“CHRISTIANITY IS THE CHIEF purveyor of tourism, and one travels only to visit churches,” writes Roland Barthes in Mythologies (1957), mocking the narrow-mindedness of the French tourist who sees only the achievements of his own Catholic Church everywhere he goes. Yet if we trace the tourist’s genealogical tree back far enough, we do indeed find the pilgrim. Though few would associate this asceticism with a Club Med holiday, it is in these sacred journeys, old as human culture, that we find anything approaching the scale of contemporary mass tourism. For centuries, some of the greatest regular assemblies of human beings have been those of pilgrims—for Holy Week in Rome, Passover in Jerusalem, Dhu al-Hijjah in Mecca, or the Kumbha Mela in Allahabad.

Could there be something of the sacred left in the tourist’s experience today? As well as the similarities in scale, modern-day mass tourism maintains some of the metaphysical connotations of the pilgrimage. After all, one does not actually purchase anything physical when planning a trip; rather, it’s a means by which we can acquire experiences. Thus the sheer 

 ©Renato Alvarado Vidal
©Renato Alvarado Vidal

intangibility of the modern-day holiday (and one should not forget the religious provenance of this word) hearkens back to its spiritual predecessor. Similarly, while a secular world may allow tourists to create their own holy places, sanctified by natural beauty, good weather, or physical challenges, the idea that one returns from sacred journeys with a changed perspective is still implicitly the case. Tourists, like pilgrims, seek recreation in the fullest sense of the word.

It may seem absurd to view a sightseeing tour of Versailles or the pyramids as a kind of pilgrim’s progress toward spiritual fulfillment—or it may seem entirely appropriate. For one thing, the pilgrim of yore had more in common with the present-day tourist than many suspect. One of the first books printed in English, Informacion for Pylgrymes unto the Holy Londe (1498), is a sort of primitive Rough Guide, advising pilgrims on how to negotiate with ships’ captains, obtain the best berth once aboard, and find the strongest horses upon arrival. What’s more, many of the vices that today’s tourists are accused of in Ibiza or Las Vegas were also leveled against pilgrims. The sixteenth-century Dutch theologian Erasmus condemned pilgrimages as little more than excuses for dissipation, accusing pilgrims of merely seeking adventure and a chance to boast of their exploits upon return.

More importantly, the pilgrim and the tourist are linked by the inevitable gap between the physical site they visit and the experience they seek. For both, exultation is transient and subject to skepticism. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Japan marks the spot where the first atom bomb fell on August 6, 1945. In its midst stands the Genbaku Dome, a tangled mass of concrete and steel that was the only structure to remain standing in the area after the devastation. Each year, this ruin draws thousands of international visitors to stand in silence before it. According to UNESCO, which has labeled it a World Heritage Site, it “acts as a stark and powerful symbol of the most destructive force ever created by humankind.” It is one of the most visited tourist sites in Japan. It is also a fake.

When weathering threatened to destroy its already fragile facade, the Genbaku Dome was carefully reconstructed so that it would forever appear as it did immediately after the atomic bomb was dropped. Those who go to pay their respects are paying their respects to a facsimile. Does this matter? The mere fact of the reconstruction need not invalidate the doubtless deep and genuine feelings of thousands of tourists. When a human becomes a tourist, a substantial and almost mystical transformation is undergone. A union with place occurs that surpasses its inherent qualities.

In Dennis O’Rourke’s Cannibal Tours (1988), a film of European and American tourists traveling through Papua New Guinea in search of the world’s last cannibal tribe, we see the tourists posing with the indigenous people and haggling with them over “traditional” artworks. Yet these artworks have been produced by the locals specifically for tourist consumption. The tourists realize this, yet play along with the game. They are complicit in the essential fakery of the situation, just as the locals are. Who are the tourists? Who are the cannibals? Who is consuming whom?

It should come as little surprise that the very word “tourist” derives from the Latin tornus,which in turn came from the Greek word for a tool describing a circle. For as tourists it seems we are constantly running in a circular quest, chasing after authentic dreams or genuine fakes. At the end of O’Rourke’s film, the tourists paint their faces in the manner of their “savage” hosts and sail away from the island aboard a yacht, dancing to the incongruous sounds of Mozart. As they drift away they seem to transcend time, revealing an enigmatic link between person and place that goes beyond comprehension. It seems to answer the question “Why do we travel?” with another question: “Why do we live?”

Adapted from the Spring/Summer 2006 issue of Bidoun magazine (bidoun.com). Reprinted with permission.

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