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David Foster Wallace on tourism


Recently came across an interesting footnote about tourism (specifically about Americans being tourists in small-town or rural America) in David Foster Wallace's article about lobster (PDF):

As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. [...] To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.

I don't necessarily fully agree with that statement or its implications, but I thought it was interesting and well-written, and I wanted to save it for later reference.

(The main body of the lobster article itself is interesting too; the second half of it is an excellent discussion, from the point of view of someone who I gather had not considered these matters much before, of the moral issues involved in boiling lobsters alive, and (by extension) in killing and eating animals in general.)


I loved that piece, especially given that I'm from the Maritimes and we often had lobster boils (that is, communal lobster cooking, usually on a beach, or sometimes in a church). I remember when I was a kid, being told with a great amount of relish by the jolly old bearded fishermen types that if I listened closely I could hear the lobsters scream. There's a certain amount of callousness that's taught to you by your elders, especially when you watch them hold the lobsters head first in the boiling water (with tongs) and make lewd sexual jokes you're too young to understand.

I got the impression that that sort of thing wasn't part of DFW's childhood.

Wow, what an astonishingly joyless perspective (in that quotation).

The rural Irish have a strange relationship with US tourists, whereby we lament their dwindling numbers post 9/11 and because of unfavourable Dollar / Euro exchange rates, yet will go out of our way, often with good reason, to complain about those who do grace our shores.
The trouble with US tourists, as I see it from an Irish and European perspective, is their almost total lack of knowledge of (a) where they are visiting, its history and culture and (b) that where they are visiting might just be different to where they come from (language, customs, traditions).
Over here, we joke that '80% of US citizens don't know what country lies north of the Great Lakes'.
American tourists in Europe are, however, high spenders, staying in the best hotels and purchasing souvenirs like no other nationality.
But they are loud and disrespectful, shouting out in English to native non-English speakers, as if the locals 'should' speak their tongue.
They are indeed "economically significant but existentially loathsome".

Wow. What a quote from DFW. I agree with Amy's take.

I know there are many "ugly American" tourists, (taking trips both inside and outside of the US) but there many who are not. And many who go to great lengths to try to make up for the ones who are.

Even though DFW's comments may have been about small-town or rural America, they can be more broadly interpreted; you have to look no further than Barry's comment above for evidence of that.

I shall not soon forget my trip to the Galapagos Islands. Of course the wildlife was stunning and all that, but the most memorable moment was happening upon a group of kids playing soccer on an otherwise deserted beach. They needed another person for their game and they invited me to play. I didn't speak their language and they didn't speak mine, but I don't think they cared about that, nor did they care at that moment about the money I was bringing to their island or the economic activity I may have caused. They just wanted to play soccer. So we played and played and played. There we were, just human beings playing soccer together on a beach. At the end we all had handshakes, high fives, and smiles a kilometer wide for each other.

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