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Tourism with a Twist

Ecotourism, meet teletourism. You’ve seen it on TV. Now see it in person.

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.

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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.”

On the count of three, we can all grumble about how mass media has robbed us of the opportunity to have authentic experiences. But maybe we should stop beating ourselves up about all of this.

For thousands of years, pilgrims have traveled to “fabled” places-that is, places that were the subjects of stories. When in the last two millennia has any visitor had an unmediated experience of the Middle East’s “Bible Lands?”

Historians tell us that many of the medieval relics and miracle stories originated as the major cities of Europe competed for visitors. Paul Bunyan turns out to be mostly “fakelore” fabricated by a Minnesota advertising man in 1914 to promote the logging industry and quickly adopted by tourist camps. Still, such stories enriched rather than impoverished our imaginations.

Tourism involves mapping stories onto space. Some of the stories are history, some myth; half the time, we don’t care. As a rule, we value older stories over more topical ones. It’s okay to stay at Lizzie Borden’s house-now a bed and breakfast-but perverse to visit the Columbine massacre site. Dickens tourism is sanctified through print culture, whereas Survivor tourism is tainted by our conflicted feelings about television. But when tourists to Nottingham express disappointment to find that there is not much of a forest there, are their expectations shaped by folktales and ballads, children’s book illustrations, Hollywood swashbucklers, or all of the above? Does it matter?

Mass media produces and reproduces stories at an alarming rate. Many of the small hotels and ranches in remote Queensland are trying to sell themselves as gateways to “Survivor Country.” We all know this trend will fade in another year. In such a context, our landscape can become overpopulated with competing narrative claims. Consider, for example, the cliff that the Survivor contestants jumped off in one of the series’ more memorable moments. On local maps, it is labeled “Butch Cassidy.” So as I flew over the gorge, I was a teletourist using my camcorder to record a location that I knew from a television sequence in which contestants enacted a scene they knew from a 1969 Hollywood movie that had taken its imagery from popular pulp magazines’ representations of the exploits of Wild West outlaws. Whew!

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