How do you travel?
Is a question I don’t often hear.
With 1 or 5 luggages?
A guide or free form?
A spree through all local restaurants
or perhaps a simple stay in your resort?
A question we should all ask ourselves,
do we travel responsibly?
do we travel consciously?
Do we acknowledge the culture surrounding us?
Do we make an effort, even the smallest of efforts, to integrate into a culture when being its guest?
Or are we ignorant, partaking in a massive homogenization?
In the summer of 2019, I went to Bali. In the Spring of 2019, I went to Morocco and it dawned upon me — in a perverse game of host and be hosted, whose at stake to adapt? Is anyone?
Since the 1950s, international tourism has skyrocketed and exploded in size, virtually overtaking our planet through economic recovery, real estate, jobs, airports, etc… The UN World Tourism Organization claimed that tourism generated more than $2.1tn in annual revenues and in many island nations and countries word wide, tourism acted(s) as the primary source of foreign exchange and employment.
Yet the objective downside of tourism ripples starting with technological connectivity to cheap travel. Tourists cause food, land, water and housing prices to increase at a rate linked with a steep decline in tourism operators’ margins. Thus, tourism does not directly lead to benefiting host communities.
But even moving past this, in the summer of 2019 as I was strolling through Ubud, I noticed an avalanche of tourists whom stuck out like sore thumbs; an avalanche of businesses privately owned by foreign investors; an avalanche of visitors taking mindless photos with “rocks” and offerings that they had no idea what they meant nor what cultural significance they held. In the summer of 2019, I noticed an avalanche and social media was a catalyzer.
Apart from the media cashing in an exorbitant amount of money from advertising holiday locations and cheap flights, on a broader level, we have a new hybrid — “influencers” or “travel bloggers”, a species so keen on showcasing faux luxury, attempted haute couture fashion placed within inappropriate contexts and banal photography to an unknown audience. We have travel bloggers who desperately believe to be on set of a Vogue shooting amidst their mediocre trips, completely disregarding the true potential of an authentic experience abroad. But then another phenomena is at play, where locals begin adapting to their visitors’ needs and create “instagrammable spots” or Western inspired clothes. We have over-commercialization at play turning cultural honeypots into dystopian theme parks (or perhaps Banksy’s Dismalands). So if countries begin adapting to tourists to boost economy, then what remains? Is it ethical to say that social media, influencers or simply, superficial travel is leading to a death of culture?
For example New York is a culture pot, yet not all countries are. Not all places are meant to be globalized since globalizing is homogenizing and homogenization is conformity.
What about the average tourist? How far does this phenomena go?
When I was at the Goa Gajah temple in Ubud, also known as the Elephant Cave, my experience was swallowed by flippant travel and visitors. The temple is carved into a cave and inside it, are Lingas, aniconic devotion objects for Lord Shiva, hence making this a Shaivite temple. Yet to actually see the temple inside proved to be a challenge. It was an uphill battle as endless tourists were obsessively taking photos at its entrance and ending it at that. 1 in 20 visitors actually had the interest of going inside the cave instead of superficial photos on the outside and that simply baffled me to say the least. Imagine 20 people in line in front of an ancient structure. Imagine 20 people in line in front of an ancient structure whose story, whose history they know nothing about. Imagine 20 people in line in front of an ancient structure just for a solo photo.
How is it that imagining is now reality? Perhaps willful blindness and ignorance have become pervasive and entrenched in our society because it seems that lately, we only do places and rarely experience or learn.
So I ask, is it insensitive to say that tourism kills culture when it seems that tourists are not even remotely interested in the culture they’re visiting as they are in its photographic and commercial appeal? I think it’s worth asking why such an effect is generated. I think it’s also worth asking why such episodes are so vaguely debated in press or mentioned in general cultural or business literature.
I believe a notion of conscious travel should be developed. Not to say that photographs or creative endeavors are all “bad” in this context, as I am guilty of this as well, but perhaps after a photograph some interest beyond would be more fulfilling. Maybe traveling should return to its origins of exploration, where purpose, meaning or fulfillment were sought on a very general level. Perhaps when visiting, some prior research should be done on local customs. Perhaps when visiting Muslim countries, short dresses shouldn’t be in your repertoire. Perhaps when visiting Bali, some petite knowledge on their religion might be useful when interacting with a place so closely linked with its faith and way of living. Perhaps…
Perhaps being more aware and attuned with our world would preserve the plethora of cultures that our planet hosts.
Tirta Empul Temple — Hindu Balinese Holy Water Temple, famous for its ritual of purification from its holy springs, said to be created by God Indra. Indra’s story revolves around his lustfulness.
There was once a beautiful woman named Ahalya. She was sent to live with a sage until she came of age. Once reached, Brahma (the highest God) married her to the sage yet Indra grew furious. He tried seducing Ahalya but failed up until he assumed the Sage’s appearance and tricked her. Once the sage found out, he cursed Indra by having his body adorned with over 1,000 vaginas. Indra’s predicament became tragic so Brahma morphed the curse to 1,000 eyes instead ...
Goa Gajah Temple Lingam — In Hinduism, the Lingam (or Linga) is an aniconic devotion object for Lord Shiva. It mainly centers around its generative power and is generally found in Shaivite temples (temples dedicated to Shiva).
In the Mahabharata and the Puranas (ancient Hindu Sanskrit texts) the lingam is a phallic symbol of Shiva.
The Linga is generally placed within a cylindrical structure, the Yoni, meant to symbolize the goddess Shakti. Together, the Linga and Yoni embody the the union of male and female and thus the totality of existence.
Tegallalang Rice Terrace
Pura Gunung Kawi Temple