Aterrifyingly long queue snakes ahead of me at the central cable car station in downtown Zhangjiajie, a town at the base of the imposing Tianmenshan Mountain in China’s Hunan province. It serves as the gateway to the Wulingyuan scenic area, a region that’s home to some astonishing otherworldly landscapes – towering quartz pillars, tropical jungles, and enormous karst caves. The 3,000-odd forest-covered sandstone summits look like phallic symbols, and were, by all accounts, the inspiration for the mythical Pandora in James Cameron’s 2009 3D blockbuster Avatar.
But if the spectacular scenery weren’t enough to provide drama to the thrill-seekers who come here, China has also turned the region into a Disney-esque campsite. The primordial peaks of Zhangjiajie compete for tourist footfall with elongated glass-bottom bridges that connect cavernous gorges, see-through elevators that whoosh past peaks at lightning speed, and transparent skywalks that creak beneath your feet.
This could easily be one of the most dazzling locations anywhere in the world. And yet, the swarm of humanity, along with a tunnel-eyed compulsion to checkmark every tourist trap in the national park, turned Zhangjiajie into a profoundly underwhelming experience for me. It represented the worst of what breathless tourism is doing to our world; wounding the very splendour that brings in the tourists in hordes.
This national park in China is hardly an exception to the ecological devastation that our burgeoning desire to travel has unleashed upon the earth. In the month gone by, Shimla has asked tourists to stay clear of its hills, as Himachal’s capital faces a tremendous water crisis. Thailand’s Maya Bay – made popular by the movie The Beach – closed its shores to vacationers for four months, following a similar move by the Philippines’ Boracay, where parts of the coastline suffered irreversible environmental damage.
Coinciding with these events, a new study released earlier this month, held tourism responsible for nearly a tenth of the world’s carbon emissions. All of which made me question my own rapacious record with mindless travel.
I spent my 20s in a frenzy, brainwashed by propaganda that a well-travelled life was worthier. From Giza to Guyana and Paris to Petra, I saw over 30 countries, spending every spare dollar on adding more visas to my passport. Luckily, a lot of the travel was covered by work, and my upward mobility deluded me into believing that I was accumulating some invaluable life-shaping experiences that justified taking these trips.
There were multiple popular narratives that fed this mistaken belief. Millennials I read, were prioritising “experiences” over “stuff”. Bollywood had begun making movies that positioned travel as a cure for the mind, and for complicated relationships. Aimlessly gallivanting across the globe with backpacks, often for long stretches and at the cost of a steady job, became something of an aspiration for many I knew.
This lure has since then, morphed into an almost insatiable obsession for many from my generation, newly endowed with high disposable incomes, multiple credit cards, and access to easy online bookings. Our social media feeds are teeming with perfectly filtered photos, friends with competitive travel goals, and to-do lists from an endless array of self-anointed “influencers” posting deceptively manicured images from idyllic locales.
To travel once meant to be intrepid, to explore, to truly depart from the known.
There is also the emergence of the “digital nomad”, travelling the world with her work in tow and propagating this travel fetish as a constant lifestyle. She does her spreadsheets while simultaneously sipping cocktails on sun-kissed beaches in Bali or Bermuda, making regular office-goers feel miserable about their staid existence.
It’s alluring imagery – this incessant globetrotting – relentlessly peddled to us, as a metaphor for the freedom we must seek from a shackled, stationary life. And yet, as I reflect on the many journeys I’ve taken over the years, I find a growing chasm – between this narrative of travel as a liberator – and the reality of what “mass tourism”, which is what most of us really partake in, entails.
Did I have great fun shacking up in hostels as a student and going on pub crawls? Yes! But did any of it really offer me life-altering solutions to some of the most fundamental questions of living? The answer is no.
Soul searching in hotspots bursting with year-round crowds is tough. But more distressingly, I’ve begun to find a growing uniformity in the travel experience of today, even across the most diverse destinations, which precludes the possibility of stumbling upon something that would trigger a life-altering movie-style epiphany. On top of the “Avatar mountains” I ate at a McDonald’s. In different continents, backpacker hostels are run by the same chain. The high streets of most cities are well-nigh indistinguishable. You can hop on and hop off red tourist buses in almost any big city in the world. There’s a creeping monoculture in this footloose frenzy that you experience the minute you step into an airport terminal.
The physicality of a stunning alpine landscape in Switzerland may differ drastically from the more rugged semi-desert setting of the Caucasus range. But the cultural experience of travelling – unless one makes a concerted effort to go off the beaten track – feels disappointingly standardised, with any chance of an escapade or a discovery forestalled by our perennial tour companion – Google.
To travel once meant to be intrepid, to explore, to truly depart from the known. Packaged tours killed that, and this modern rage for jet-setting around the year, fuelled by cheap flights and online deals has only further blunted that sense of adventure. It has created an unvarying global ecosystem that caters to a cut-paste desire for familiarity and consistency rather than a uniquely foreign experience.
I would’ve once placed this longing to set sail on a higher pedestal than retail therapy, or posh dining. But I am not sure if it is any more (or less) worthy than those things. Travel increasingly seems to me like another distraction feeding into our restlessness, giving us an instant escape from the chronic dissatisfaction of our day-to-day existence. We are, after all, merely vacationers, trapped by the marketing wizardry that’s positioned it as a higher pursuit. Not men and women consumed by a real wanderlust, as we seem to deceive ourselves, traversing the world in search for meaning and mystery.
I often think I’ve seen much more of the world through books – by V S Naipaul or Paul Theroux – than I have through my own eyes. They were prolific travellers with a capacity to drench themselves in a lived experience, that I as a tourist with a bucket list to tick off, am simply incapable of.
So, maybe I should just read more books. It’s a cheaper and certainly less environmentally damaging way to see the world.
That’s not to say I won’t travel. But I’ll do it without the deluded notion that it will change my life in a significant way. And also with the conscious understanding that my footprint along with that of the millions of other tourists co-opted by this footloose frenzy, is irrevocably corroding the very cultural and ecological multiplicity that real travellers leave home in search of.