Sep 272016


Since 1980, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has celebrated World Tourism Day on September 27. This date was chosen because on that date in 1970, the Statutes of the UNWTO were adopted. The adoption of these Statutes is considered a milestone in global tourism. The purpose of this day is to raise awareness of the role of tourism within the international community and to demonstrate how it affects social, cultural, political and economic values worldwide.

At its Twelfth Session in Istanbul in October 1997, the UNWTO General Assembly decided to designate a host country each year to act as the Organization’s partner in the celebration of World Tourism Day. At its 15th session in Beijing in October 2003, the Assembly decided the following geographic order to be followed for World Tourism Day celebrations: 2006 in Europe; 2007 in South Asia; 2008 in the Americas; 2009 in Africa and 2011 in the Middle East.


The late Ignatius Amaduwa Atigbi, a Nigerian national, was the one who proposed the idea of marking September 27 of every year as World Tourism Day. He was not formally recognized for his contribution until 2009.

This is a subject dear to my heart and it gives me the chance to speak directly about the subject instead of lifting huge chunks from other sources. I can sum up my mixed feelings about tourism by saying that I think that world travel probably has some benefits, but I’m not a fan of tourism. Travel and tourism are different animals and I’ll spell out the differences in a minute. I’ll begin by saying that tourism can be a great economic benefit to huge swathes of the world, although the benefit comes at a steep price, namely, the disruption of local cultures.. Many parts of the world survive now on tourism economically. Take Easter Island as a classic example. It’s actually got many names and no one knows what its original indigenous names were. Currently its Polynesian name is Rapa Nui, which locals prefer, but it is part of Chile, so has an official Spanish name: Isla de Pascua. I’ll use Rapa Nui.


Rapa Nui has a long and complex history that is both fascinating in terms of what we do know as well as what we don’t know. The island is famous for its moai, of course, which too many foreigners think are carved heads (because of images from the site where they were carved and stored). Standing in place on platforms they are full body statues. Contrary to newspaper stories of recent years, it was not all of a sudden discovered that the heads have bodies. Anyone who knows anything about the island has known this all along. I suppose, therefore, tourism does have the immediate benefit of correcting false images.


I visited Rapa Nui in 2013 for my birthday. When I retired and moved back to Argentina I celebrated my birthday each year by visiting extraordinary places – 60th on Tierra del Fuego, 61st at Machu Picchu, and 62nd on Rapa Nui. Since then I’ve celebrated with a dinner party at home, but home keeps changing – 63rd in Buenos Aires, 64th in Kunming, 65th in Mantua. No idea about the 66th. Those five sum up the difference between being a tourist versus being a traveler. The first three I was a tourist, the last two I was a traveler. Buenos Aires is my real home.

My birthday often falls around (sometimes on) Easter Sunday. I wasn’t even thinking straight when I booked to go to Easter Island. My birthday was the day before Easter Sunday that year and so I had the great good fortune to go to a mass on Easter Sunday celebrated partly in Spanish and partly in Rapa Nui. When I booked, two months earlier, I was completely unaware of the coincidence – Easter on Easter Island. Yup, I’m an idiot. I mean, I’m an ordained minister; you’d have thought I would have been more astute.


Rapa Nui these days survives on tourism. The local economy is far from self sustaining. Not much food is grown locally, there’s no mining or industry, and just about everything is flown in from the mainland. Without tourists the local economy would die. When you visit the island you’ll meet many more tourists than locals. The locals are for the most part at least bilingual (Spanish and English, or Rapa Nui and Spanish), and many are trilingual. I don’t have exact statistics but my experience was that the vast majority of tourists were monolingual English speakers from the US and Britain. I met one or two Spanish speakers from Chile and Argentina, but they were in the minority, by far.

The English speakers did not even bother to attempt any Spanish; they just went straight up to workers in hotels and restaurants and addressed them in English, assuming that they understood (which they almost always did). I was appalled from the minute I stood in line at my hotel and saw this behavior, and vowed from that point on to speak Spanish only. It served me well. I had great conversations with all the locals, especially the breakfast chef who was Chilean but had lived for decades on the island. The tourists for the most part wanted their Western tastes catered to – hotel rooms like the ones in the West, steaks and other meats which had to be flown in from the mainland (mostly Argentina), and guided tours on buses with guides speaking their languages. Ever thought of eating locally caught fish, or hiking around the island without a guide, or just simply talking to the locals (even if you have to use English)? Nope. Selfies on a guided tour is the norm. Pathetic. Here I am standing beside a carved head. Here I am on the beach. Here I am at sunset eating a steak.


What I’m getting at is that I don’t see tourism in itself as expanding people’s cultural horizons all that much. Tourists are apt to skim the surface and not take much from the culture they are visiting.  I lived in a hostel in Kunming in China for about a year and had the misfortune to encounter a number of young people from the US and Europe who liked to call themselves “travelers” to distinguish themselves from tourists (that is, until I followed my son’s lead and kept away from public areas when they were around). They had backpacks and hiking boots and spent months going from place to place in Asia. Most carried a guide book such as Lonely Planet and followed a fixed itinerary. So if you asked, “where next?” chances are the answer was either Dali or Laos because that’s what the book said to do. They were not travelers, they were long-term tourists doing the modern version of the 19th century aristocratic Grand Tour but with less money and time. For most of them it was selfies at the Great Wall by day and clubs by night.


Marco Polo was a traveler. He had the great fortune to live before the era of jet travel, smartphones, and WiFi. He traveled on foot or by pack animal and got to know the locals, and recorded all of his experiences carefully. There have been many such travelers throughout history. It was on the basis of their travels that cultural anthropology was born. I believe that such travel can be informative and expand one’s horizons. Skimming off the barest surface is unlikely to do much.

More than ever I feel like saying – “I don’t want to give you a recipe. Travel the world and eat what’s good locally.” Italians are rabid about eating locally, especially within Italy. One of my best friends in Mantua, last time I talked to him, was cursing over foreign tourists he saw eating spaghetti Bolognese in a restaurant here. “If they wanted spaghetti Bolognese they should have gone to Bologna !!! Here we eat tortelli di zucca or bigoli con le sardelle.” Can’t fault him there. I’m a major fan of terroir cooking.


So, even though today’s celebration is about tourism, I’d recommend poking around and discovering what is truly local where you are right now. First thing I did when I moved to Cuddebackville in New York was to eat smoked eels at a local shack. They fish eels out of the Neversink and Delaware rivers and smoke them locally. They’re not popular, but they sure are local. Mushrooms were the big thing in Kunming, and I ate a ton of all manner of varieties, many picked wild in the mountains. I’ve had plenty of tortelli and bigoli in Mantua. Now I’m on the lookout for stracotto d’asino (donkey stew). Tomorrow I’m heading to Parma for local ham. Even in the barren wastelands of hot dogs and hamburgers in the US there are plenty of regional specialties if you look hard enough.


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