Tropical Islands Resort, Berlin-Brandenburg, Germany, 2007. Photo by Austrian photographer Reiner Riedler
You’re finally getting a vacation and you’re ready to let loose. Pump the muscles. Change the beat. Stay out till the wee hours and sleep until noon. Walk miles to find a secluded beach? Ogle a museum? Hike a mountain trail with a llama? Drive the Mongol Rally for charity and experience one of the craziest road trips in the world as you cross the Gobi Desert and bump around on bad roads, dirt roads, and sometimes no roads at all? Hop on a barge down the Mississippi River and chum with the workers? Aw, no thanks. It’s easier to make the journey come to you.
Yes, it’s easier to clone a vacation. Make it safe, sterile and without peril. You won’t have to encounter a beggar, have your car break down somewhere you can’t even find on a map or ever be too far from a hot meal and a bathroom. You won’t need any mental strength to ignore the street people or the pushy trinket dealer trying to sell you a beaded talisman from Papua New Guinea. In fact, you won’t need much strength of any kind because you’re on a Fakeaway and you’re being fed a huge dose of hopes and dreams in a panorama of vibrant color. Why not skip the effort and expense of travel in favor of a cheap, comfortable and shadowy resemblance of the real thing?
Welcome to The Truman Show. We’ll gladly take your money and greet you with our plastic smiles.
Thanks to technology, the strategies of warring nations that built fake cities to confound their enemies, and the American exportation of the Disney phenomenon there are now artificial destinations right around your corner. They parody any authenticity by insuring that visitors will always be well fed, protected and that anything and everything will be convenient. You can snowboard in Dubai, explore and settle the planet Mars in the desert of Utah, stroll an artificial Atlantic City Boardwalk in Brooklyn, stumble down the cobble stone streets of a Fake Foggy London Town in China, crouch before St Peter’s Basilica in Japan, gaze at an Egyptian pyramid in Las Vegas, walk the grassy bluffs of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia to see the uplifting silliness of a styrofoam Stonehenge called Foamhenge, sigh at Lady Liberty in Kosovo, celebrate a faux Cherry Blossom Festival in spring, or take a swashbuckling raft trip down a pretend Grand Canyon at China’s Window of the World. You can even cry your heart out at The Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida where you can watch Jesus being beaten by Roman soldiers and nailed to a crucifix.
It is very curious, this significant human desire to escape into an imaginary ‘other world’, even if it is a flimsy illusion. We are willing to grab the counterfeit, empty the coins from our pockets and collectively enter dreamland. We need to leave ourselves behind, if only for a moment. We don’t even mind that we are being manipulated. While I applaud that much of the world can afford a quick fantasy trip and that no one should judge another’s sense of innocent pleasure – I remain unsettled.
Those that study the vacation industry describe experiences as the fourth economy of a powerful western economic system that has been exported worldwide. They describe four key areas such as education, entertainment, aesthetics and escapism requiring both passive and active participation. A successful vacation absorbs all four realms of experience that ultimately lead to the ‘sweetspot’ of involvement. People see the world as real and fake, authentic or inauthentic – but we all want satisfaction and personalized memorable events, even if our satisfaction comes from superficial experiences of other people and other places. The Disneyfication and McDonalisation with its quantifiable systems, hedonistic entertainment, innovative products and high standards of service now dominate the tourism industry with carefully manipulated experiences offered as the end product. As consumers we are content to end gain and we hardly take any risks on the journey.
Ecological destruction seems to be a by-product of our human willingness to escape to a technologically created utopia designed for the tourist. Manmade waterfalls, fake trees, perfect sand beaches, artificial snow slopes and gardens have contributed to deforestation, destruction of coral reefs and plant life and negatively impacted environments all over the world. The tourism industry manufactures “staged authenticity” and “pseudo events” to serve our preference for visiting places without the hassles and discomforts of traffic, poverty, dirt and confusion that we are certain to encounter in the “real” place. The beat goes on and we don’t seem to care what is happening to our interior or external worlds.
Recently I heard someone sourly bemoan how her Jamaican vacation was tarnished by the peddlers on the beach trying to sell her trinkets. Their presence greatly disturbed her and she let them know just as much. We have all heard similar complaints. How dare the locals impose upon us when we visit their cultures? How dare they intrude upon our fantasy of escape?
Negatives acknowledged, travel and tourism are primary ways in which members of different cultures may get to know one another. It is how we may learn to dispel stereotypes or historical profiling. Yet this is hard to do if Walt Disney is the Pied Piper leading us to Never-never Land.
There is no imaginary place without problems.
It was in the early 1960’s, before Walt Disney’s death, when my father accepted an invitation to consult with the Disney corporation about the design of Disney World in Florida. In retrospect I think he went to stick his tongue out at the whole lot of them, for when he returned he regaled us with the scolding he gave them. It wasn’t just the well-known allegations about Disney that fueled my father’s rage – we knew he was a racist that would not hire African Americans that would “have spoiled the illusion at Disneyland” or that he was in cahoots with the FBI and the red-hunting House Committee on Un-American Activities to finger colleagues as Communists. Instead my father bemoaned the sterilization of unique cultures, child’s play, adventure and the distortion of fairy-tales and literature that would alter beliefs for generations to come.
Papa knew that children would never again hear the warnings of incest, rape and other such treacheries inherent in fairy and folk tales once Disney had sanitized them. He knew the world would forget that Mary Poppins was an essential old witch archetype and instead think of her as a dancing, bubbling pretty face without depth or magic. He knew that family escapades would diminish in meaning as millions flocked to theme parks void of risk-taking, spontaneity and chance encounters. He knew that Disney would be imitated in every far corner of the earth and that the deep layers of culture would be bleached clean. He knew we would all pay the price for living in The Truman Show, where business and media manipulates public opinion and routinely creates fictions that masquerade as facts – a contrived world with high-tech simulations of sun and sky where pathos and vicarious emotion are orchestrated by poorly paid actors, technocrats, and piped in music. Yes, Papa knew we would all be taking Fakeaways.
A kind of, sort of, not really friend asked me if I’d consider sharing a vacation with them. We could stay at a time-share in the Caribbean, or take a cruise perhaps? I took a deep breath and envisioned her talking on her cell phone while she was in some pool, gabbing away with her plump, collagen-filled lips. Did I want to watch brats splashing in a phony lava rigged lagoon or offer cheers in a dank cocktail ‘grotto’ of fake rock where a scary, heroin-thin waitress offers drinks in flimsy plastic cups? No, I politely nodded.
I don’t want a Fakeaway. I want to get sweaty, dirty, lost, bewildered and shaken up a bit when I go on a journey. I want to smell uncertainty in the air and feel stories seep from the ground. I want to eat food I cannot pronounce and rub shoulders with total strangers. I live in a community that is already enough like Pleasantville, thank you very much. I’ll yearn for the real. – Jinx