“If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” According to my acoustics classes, yes. A sound is a sound whether it reaches our ears or not. The sound waves physically propagate through the air, thus creating sound. We can ask a similar question, “Is a site a site before someone acknowledges it?” According to MacCannell, the author of The Tourist, no. A site or attraction, as he calls it, is made up of a tourist, sight, and marker. A tourist must be drawn to the site, which is marked by a guidebook, plaque, sign, or any acknowledgement of it in order for it to be an attraction. It must be distinguished from the rest of the ordinary things we lay our eyes on. Tourists contribute to the marking of such sites as they view them. Whether it’s a photo on social media, a mention in a traveling blog, or even a topic of conversation with a friend. These are all marking the sight as something to see, something that was sought out.
Why go through all the trouble of describing what a site is anyway? I believe it helps analyze the behavior of so many tourists. Just last Sunday, I stood on the Ponte Vecchio observing tourists in the rain. With the curious stares and pigeons aside, the hour of observation was a nice learning experience. As Sharon Bohn Gmelch notes in Why Tourism Matters, so many students, including myself, are horrified when mistaken for tourists because they associate the term with insensitivity and ignorance. However, I noticed that I engage in much of the same behavior as the tourists I observed. I, too, take pictures when I see something I know is a “must see.” Many times I even try to get in the picture to prove to my tomorrow self that I actually experienced this at one point. But is this really the only motivation? Why are tourists so obsessed with taking pictures of themselves in front of sites? Isn’t a picture taken with our cameras good enough proof to ourselves? Supposedly not. I cannot count how many tourists passed by carrying “selfie-sticks”, one object I’ve come to loath after being stopped on the street multiple times each day, “selfie?” These tourists charge the famous Ponte Vecchio on a mission, walk to the edge, turn, snap a photo with their faces in the foreground, and smile as they walk away.
I actually timed two different couples. Each spent less than five minutes on the bridge. One couple walked up to the edge of the bridge, looked towards the river for a minute to take it in, then turned around to capture the scene, and walked off. The other couple actually spent over half of their time on the bridge getting situated for the perfect picture and walked away without even turning around.
Before my observation, I did take into account my biases. For example, I have certain ideas about the people with selfie-sticks. I know I have the idea in the back of my head that they are self-centered. This makes a strictly objective observation impossible. But my question still stands. What is the real motivation for these pictures? Is it to mark the site? Is it to show yourself or others later on? I know my observation did not have a representative sample of all tourists around the world. However, it makes me wonder if there are multiple motivations or just one converging motivation for behaviors of tourists. Do people care about the authentic experience, culture, history, and environment they come to visit, or are they caught up in a narcissistic culture that social media has created. Are they traveling to make themselves appear better educated, cultured to others or really for themselves? More observation, research, experience, and discussion will have to follow in order to come to any conclusion, but I know there are tourists into traveling for the history, culture, and education. I interact with these tourists everyday; they are my classmates and professors. We aren’t perfect or better than other tourists by any means, but our conversations and interactions let me know that not all travelers are superficial like they can come across from a simple observation.
Aziz Abu Sarah’s interesting motivation for tourism