical, and personal exchange.
Geotourism strives to enrich tourist destinations by putting special emphasis on what makes each place unique. In this way, local residents are meant to gain a higher level of respect and admiration for their own cultures, while tourists keep coming back for more in their relentless hunt for new and different realities. Both parties are meant to benefit, and often they do.
Unfortunately, though, much of the time they don’t. In fact, this new demand for authentic experiences can often take away from indigenous cultures and destroy native communities. Just this week, for example, the New York Times ran an article concerning Beijing’s preparations for the 2008 summer Olympics.* Although those currently traveling to Beijing are there for different reasons than, say, tourists who travel to Australia to gain a first hand understanding of the Aboriginal songlines, most must still have an underlying desire to see China in it’s truest form – after all, when would we ever want to experience something false, unless we didn’t know any better? Along these lines, what is currently occurring in China is preposterous. The New York Times article focuses on the outrageously unjust dilemma now facing many of Beijing’s poorer inhabitants:
"A veil of green plastic netting now cover Ms. Sun’s restaurant. Mr. Song’s house and several shops that he rents to migrant families were surrounded by a 10-foot-tall brick wall, part of a last minute beautification campaign. The authorities deemed his little block of commerce an eyesore."
So, in an effort to fulfill their presupposed expectations of what the foreigners now pouring into Beijing must be expecting, the Chinese government quickly chose to cover up any imperfections, by literally blocking them from sight. Many other Asian and African cultures suffer in a similar way, forced to undermine their true identities in favor of financial gain through the production of “indigenous” ceremonies, crafts, foods, events, and anything else that can bring a profit.
There are two sides to every coin, but neither side will be real if brought upon by force; it will be calculated and ingenuine. Most worthwhile experiences that add to our lives are those we come upon with open minds and hearts, free of expectations and preconceived notions. It is important to understand the differences between tourist and traveler, between the lure of the ‘exotic’ and the unadorned reality of the foreign, and to then choose what you as an individual prefer to associate yourself with. I say, if something looks good, it looks good. If something sounds good, it sounds good. If something tastes good, it tastes good. Regardless of where it comes from or what it’s supposed to be.
*Hooker, Jake. “Before Guests Arrive, Beijing Hides Some Messes.” New York Times. 29 July 2008.