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Welcome to Cancun-Do you want a Budweiser with your American Cheeseburger?

by Billy Huang


C
ancun. The Caribbean Islands. New York City. Barcelona. London. Harvard. Paris. Venice. The Mediterranean Islands. Hong Kong. Tokyo. Hawaii. While it seems that all these places are noteworthy of individual achievements and contributions to humankind, you probably won't find very descriptive articles on them in history textbooks. Rather, what is intriguing about these places tends to end up in travel agencies. Yes, it is these agencies that make such places famous to us all, to such an extent that Christmastime has become synonymous with television ads about a relaxing Bahamas vacation. During the last few decades a growth in transportation technology, communications, and a broadening of international growth has spurred the tourism agency into a billion-dollar venture. According to a 1996 article in The Economist, credit card companies such as American Express have teamed up with dot-com giants such as Microsoft to bring easy online bookings of vacations. Of course, this should not be a bad thing; the agencies are helping the host regions by bringing in carefree tourists for rounds of martinis and perhaps a stroll on the beach. However, just as the tourist agencies are catering to a specific audience (i.e. different tourist groups), the tourist destinations become more and more tailored to the foreigner. In a word, the general trend seems to be that in many tourist destinations, the locals are losing their own identity and putting on masks that will appeal to the ignorant tourist and generate revenue.

Okay, perhaps the last sentence was a little harsh. Perhaps not all tourists are ignorant, but are rather well-informed citizens seeking out the natural beauty of the world. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with being a tourist. It is only natural that we intrepid humans travel to new lands to seek out new adventures. However, I do believe that going to places to simply indulge in one single need is wrong. For instance, while a few eccentric wine tasters might go to France to try their taste buds at the different options available, most tourists probably get drunk on a few cheap bottles of beer. While a few curious intellects are carefully examining the paintings and sculptures in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a greater number of tourists are running amok, snapping pictures of themselves in front of important landmarks. It has become the norm for tourists to snap pictures of every little thing they deem significant. Many people probably remember their vacations more by the pictures than to any substantive memory. Besides the pictures, most of what tourists usually do can probably be replicated back in their homeland-wait, there's Wikipedia and Google Images, not to mention Adobe Photoshop. But perhaps just the act of taking a picture in a foreign land is sacred.

It is a very fortunate fact that not all tourists are alike. Generally speaking, there are the French tourists whom Time Magazine rated as the most obnoxious tourists of 2008. Not ready to be second, American tourists are tied with the French for being the most rude. Luckily for the Americans though, they have a saving grace: out of all the groups surveyed, they are the most receptive towards attempting to speak foreign languages: a laudable trait that may prove quite humorous at times. In Asia, Chinese tourists are quickly transforming into the Americans of their continent. According to a 2005 report in the Christian Science Monitor, Chinese tourists are becoming famous for their loudness (since Chinese culture emphasizes communal interaction) that supplement their presence. Then there are the polite ones: the Brits, Germans, and Japanese, who exhibit manners that Americans could learn from if they cared to. Those in that last category would snap fewer pictures and enjoy themselves in a more civilized manner. The different groups of tourists bring with them different traditions and outlooks, and very often the host must learn from the tourist and not the other way around.

As a native New Yorker, I often look with dismay as hordes of tourists crowd into the subway stations swiping their 1-day fun passes over and over again unsuccessfully, while forcing the rest of us to stand in line. It is an ordinary scene, but it becomes much more normal during the summer and the holiday seasons. Over time, most New Yorkers have learned to deal with the crowds; it is just another part of city life. In fact, many of us are not against tourists swarming the city because large crowds exemplify New York. We welcome openness and new ideas and are proud to showcase our culture with a swagger. However, I do get extremely irritated when the only thing that tourists see or speak of in New York besides Manhattan is Yankee Stadium and the Statue of Liberty. These locations have been so commercialized and marketed that any outsider will immediately recognize them, but will become immediately lost outside the "tourist region". The average tourist does not need to remember anything else though; after all, fishing in Red Hook or going the the bars in Junction Boulevard probably doesn't make for good conversation. This was a difficult fact that I had to accept, and the process can basically be summed up by a conversation that I had with my dad on the topic. A relative was coming to visit New York and wanted to see a list of famous attractions in the city. Without hesitation, my dad listed three: the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, and Times Square. When I suggested some less well-known locations, ones which were, in my opinion, just as exhilarating and relevant, my dad simply replied by saying that no one really cared about less well-known places, no matter how exciting they may actually be. In the end, the relative did go see the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, and Times Square. And he snapped a whole album of pictures as well. He sent us a few after he left, and he said that he was very satisfied with the visit. I guess he didn't expect anything else.

The growth of tourism has done as much good as harm to many places. The good comes from the obvious revenue generated from tourism (in some places such as Hawaii and the Caribbean, tourism is a crucial industry). The harm is the deterioration of the native cultures in many destinations where tourism has changed the traditions and lives of the population (i.e. the culture changes to maximize the appeal it has to foreigners). The blame for this needless corruption of "uniqueness" should not be placed entirely on the shoulders of the tourists; the locals are just as guilty. The old saying of "it takes two to make a wrong" fits quite nicely in this instance. Many resort beaches in the Mediterranean and in the Caribbean have become increasingly Americanized during recent years, since many of the tourists are either American or speak English fluently. Moreover, a World Watch report in 2006 cites that many of the wealthiest travelers are Americans, who can afford to roam around the world (although this may not be the trend in the future). When my sister visited Cancun with her friends a year ago, they did what the "ideal" tourist would do. Since most of them were single and in their early twenties, it was natural that they decided to go barhopping. A few of them even wanted to flirt with some cute native guys. Unfortunately, they were disheartened when they could not find many native guys to talk to! Instead, the only natives that seemed to be anywhere near the resort were the employees and a few hustlers who tried to swindle the unsuspecting tourists by selling horribly clich├ęd souvenirs such as overpriced "native art". The majority of the people at the clubs were actually American tourists, just like my sister and her friends. They had come down to Mexico in order to experience a new culture, and what they got in return was a plate of hamburgers and French fries.

In dense metropolitan areas such as New York, such influxes of tourists are not especially deleterious to the native environment. In many cases, tourism is beneficial across many spectra: not only does tourism generate revenue, but the tourists themselves contribute new ideas and fads that can help New York tick. Unfortunately, in regions where there is a relatively homogeneous culture, the advent of tourists can drastically change the face of the region. A good example can be seen in the development of several Caribbean islands such as the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. While these locations were formerly large producers of sugar, the present prevalent industry is without a doubt tourism. In turn, these regions specifically tailor their cultures to the tourists; locals are seen serving the foreigners tropical drinks and bikini-clad women offer massages to visitors. These amenities, coupled with sprawling resort hotels overlooking a crystal clear sea, portray an idyllic life which obscures the plight of the poorer classes in those resort nations. A 1997 article in The Economist reported how a more explicit version of this cultural conflict played out in South Africa and Mozambique a decade ago when the governments secretly sold lands previously reserved for conservation to foreign investment companies looking to develop theme parks. In retrospect, it was probably a wise decision on the side of the native governments to open the lands up for development, but there is also a cost, being that the native population is displaced. Furthermore, the new theme parks are probably going to be exclusively visited by white tourists who do not represent the native population in any way. The moral of the story is that tourism helps, and tourism hurts. At the end of the day, it's just business.

The tourism industry is still in its infant stages. There is huge potential to be tapped in undeveloped nations in Africa and Southeast Asia, among many more lands. As this industry matures, the world will produce many more tourists, all of whom can be called messengers of assimilation. Fortunately for me here at MIT, I do not have to look very far for a few of those like-minded tourists. Just squeezing my way through the daily throng of pointing fingers and flashing cameras (wielded mainly by Asians) exiting the large coach buses is enough for me.

Works Cited

Crumley, Bruce. "Most Obnoxious Tourists? The French" Time Magazine 4 Jul. 2008 14 Oct. 2008

Mastny, Lisa. "Are Americans Really Xenophobes?" World Watch Mar/Apr. 2006 19,2: 3

Montlake, Simon. "Chinese tourists: Asia's new "ugly Americans" The Christian Science Moniter 28 Dec. 2005 14 Oct. 2008

"Theme-park tourism." The Economist 3 May. 1997. Vol 343 Issue 8015:37-38

"Tripping out on the web." The Economist 3 Aug. 1996. Vol. 340 Issue 7977: 54-55.