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Cultural Difference and Travel (Tourism)





To a certain degree it is the mismatch between cultures that incites travel… just as it is an advantageous economic mismatch that lies behind the gloss of so-many holiday plans. It often seems that it is these factors that provide the foundation of a desirable holiday or are the true lure of ‘travel’. As ever the bargain is hard to resist, cheaper sources of pleasure (read consumption) hard to refuse. So we have the package holiday to somewhere hot and cheap: conversely there is always back-packing in a ‘developing country’ or what often goes under the name of ‘travel’. Many find the more expensive holiday destinations may be hard to relax in… (but conversely these are the source of much boasting from those who can afford them – or who wish to seem to be able to afford them…). ‘Conspicuous consumption’, ‘cultural capital’, ‘distinction’, ‘identity exchange’, however, are not particular to ‘high-end’ tourism. A little economic ‘showing’-off’ goes a long way, whether boasting of extent of price or of savings made (and whether in the boardroom or in the one-up-man-ship of bar-room chat).

With regard to cultural differences: just as the mismatch between individuals incites interest, curiousity, or desire, as to questions of motivation and perceptions of ‘authenticity’ (as other/ness); so individuals (where not whole ‘peoples’, ‘they…’) can become sources of the feeling we call ‘authenticity’, combining the taste of something new and, at the same time, both real and representative; ‘so close to Nature.’ ‘Authentic,’ as so often, is the magic ‘purr’ word for this positive sense of valued genuiness: strangely, however, authentic poverty, hardship, squalor, etc., do not qualify for the use of the term ‘authentic’, though they unfortunately most certainly are (on the other hand individuals who have escaped such conditions may be regarded as ‘authentic’; however this does not seem to apply either to refugees, or entire peoples moving up a level economically - who are often seem as having lost something, ‘lost touch with Nature, with their authentic culture…’. On the other hand, some such ‘authentic’ individuals do, of course, know how to monetise their cache, milk their followers, maximize their hangers-on – become spiritual guides, gurus (always followed by foreigners).


So this veritable quest for authenticity, ‘difference’ or exoticism (a Neo-romanticism amply supported by the travel industry) unsurprisingly includes religion. Religion an object of tourism: in part as all cultural difference partakes of religion and history, so architecture and art, the flavor of cities – the flavour of other’s ‘ancestor worship’; but also as the experience of new flavours of belief or inner experience… and so eventually as exotic fashion (just as, perhaps as an opposite pole, but also as another kind of ancestor worship, many collect the experiences of visiting the places of mass murder and their memorials, the ‘atrocity exhibitions’; Auschwitz, the Yad Vashem, the Killing Fields museum, the Nanjing massacre museum). Whence the touring of ashrams, cult sites, spiritual centres, meditation retreats; a kind of travel in the mind… which them becomes participatory, a tour of sects, a string of conversions, which one is the most new, most ‘fresh’, the most ‘in’, most… novel… (felt to be the most… ‘authentic’).


More intimately. As genetics may lie behind the attractions of opposite (or not) sexes from different cultures and widely differing parts of the world. So does this genetic difference (often based upon smell, and so most definitely operable in the case of food) also lie behind our sense of the exotic? Provide the very essence of ‘cultural difference’ pertaining to new experiences and so the notion of travel (even when it is in fact tourism… the new scents and hues of another geography and another culture)?


Cultural difference, the positive side of ‘culture shock’ is also found in the difference between the top and bottom of a given society, our social heap, or ant-hill, as witness the interest by the bottom for the top: the ’royals’, the lives of ‘the rich and famous’, the varieties of celebrity (self-, or better, media-defined as ‘top draw’), the modern day ‘saint’s life’ or cult, the metaphor and metonymy of attraction, of power, position and wealth. In short, those who we imagine as living as they will. And conversely true of the curiousity of the ‘top’ for the bottom (or indeed the obsession of the middle for the bottom, negatively as folk-demons, positively as site of bohemian freedoms, ‘guilt free sex’, etc.). So giving us our ‘dumbing down’, ‘slumming it’, ‘dressing down’; the love of the picaresque and the attractions of the lowest common denominator, all again, somehow more ‘authentic’… Those (again) we imagine as ‘living as they will’ … So again, we find this trope of ‘the freedom of the other’, imagined as nearer to ‘real life’ (more authentic)… even if, as here, featuring the advantage of disadvantage…


It is between all these differences that we find the sense of limits and extremes, of different ‘transgressions’ that make up the pleasure of ‘travel’ (tourism, recognized as such, is bent on safer times, better bargains)… Travel is based upon the expectations of transgression, available or to be perceived, a ‘clash of civilisations’ or anyway the clash between our tastes and ‘theirs’, and our behavior and ‘theirs’ (which we quickly adapt to when it suits us, suits our fantasy of ‘ourselves…’). A clash of civilities… (followed by the making of an exception, the adaptation to what is after all ‘their’ culture, ‘their’ morality… and not ours – adoption and denial combined). It is in the experiences that originate in the difference between home and ‘other’ cultures, that we find… ‘the exotic’. Perhaps much of our imaginings, of travel and tourism too, lie in our experiences, or at least our expectations, of seeing (and experiencing) ours and others’ taboos juxtaposed; and to see our taboos broken (and perhaps, secretly, to want to break them ourselves…).


‘The exotic’: always a fiction; because ‘the other there’, the ‘over there’, is as seen from over here; it is the cultural standpoint, the (cultural) distance, that makes the difference.


The place across the river, the mountains on the horizon.











Copyright Peter Nesteruk, 2017