What did I do on my summer vacation?
I could tell the story two ways: I went hiking in the rain forests of northern Queensland, Australia, peeling leeches off my legs and listening to an Aboriginal guide explain the culinary and medicinal uses of various local plants; or I went “on location,” hiring a bush pilot to fly me and my son over the Tribal Council site from the cult reality television series Survivor and bunking in the mountain lodge where the contestants went to lick their wounds after being voted off the show.Depending on how we describe it, the trip was either ecotourism or teletourism. Same places, same activities-different experiences. Our motherly hostess was willing to play it any way we wanted-inform us about Australian marsupials or show us snapshots of the television contestants goofing around in her kitchen.
We were embarrassed to tell our driver that we were going to Herbert River Falls because we were fans of a television series. Teletourists are often portrayed as people who just can’t separate reality from fantasy. Funny-they don’t say the same thing about the folks who sign up for walking tours of Dickens’s London or who go to watch Shakespeare’s classics performed in the re-created Globe Theatre.
Many of us see travel as a way of escaping the “fake” realms of contemporary media. I think we’re lying to ourselves-tourism is all about experiencing in the flesh things we first learned about through the media.
Ecotourists ride down winding mountain roads in jeeps or on camel back, canoe along rivers, climb mountains, all in hopes of getting a glimpse of some wild animal they learned about on the Discovery Channel. Perhaps I don’t enter into ecotourism with the right spirit, but as I am struggling through the Belizean underbrush, I keep humming the theme from Indiana Jones and pondering the fact that the mountain pools really are that strange deep green color they dye the water for amusement park jungle cruises. Media shapes our fantasies even when we try to escape its reach.
Often, tourism involves coming face to face with places we had previously only seen in images-and once there, we feel compelled to take our own pictures to verify the experience. Architectural critic Alvin Boyarsky describes how the picture postcard has shaped the way we view urban space, with certain generic images-the skyline at night, the vista from on top of the highest building, the juxtaposition of the old and the new-resurfacing in representations of cities around the world. When we went white-water rafting in Australia, the guides hired cameramen to run up ahead of us, perch on rocks and record our adventures so that they could be sold back to us on video when we reached our final destination. The U.S. park service has long posted signs to tell us where to point our cameras-“scenic view, 50 yards.”