30 December 2007

Walk of shame

I took a walk through downtown Seattle last week and was struck by the number of luxury building projects - almost one on every block, it seems, in a city/county where over 2,000 people survive each night without basic housing or shelter (source: Seattle/King County Coalition for the Homeless). I took pictures of just six of these luxury building projects. At two moments during my walk, however, I was also confronted with explicit reminders of the appalling shame of it all - homeless people existing in the shadow of these mindless monuments to excess and greed. Although the pictures pretty much speak for themselves, I thought I'd amplify the twisted marketing a little by finishing with two background close-ups from these two scenes.

19 December 2007

Tourism reflexivity, tourist reflexivity?

Thanks to the NY Times, we find another article documenting the unthinking excesses of, no doubt, their own readers. We know that so called "eco-tourism" is popular; what's newer, however, is the rise of tourism to places like Antarctica, the North Pole, the Amazon Rainforests and the Galápagos Islands - places so severely threatened by environmental disaster that people want - and are being encouraged - to see them before they're gone. How tragic is that?

Well, not as tragic as the coupling of this type of "Tourism of Doom" with the ever rising "Luxury Tourism". I've begun to see this appearing in Travel & Leisure magazine. Here's Ambercrombie & Kent's offering for Antarctica from it's "Adventure Cruising" line.

"On board [our] ships, style is always allied to substance. Each in its own original way, these beautiful vessels offer an on-board experience that's second to none - and in addition they'll take you to places few other cruise passengers ever see. It's possible because A&K's cruise groups are so small and personal, and our knowledge of these destinations so complete. We're welcome aboard the world's most intrepid, intimate, exciting ships, and we know where to send them to ensure that our guests sail beyond the big, brash, "must-see" sights into more rewarding, authentic harbors that can be enjoyed on a leisurely human scale.
No wonder A&K's luxury travel magazine's called Sundowner - with all its elite, colonial connotations. It reminds me of my favourite line from the 1987 film White Mischief (see IMDB) which tells a story of the British expats living lives of decadence in Kenya during the conflagration of Europe under the Second World War. At one point, if I remember this correctly, the jaded Alice de Janzé (a character played by Sarah Mills) slouches onto her verandah, looks out at the sun rising over the African plains and wearily says something like: "Not another fucking beautiful day in paradise."

John Urry, a sociologist famous for his research on tourism, uses the term "tourism reflexivity" to describe the omnivorous urge for people and places to turn themselves into tourist destinations - here's how he puts it: "the set of disciplines, procedures and criteria that enable each (and every?) place to monitor, evaluate and develop its ‘tourism potential’ within the emerging patterns of global tourism." (See his PDF essay Globalising the Tourist Gaze for more.) As sad as this may be, it's even sadder that consuming tourists are not inclined to be reflexive themselves. What goes through someone's mind, I wonder, when planning a vacation like this? Global warming is destroying the polar ice caps, let me fly in a jet plane to pick up a another fuel-burning vessel and see this for myself. Oh, and let me do it in style!

12 December 2007

Keeping it local

From a Seattle Times article earlier this year, I'm reminded that, when it comes to poverty and class inequality, scale is simultaneously significant and irrelevant. In other words, knowledge of the world’s 1.2 billion people who live daily without safe drinking water somehow means everything and nothing when it comes to making sense of homelessness here in Seattle with its 68,000 millionaires. How can one really justify attending to the global poor before/without attending first to the unacceptable discrepancy between the Pioneer Square doorway "home" of the people in the image above (source: Seattle Weekly - click on image) with these:

From CNN Money (via the same Seattle Times article), we learn of Bill Gates' $136 million, eight-bedroom, 50,000 square foot home and Paul Allen's $48 million "secure compound" on Mercer Island - where people live who reap the benefits of Seattle without sharing its tax burden. And these are just the tip of our homegrown inequality iceberg. According to another CNN Money report, Seattle/King County currently ranks 10th in the nation's "Top 10 Millionaire Counties".

All of which also reminds me of something I wrote myself a little while ago and quoted again in a later essay about the nature of intercultural communication - as a scholarly field but also as a practice of everyday living:

The work of intercultural communication too often appears preoccupied with the glamorous boundaries of far-flung (tourist) destinations . . . The transformational promise of intercultural encounter is just as likely to be realised round the corner as it is around the world. (Thurlow, 2002a: 4)