What are some things you are aspiring to do this year? Is traveling anywhere on your list? Almost everybody thinks they need to travel. Not convinced? Log in to Facebook, and see what your feed is showing. What friends of yours are vacationing currently? What pictures have they posted? But why do we want to travel? In general, we travel in order to take a break from the routine, to experience new places and new cultures, and broaden our minds.
It all seems perfectly natural to us, but the truth is that tourism for recreational purposes is a very recent concept. People did travel back in the day, of course. But the main reasons were typically either pilgrimage or health. And most times, there was no distinction. People traveled to a shrine to pray for health, and hoped for a cure. A precursor to today’s medical tourism, you might say.
Recreational travel was not entirely unknown, however. There are instances of it in the Greek and Roman times, for example. But that was a rarity, and people then did not really think of themselves as tourists. Think about that for a second: when traveling, being a tourist is our very identity. And yet, the word ‘tourism’ was coined only in the year 1811. And just over two hundred years later, it is an industry worth billions around the world.
Tourism as an industry grew mainly on the basis of two factors: industrial revolution and the technological advances in the field of transport, and the advances in imaging technologies such as camera and film. The invention of the camera is particularly important, since it allowed people to see themselves having fun, so you can remember the fun times and share them with your friends and family.
And yet, if technology allowed tourism to grow, I also wonder whether it is technology that will also destroy tourism as we know it. There are multiple reasons for this. One big reason is the homogenization of cultures. Unlike even 50 years ago, today, wherever you go, cultures are adopting each other’s traits, and are in particular adopting characteristics of Western cultures.
A majority of men in most cultures around the world wear jeans and shirts or t-shirts today, for example. And you’ll get a burger or a pizza wherever you go. Globalization, powered by the technological revolution, is wiping out one of the major reasons for tourism: experiencing other cultures. We may not have very many different cultures left to experience in the near future. Also, if you travel to a popular place, you’ll be surrounded by other tourists from around the world, so you will never get a true sense of the local culture anyway.
But much more importantly, the camera we used to capture our memories so far has instead started to determine how we see things. The stunning views of the landscape shot from a helicopter, the sunsets framed just right with silhouettes of giraffes in the foreground (try Googling for ‘sunset giraffes’!), this is how we expect to see things. And when we actually visit the place, the lighting is just a bit off, the colors are not quite right, the saturation is a mess, and the framing is all wrong.
So we get our cameras out, do some photographic trickery, apply filters, and now we have experienced this place! And we innovate in photography: 360-degree cameras, panoramic shots, and drone cameras that will fly high in the air to take pictures from a vantage point. When high budget 3D Hollywood movies with perfect cinematography ruin these locations for us, will we still want to travel to them only to find them disappointing both visually and culturally?
I certainly don’t think tourism will disappear entirely, but I don’t doubt that tourism as we know it today will be dead in the near future. As a result of Hollywood teaching us how to see, tourism will change in important ways.
Tourist locations will adopt technology more and more. Many locations already do those audio-visual tours; but you can expect much more technological innovation in tourism. We’ll soon have wearable technology like glasses that will put a layer of digital information on top of the view of the real world. So you could walk around the Taj Mahal, and get information projected into your eyes telling you all about its history and uniqueness.
Or imagine you travel to Rome, and visit the Colosseum. Today if you go there, you will just see hundreds of tourists around you. But soon you will have Virtual Reality tours where you will put on VR glasses, and get a tour of the Colosseum as it used to be in the past. And you will see gladiators training, or even catch a gladiator fight.
What is really interesting here is that to get such an immersive tour, strictly speaking, you will not need to go to Rome at all. You will be able to get a VR device and load that virtual tour right in your living room. Will we still want to travel all the way then?
*This article was originally published on Febrauary 20, 2017 in Telangana Today, and can be accessed at Will technology destroy tourism.