Ah, contemporary art. You will have noticed that it has broken out right around the world, from hotels and restaurants to cafés, bars, festivals, pop up galleries and, most invasively, wineries. “We like to encourage local artists,” a wine-maker told me recently. Me too, I said. I particularly like to encourage them to take up plumbing, floristry or a position in the police force rather than give us their version of the descent of mankind – as they do, whether in Brighton or, I’m sure, Bolivia.
Alongside contemporary art, we find wellness, mindfulness and other such tomfoolery anywhere and everywhere. As we do Hermès scarves. Well, we do if we’re loaded. It’s a constant source of wonder that the very rich know where they are, given that, when they exit the hotel past the blokes in uniform, they bump into exactly the same shops – Cartier, YSL, Dior, Rolex, Swarovski – on streets from Los Angeles to Monaco, Rome to Shanghai.
Perhaps they don’t know where they are. Perhaps they travel in little bubbles of self-importance, expecting the world to conform to their demands, with local culture surfacing briefly as chambermaids, barmen and the fellows in uniform. And perhaps the attitude has seeped down to influencers and others who think the most interesting aspect of any place is their presence in it – and the selfies (“me and the Taj Mahal”, “me and a camel”, “me and a croissant”) they can post on Instagram, Tik-Tok and the rest. Were we serious about cultural sensitivities, we’d surely burn all social networks in a bonfire of vanities.
That said, we should also be wary of being over-critical, notably if we are English speakers. A key element in world-wide standardisation is the expectation that everyone involved in dealing with visitors – absolutely everyone everywhere – should speak English. This may not be a bad thing. The planet probably needs a world language. It means that non-English speakers have only one language to learn and that there’s no need to master Bulgarian, Filipino or Javanese as we travel.
But it should also give us pause when we start sounding off about the standardisation of our experience of the world. If we don’t speak Bulgarian, it may be that we are part of the problem.
Of course we are. But – and here’s the point – it doesn’t do to exaggerate the dimensions of that problem. Some people do. American sociologist, George Ritzer talks of the “McDonaldization” of travel. “For me,” he writes, “it’s harder and harder to find something in Europe that is unfamiliar and non-rationalized.”
Maybe he needs get out of the airport more often. Maybe he needs to take a round trip from, say, Bournemouth to Bratislava, via Bordeaux. OK, he’ll probably find Starbucks and KFC and Burger King in all of them, but they scarcely define the places. They’re minor add-ons, at best.
No-one in his or her right mind is going to mistake Bordeaux for Bournemouth merely because one may, in both, buy a sharing bucket of finger-lickin’ chicken.
The underlying charge is that the arrival of tourists compromises the “authenticity” of wherever it is that they are arriving. But authenticity isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be. Poverty and sweatshops are authentic enough in parts of the world, as are honour killings, slavery and street crime. Believe me, there’s nothing unauthentic about a mugging in Naples.
It is at least part of the job of tourism to pump money into local economies that the conditions for such “authenticity” be alleviated, or at least tempered. I’ve mentioned before Norman Lewis’ Voices Of The Old Sea. In this travel classic, Lewis recounts a remote Costa Brava village in the post-war years. It is on the cusp between a fishing past and tourism future.