the tourist gaze: on performative travel & narrative-making

what does conscious travel look like? is ethical tourism a thing? how can i be less harmful as a white westerner taking up space in foreign countries?

i want to talk about travel as a white person, and particularly as a white person from the united states. while this post also pertains to white travelers from other ‘western’ countries, such as canada, england, spain, france, and australia, i can only speak to my experience as a citizen and passport-holder of the united states. i encourage readers from other ‘western’ countries to reflect on their own experiences of privilege in the travel and tourism industry.

a border agent once let me into a country even though i didn’t have enough of the local currency on my person to purchase an entry visa. i had more than enough in other currencies, but they only accepted american dollars or their country’s currency. i asked the border agent what to do, and he lowered his voice, stamped my passport, and told me that if anyone asked, i’d purchased an e-visa online prior to entry. he then ushered me through the border security line.

another country’s border agent let me in even though i couldn’t find the papers on the car i had rented. he laughed and waved my friend and i through, saying, “you girls are fine!”

i once flew to a country with friends with no idea about how to get a visa and learned, on arrival, that it was free for americans. i couldn’t find any information online on how to extend the visa once i’d entered that country, so i just stayed, hoping it would automatically extend. when i left the country, the border agent just complimented my passport photo.

just girly airport things

this is travel as a young, white, american woman. people have never looked at me said, “you’re really american?” people have let me budge in security lines when i was running behind, i have never been stopped for a “random check” in any airport, and i know i can arrive at the airport an hour before my flight without worry. my currency is accepted (even desired) everywhere, and i can always rely on there being people who speak english at my destination. i’ve never gone to a visa interview or even double-checked entry visa requirements. the longest visa application i’ve filled out took maybe ten minutes, and the most i have paid for an entry visa is $85.

travel as a white american is the easiest thing in the world. hostels make room for you, bus drivers make extra stops, stores give you extra discounts. people ask why you’d want to visit their country, and then say they’ll never be allowed to visit yours, due to expense or visa denials. we get to move freely around the world, with zero consideration of what we post online, of our participation in politics, of our religious affiliation, of the way we look, of the space we take up, of our accent. i am believed, i am perceived as innocent (having no malicious intentions), and i am never questioned — by local residents or by state agents (police, military, etc).

people ask why you’d want to visit their country, and then say they’ll never be allowed to visit yours.

i could say a lot about the hungry ‘tourist gaze’ (which i briefly expand upon in the next paragraphs), the “eat pray love” phenomenon where we get to “find ourselves” in foreign countries, or how american imperialism and white saviorism is played out in voluntourism and mission trips. i have participated in all these types of travel, and i am a million percent complicit in what i am writing about here. have you ever written an essay about how you went abroad and were changed? have you written an instagram caption about it? have you talked about it on a date? i know i have.

i’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the travel i’ve done and the travel i still want and intend to do. what kind of narratives are we writing about other countries? are they places for us to discover? to change? to teach? to improve? to ‘find ourselves’?

these narratives teeter dangerously on the edge of notions of orientalism, objectification, and imperialism — ideals we like to think are notions of the past. we consume other cultures without a second thought. a good example of this is varanasi, india, a city that is deemed holiest in the world by hindus. mass burials take place here daily, yet it is a major tourist attraction for the same reason. do you want hundreds of tourist eyes consuming your funeral with their iphone cameras? probably not. women, we know what the ‘male gaze’ feels like. consider, for a moment, the ‘tourist gaze’. this consumption of death for the story, for the experience, is one of extreme thoughtlessness and privilege — and this is just one example.

discourse of ‘modernity’ is another thing to consider. when we speak on ‘modernity’, what makes a city or a culture ‘modern’? on what scale are we measuring ‘modernity’? are we hoping there is an apple store or food we like to eat at our destination? (or are we hoping there isn’t, for the sake of ‘culture’?) do we find ourselves thinking that women aren’t as ‘free’? do we donate to organizations to ‘save’ these people (from their men, from the state, etc)?

i do not have the answer to any of these questions, but they are questions i have wrestled with at all levels. i think, as white travelers, we have the responsibility to ask ourselves and reflect upon the hard questions.

none of this is to say we shouldn’t travel. there is no one right way to do it, and we could sit around and postulate all day on how to ethically be a tourist.

saida, lebanon

it is to say, though, that we *must* recognize how ridiculously, wildly lucky we are. that by holding an american passport, we have one of the strongest passports in the world, meaning we can go to 180 countries short-term visa-free (the US allows people from only 36 countries to enter without a visa). the world is designed to cater to white american travelers; for example, tourist destinations are often designed by the US government for ‘western’ travelers.

we must consider the space we take up. we must consider and start to unpack assumptions we have about people and places that are different than ours. we must consider what websites we are engaging with when we do our pre-trip research and the verbiage used to describe that place and the people who live there — for example, how are the people, places, food, and customs described on these travel blogs?

the world is designed to cater to white american travelers.

so much of what i’ve (un)learned about the world is because i’ve had the incredible opportunities to travel. sure, i do it incredibly cheaply and in very non-luxurious ways, but i get the opportunity, nonetheless. and i think if we are traveling as white americans, we have the responsibility to ask why things are the way they are in the tourism industry (how are resorts or airbnbs gentrifying neighborhoods? why are countries using gay pride as a tourist attraction [or distraction] to justify genocide? how have american history classes skewed our perception of america’s hand in world history? why are beauty ads in foreign countries nearly always centered around white skin and thin bodies, and why are whitening creams a thing? why do people want to take pictures with me everywhere i go?), and then challenge those notions verbally. with our money. with our curiosity. with the space we take up on instagram or on blogs.

we *must* be willing to realize that, perhaps, what we’ve been taught about our american-ness, about our military’s role in history, about our politics, about our bodies… could be incorrect, or skewed at the very least. be willing to be challenged. while our individual participation in travel may be super well-intentioned and normal, we have to dig deeper and ask ourselves what our role is in travel. we have to ask ourselves what sorts of conversations we are having, domestically and abroad; what kind of internalized beliefs and opinions we have about others; what kind of narratives we want to be writing for others at home about the rest of the world.

a lot of this discourse has been really challenging for me, and it’s taken years of unlearning and unpacking. it’s okay to feel confused and overwhelmed. i still have a lot of learning to do, particularly in terms of history and how we are still writing it today. the remnants (and continuation) of american imperialism are still incredibly present internationally, down to human interaction, and we must start being cognizant. we must begin noticing it.

our privilege is vast, and we are able to use it without retaliation.

i also want to mention that as a woman, and as a queer woman, i do experience some marginalization. i have been followed, harassed, and objectified in many, many places (including my hometown). other male travelers mansplain literally everything to me. dating while traveling is annoying because people always assume i am straight, and i have to come out at virtually every new destination to other travelers, and i have to assess the situation to see if it safe to come out (as someone who is not visibly queer, a privilege i experience is being able to choose whether or not i share my sexuality with others). none of this cancels out my white privilege nor my american privilege. i am still white. i am still american. and while there are other factors at play (hello, intersectionality!), i cannot ignore that my skin color and my passport makes my experience traveling exponentially easier than others’.

cairo, egypt

a non-exhaustive list of further reading, for those who are interested:

  • on traveling as imperialism
    • “It’s Time To Rethink Imperialist Tourism”
      • “Because beneath the innocuous activities of visiting cathedrals, lounging on the beach, and collecting souvenirs, travelers can still harbor selfish and exploitative desires and exhibit a sense of entitlement that resembles imperial incursions of yesteryear. In a way, globalism has also made it easier to slip into the old imperialist impulse to come with power and leave with booty; to set up outposts of our own culture; and to take pictures denoting the strangeness of the places we visit, an enterprise that, for some, confirms the superiority of home.”
      • this article talks about what it means to travel as a humanist, and i think it’s a really fucking cool concept.
    • “Travel Imperialism: Is Travel Just Modern-Day Imperialism”
  • on intersectionality
  • on voluntourism and mission trips
    • “They Were So Alive!: The Spectacle Self and Youth Group Short-Term Mission Trips”
      • abstract: The proliferation of short-term mission trips among youth ministry groups has vaulted them to prominence, an event often anticipated by adolescents to be significantly life-changing. This article reports research that clarifies the impact that anticipation has on the students as they explored their identity in light of cross-cultural service and mission. Despite the opportunities for growth and the fresh perspectives gained on identity, the short-term trip and its designs were informed by the spectacle culture from which the students came.
    • “The Cost of Short-Term Missions”
      • “Our students call those experiences “life changing.” But often that “life changing” experience is based on an emotional response to a situation they do not really understand. Too often the students return home simply counting the blessings they have of being North Americans having gained little insight into the causes of poverty and what can be done to alleviate them.”
  • on “finding ourselves”
    • “Eat, pray, love mimic: Female citizenship and otherness”
      • abstract: Looking at Asia and the Asian Diaspora as a geopolitical post-colonial space, this paper aims to examine the role of travel and tourism as a sign of modernity and how it influenced and reconstruct the use of existing spatial gender categorization in cultural practices. Through the understanding of tradition as a fluid bodily knowledge in contemporary cultural political economics, this paper questions the intervention and innovation of the female bodies in Asian global tourism and indigenous Diaspora subjects within globalization. Based on the novel Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert, to mediate the analysis of the effect on space in cultural modernity, in the construction of otherness, which provokes the understanding of other culture as ‘non-modern’ yet reiterating tourism as one of the possible mechanism to mediate this encounter in bringing the ‘un-modern’ cultural practices to the world of modernity. This paper seeks to discuss the invisibility and visibility of female bodies in tourism space and cultural imagination by using specific examples of various events mentioned in the book that convey contradictory memories and values to local citizens and, in the meanwhile, the space and events are re-appropriated again for the purpose of globalized concern.
      • i studied under diyah in a course called “nations, empires, and feminisms” through the university of minnesota. her article is an incredible, challenging account of how white travelers get to ‘find themselves’ in foreign countries, objectifying the bodies of locals for their own gain. i learned a lot in diyah’s class, and this article really challenged me.
  • on colonial legacies
    • “A Small Place” by Jamaica Kinkaid
      • i have read only excerpts of this book, but kinkaid writes about her experiences growing up in british post-colonial antigua and its tourism industry.

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