Why do we travel? Maui residents told media of their horror at seeing tourists “swimming in the same waters our people died in”. Surely, that level of compartmentalisation in dogged pursuit of a particular experience goes beyond the pursuit of “leisure”? That’s certainly the view of the anthropologist Dean MacCannell. His 1976 book The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class argues that in a post-industrial, increasingly secular world, travel occupies a ritualistic space. Modern western societies are defined by the “freedom” they offer us – but, he writes, this is accompanied by feelings of fragmentation and alienation. Sightseeing in far-off locales is, MacCannell observes, “a way of attempting to overcome the discontinuity of modernity, of incorporating its fragments into a unified experience” (albeit one “doomed to eventual failure”, he cheerily adds). How? Leisure travel gives us perspective, it makes us feel connected to history, and helps connect personal experience with other cultures, people and places – making us feel less isolated. Tourism gives us a sense of selfhood and purpose.
Added to this is the framing of travel as an “authentic” experience in an inauthentic world; a dichotomy that has only become more stark over time. Travel offers one-off experiences; things we can only do in one place. Modern life is marked by its impossible and contradictory obsession with the “authentic”, as any lifestyle marketing bod will testify to. We see travel, rather than our everyday existence, as the portal to “finding ourselves”.