“All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.”
This is one of the key arguments of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. Although it was first published in 1967, it may as well apply to today, as modern social life becomes increasingly mediated by technology – particularly social media. When travelling, the impetus has drastically shifted focus from having experiences to capturing experiences, or as Debord would contend, “the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing.”
This is true not only of how we often plan and experience our travels – switching frantically between Instagram and Snapchat stories or standing in the same location for more than 20 minutes trying to get the perfect photo in front of a view, instead of really looking at it – but also in how tourism-reliant areas are now modelling their businesses. If your Airbnb doesn’t have good lighting or a cute balcony, is anyone going to stay there? If brunch isn’t a part of your region’s culture, should you start serving it anyways, to attract image hungry American travellers?
The notion of the tourist “bubble” is increasingly being shaped by the kinds of images that travellers want to project about themselves online; oftentimes, they also rely more on their own references from North American and Western culture than actually sharing anything culturally-specific about the region they are in.
The food industry has been particularly touched by this trend, where a cute picture of French toast or an ice cream sandwich can create huge tourist draw, only to sell travellers something that they can easily get back where they came from. As Debord argues, this infatuation with images – for example, of how food looks – disintegrates authenticity; in this case, both authenticity of culture and of lived experience are lost. A group of my friends recently went to Paris and spent the better part of a morning eating (or at least, posting Instagram stories of) their elaborate brunch; I have many French friends and I have been to Paris three times and I can confirm that brunch – even breakfast – are not “French,” but the idea of having an aesthetically pleasing French toast in Paris makes the perfect Instagram bait. (French toast isn’t even from France, according to a former teacher of mine, who always said cheekily that traditional French breakfast is “a coffee and a cigarette.”)
Of course, I am not impervious to these aesthetically-attuned tourist traps and definitely can’t pretend to be above them. On Saturday I went to Venice, and spent 2 euro on a 1 minute gondola ride that bisected the grand canal – the short whole of which my friend and I spent taking pictures of each other and filming. Did we so desperately want to ride a gondola because we thought it would be fun and Venetian, or because we were infatuated with the image of having ridden one? This is often something that I ask myself when planning travels, and answering it honestly can be complicated and difficult. Truthfully, I am not sure that the answer is binary and perhaps both can be true…. but maybe that is just what I want to believe.
There is a time and a place for being cynical about tourism and having an inauthentic experience, but part of being abroad is also about having fun and – to use a well-worn cliche – following your gut. Spend time escaping the superficial moments of touristy artifice to understand and experience more of the local culture and to push yourself beyond your personal boundary, but if you need the home comforts of a full American breakfast from time to time…. so be it. The important consideration to make is why you are making choices and if they satisfy you or an imagined public version of yourself.