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Why we travel, the fine line between anthropology and tourism


I’m about to embark on what I hope to be a life changing trip to India. The few weeks in which I’m there I’m hoping to immerse myself into a new culture and see things I’ve, until now, only ever seen in books and on television. India to me almost seems like a mythical place. Whilst studying religion at university I dreamt of walking on the land which is so closely linked to the Hindu religion and tradition. Where polytheism is the norm and cows are regarded as holy, somewhere seemingly so far detached from my suburban childhood and my adult city life in the UK. I’ve read, I’ve written, I’ve watched and now it’s time to experience. I’m sure my idealistic views are not entirely accurate and I may only be able to immerse myself into the typical tourist activities, as Socrates once said “I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance”, and I can’t wait to explore.

In the last 100 years our world has dramatically changed in so many different ways. The term tourist has been created and with the phenomenon of domestic air travel we have become ritualistic travellers. In this country certainly we almost feel hard done by if we haven’t been able to fly off to a warmer climate in a year or so. The gap year or a few months away is common practise for many young adults, donning a backpack for a trip into Asia or Australasia on search of a party and bit of escapism. But I wonder how much all this traveling is really affecting the landscape and culture countries that would otherwise be very different to our own. It can at the same time be argued that we in the UK have even inherited different cultures in relation to our food taste and fashion, however it is more to do with our desire for further choice than accommodating tourism.  I myself and many other Brits aboard are guilty of chowing down MacDonald’s in what can seem the most unlikely of settings.

Globalisation is creeping further and further across the globe. The pacific islands are no longer little explored lands offering death defying -experiences, they are paradise with a 5 star price tag. Travel 200 years ago was for the brave, for those who had the guts to board a boat in search of the unknown.  Anthropology has changed into a subject of debate and contrast. It explores our own societies as well as those that were once described as primitive.  Tourism is now the pursuit of the common man, we wish to visit countries with a better climate than our own but with the same comforts. Many hotels in places like India boast “western style toilets” in a bid to play to the needs of those reluctant “hole in the floor” users.

I feel we’re at a tipping point, where we’ve forgotten our responsibility to respect diversity and difference in culture. In my limited traveling experience I’ve never found myself more than 200 meters away from a can of coke. Even when trekking in the mountains of south western China through the blurry vision of altitude sickness I could see the shining red can with that all familiar logo. It seems as though capitalist gain is more important than preservation of culture.  Do we really want to get on a long haul flight only to be met with a Starbucks on every corner? Brands have become global and there seems to be a need to play to the desires of tourists rather than offering a taste of the real country and people. Of course the brand issue is bigger than tourism. Brands deal in greed and domination wiping out every viable alternative across the globe. Ironically it turns out our hunger for more variety is slowly being diluted.  I’m just as guilty as anyone to seek easy comfort when aboard but on this trip I will strive to use some toilets I’m not used to and try the local cuisine even if my favourite takeaway outlet is open a few feet away.  I love the idea that we live in a world of cultural individuality and the spoils of capitalism allow us to experience these things but let us not forget that it can also destroy the thing we were originally searching for.

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