The World Becomes a Theme Park

WALTER T. ANDERSON

October 17, 1993|By WALTER T. ANDERSON

Tourism now ranks as the world's biggest business, a fact recently underscored by Florida's convulsive reaction to the murders of European visitors and China's unsuccessful full-court press for the 2000 Olympic Games.

Florida's law-enforcement machinery would never have responded as it did had the murder victims been Floridians -- especially poor ones. Nor, one suspects, would China have released its leading political dissident, Wei Jingsheng, when it did.

These seemingly disconnected events are part of a widespread remaking of the world to suit the standards of the tourist trade. Everywhere people sweep their ugly secrets out of the way, dress up their facades and strive to show their communities as picturesque, friendly, amusing and safe. As they do, those regions subtly come to resemble the tourist image of what they should be.

In his classic book, ''The Image -- A Guide to Pseudo-Events in American Life,'' American historian Daniel Boorstin dated ''the rise of the tourist'' to the mid-19th century. The rise of the tourist was simultaneous with the decline of the traveler -- the intrepid explorers, often eccentric aristocrats or writers in search of material -- who had ventured alone into exotic corners of the world.

This shift marked a fundamental change in the nature of travel. As Mr. Boorstin put it, ''Foreign travel ceased to be an activity, and instead became a commodity.'' It was something people paid for and that other people supplied. A new industry arose, bringing forth Cook's Tours, Baedeker guide books, ocean liners and a necklace of grand hotels around the world.

As tourism increased, the discomforts and risks of travel were greatly reduced. The early travelers had accepted risks -- they went with the territory -- but tourists did not. People in the tourist business touted the safety and comfort of their attractions, and government officials understood that protecting tourists was at least as important as protecting their own citizens.

A certain amount of image-management came in with the rise of tourism. The new profession of public relations was emerging at about the same time, and people were beginning to appreciate the commercial importance of getting out good news and concealing whatever might give a bad impression. As early as 1898, according to American journalist Alexander Woolcott, French officials mounted an enormous conspiracy to conceal the death from black plague of an Englishwoman visiting Paris during the World Exhibition, an event as important for its time as the 2000 Olympics.

As the nature of traveling changed, so did the nature of the places to which people traveled. The early travelers went to see whatever was there. With the rise of tourism, people began to construct things -- known as ''tourist attractions.'' Madame Tussaud's wax museum was one early example. The theme park -- Disneyland and its clones -- is the modern culmination of that trend.

Tourist attractions are related to what Mr. Boorstin called ''pseudo-events'' -- things that don't merely happen, but are made to happen so they can be watched or talked about or reported in the media.

Some theme parks are built from scratch -- the Disneyland model -- but there are also regions of cities and countries that evolve into theme parks. San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf is one such example. Its importance as a center of commercial fishing has been totally eclipsed by its importance as a tourist destination. Currently the city is trying hard to prevent the fishermen from abandoning the place completely to avoid disappointing tourists. Recently voted the best travel destination the world by the readers of Conde Nast Traveler magazine, San Francisco is also cracking down on its unsightly population of homeless people.

With or without more tourist murders, there is every reason to believe tourism will grow and with it the theme-parking of the world. The economic payoffs are obvious, but the social costs are harder to reckon. By cleaning up its human-rights act, China clearly benefits its own citizens. But in their eagerness to become a destination point for foreign tourists, Florida and other regions may abandon their first obligation to make life decent for their own residents.

Walter Truett Anderson is a political scientist specializing in issues of global governance. He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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