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Most of us are tourists, not travellers

People talk about ‘the journey being the destination’, but that very rarely is the case. What most of us do is not travel, but tourism. Tourism is much more than an industry. Indrajit Hazra writes.

ht view Updated: Dec 03, 2013 18:50 IST
Indrajit Hazra

While adjusting my spine at the Condé Nast Traveller India Readers’ Travel Awards ceremony earlier this week, I caught myself planning a holiday. December is on us and there always seems to be a tremendous herd instinct to break away from the herd around this time of the year.

So as I kept hearing the toffee-wrapper figure of the emcee Neha Dhupia on the stage trot out words like ‘The Oberoi Udaivilas’, ‘The Palm’, ‘The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa’, ‘Changi Airport’, ‘Royal Caribbean’, ‘The Kochi Bienelle’, ‘Thomas Cook’ and ‘Dubai’, I kept being drawn into this fuzzy-wuzzy chin-tickling world of travel, comfort and luxury.

Now, I’m not much of a traveller and that’s primarily because I don’t like travelling. But there I was, getting lulled into a sense of consensual sensuality at the thought of going on a Christmas-New Year vacation.

When people talk about ‘the journey being the destination’, I insist that very rarely is that the case. Driving across America from the east coast to the west in a rented convertible might sound awesome, and usually does seem so in movies especially if you’re Johnny Depp and Scarlett Johansson next to you is trying to keep her hair in place.

But in my imagined experience (I have never driven across Noida, never mind America), I see the raw footage that involves numb buttocks, endless pit stops at dodgy roadside diners, and at least one flat tyre.

As for travelling across Incredible !ndia, while secretary, ministry of tourism, Parvez Dewan smartly announced grand new plans for Indian tourism on Thursday night, the woodpecker in my head kept saying, ‘Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure’.

Undertaking a recent 16-hour road trip to the heavenly Ziro Valley in Arunchal Pradesh from the purgatorial Guwahati airport on a terrain that would make the Mars Exploration Rover think twice about coming back to Earth convinced me that the journey is not the destination, the bloody destination is.

What most of us do is not travel, but tourism. The United Nations World Tourism Organisation defines tourism as “the activities of persons travelling to and staying in places outside their usual environment for not more than one consecutive year for leisure, business and other purposes” making it one of the vaguest definitions I know after ‘jihad’.

Tourists, unlike travellers, make prior arrangements to ensure things like pleasant itineraries, soft pillows, cheapest expensive tickets, trips to read-about restaurants and visits to spots where you can wear clothes (or not) that you’d never be caught wearing (or not) back home.

Tourism is much more than an industry. And it’s certainly more than hogging that ‘complimentary’ hotel buffet breakfast and taking pictures of the family in front of a Mama Mia! poster at the Novello Theatre in London to upload on Facebook. Michel Houellebecq, in his 2000 novella Lanzarote, takes us to the belly of the jolly beast: “Imagine yourself for a moment, dear reader, in the role of the tourist.

What does it entail? You must listen attentively to the proposals made to you by the professional opposite you.... she has a general idea of the clientele, the sports facilities, the opportunities for meeting new people; your happiness — at least your prospect of happiness — during those weeks depends to a degree on her.

Her role — far from the stereotypical notion of proposing a ‘standard’ holiday package, and regardless of the brevity of the encounter — is to discover your expectations, your desires, perhaps even your secret hopes.” Replace the travel agent with a softwared set of scroll-down menus and change ‘sports facilities’ to ‘spa’, and that’s today’s tourism.

Tourisming — a more proper verb than ‘touring’ in this context — is a ritual that I’d rather give the skip for the pains it entails. So does that leave the idea of travelling open to me? Not really.

Until safe teleportation is invented that will allow people to travel from one spot to another without traversing the distance in between, I’d prefer to take a rain check. Whoever said travel expands the mind hasn’t obviously taken drugs. Or watched travel programmes on TV, or read travel books, or looked at Google images that do the mind expansionary job without the downsides of actually travelling.

There is really one solid reason for going on a vacation: to momentarily get away from ordinary life. I know I’m in a minority of one here, but I’d rather plan and watch a piano fall from my seventh floor balcony and crash to the ground than step out of town for no particular reason other than pleasure.