Travel Notes: Travelling as a version of being at home

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The Independent Culture
SINCE THE Second World War, cultural commentators of all sorts have lamented what Levi-Strauss famously termed "an end to journeying". It is not that people don't travel any more. Rather, the elegiasts argue, travel as a significant transformative experience is no longer possible. The problem with modern or mass tourism is its tendency to what Max Weber called "rationalisation". George Ritzer, a modern Weberian, defines this as

the increasing effort to ensure predictability from one time or place to another. In a rational society people prefer to know what to expect in all settings and at all times.

Ritzer renames the phenomenon "the McDonaldisation of society". What McDonald's have done to the global food industry has become a model for many different kinds of organisation.

When considered in relation to tourism, "McDonaldisation" results in what Paul Theroux calls "Travelling as a Version of Being at Home":

Spain is Home-plus-Sunshine; India is Home-plus-Servants; Africa is Home- plus-Elephants-and-Lions; Ecuador is Home-plus-Volcanoes.

Tourism of this sort is precisely an avoidance of the disruptive, revelatory experience that Theroux feels travel ought to achieve.

Whereas travellers explore the wonders of the world, tourists go to designated sites - including what Paul Fussell terms "pseudo-places".The classic examples are American - the Disneylands, destinations designed to fascinate and repulse cultured Europeans such as Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco. But places like these exist wherever the travel industry operates.

Many contemporary tourist attractions, moreover, are no longer located in a particular place. As the humorist P.J. O'Rourke notes, previous tourist generations could constitute "a stately procession of like-minded individuals through half a dozen of the world's major principalities". Today, on the other hand,

tourist attractions have no specific location but pop up everywhere - that villainous cab driver with the all-consonant last name, for instance. He's waiting outside hotels from Sun City to the Seward Peninsula.

To paraphrase the title of the Sixties film satire, the only way we can tell we're in Belgium is by knowing that this is Tuesday.

Complementing the desire to travel but feel "at home" is the desire to stay at home but experience "different" cultures vicariously through our reading, television viewing or Internet surfing. "For most people," says a character in Don DeLillo's novel White Noise, "there are only two places in the world. Where they live and their TV set." The apotheosis of such armchair travel takes place in Paul Verhoeven's 1990 film Total Recall, set in the year 2084 when Mars has become a colony of the earth. Doug Quaid, a construction worker, has no time to visit the colony so he goes to Rekall, a "travel" service which specialises in implanting artificial memories of "vacations" into its customers' brains.

Travel without having to leave your desk is also a popular metaphor in the language of computing. Microsoft advertisements ask, "Where would you like to go today?" and suggest that their software has created the kind of global village Marshall McLuhan imagined television would. Using the Internet is described in spatial metaphors such as the "World Wide Web", "Cyberspace" or "Netscape Navigator".

According to the novelist William Gibson, cyberspace is "a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation". As we become its citizens, he suggests, our national affiliations become less important and physical travel redundant. The only frontiers existing in this brave new world are economic and technical. "Travellers" are those who can afford the requisite gadgets and know how to use them.

Kasia Boddy is a contributor to `Voyages and Visions: towards a cultural history of travel' edited by Jas Elsner and Joan-Pau Rubies (Reaktion Books, pounds 16.95)