In Defence of Lads-On-Tour and Other Such Holidays
A Philosophical Comment on the Reality and Unreality of Tourist Experiences
I do not advocate lads-on-tour and other such holidays, nor do I find them attractive; I am not disposed to enjoy burning by the pool, eating full English breakfast in my swimming trunks and swaggering down the strip dispensing banter and drinking extraordinary mixes of alcohol from buckets and fishbowls. Nevertheless, I am here moved to come out in defence against charges that these forms of tourism are without meaningful content and inferior to experiences of ‘culture’ — a middle class ideal — ostensibly on offer at hotspot attractions in Athens, Rome or London, for example.
It will be my contention that such spaces of cultural attraction do not present themselves for what they are, but rather take form as spectacle and imaginary. They are empty of the proclaimed enriching cultural content that will ‘expand horizons’ because these spaces are uninhabited. On the other hand, the holiday destinations of lads-on-tour etc. are honest spaces of embodied and living activity.
For the purpose of this essay, ‘cultural tourism’ is the visiting of sites designated, organised and presented as deep and unique (even authentic) to the specific place — monuments, buildings, historical ruins, even streetscapes etc. These spaces have become not only of tourism but for tourism, and visiting is an end in itself — these places are not visited in order to realise further activity, unless perhaps the person works there. Such locations are primarily opted for on the promise of an experience of culture, learning and ‘expanded horizons’ — the archetype of this discourse is found in aeroplane magazines and from those who might list ‘travelling’ amongst their hobbies and interests. I must go on to say, however, that this promise is scarcely fulfilled, except by simulation and illusion.
It is known from the likes of Henri Lefebvre and Doreen Massey that a space, and the culture thereof, is constituted by and consequential to social relations; it exists only as a contingent product of interrelation and human activity; it is unfolding and ongoing, fluid and alive. This (true) account of space is in contrast to (misguided) conceptions which render it fixed, inert and objective. It is, upon inspection, that spaces of cultural tourism transpire to be just that — objectified, fixed and inert:
Holidays are typically short stays, and so place and culture are reduced and abstracted to things in themselves or objects in space, conveniently packaged and presented for easy and (crucially) quick consumption. Place and culture are as such reified, objectified commodity whereby the inherent social relations are obscured and mystified.*
The result being that these spaces are almost void of uniqueness and spontaneity as locations and activities are prescribed by the tourism industry, fixed to well-trodden paths and open only during visiting hours. Information and insight that the tourist may draw from these sites is abstract and factual (and just as well taken from a book or TV programme).
By way of illustration, the tourist visits the Tower of London, above all a royal residence and a prison, yet there are no royal residents or prisoners. The beefeaters remain only cosmetically. The Tower of London is therefore no longer a real place, or rather it is real only if it is admitted not to be a fortress and that the only genuine, ongoing activity there is the circulation of gazing tourists. This analysis, moreover, need not apply only to vacated historical vessels. Consider Las Ramblas in Barcelona: here a smattering of ongoing real local life can be observed, but it is nevertheless a space fundamentally transformed by tourism and orientated largely towards it such that most activity there is for the tourist — a result of the tourist being there; it did not exist prior to nor is it independent of the tourist. Thus, taking a walk down Las Ramblas, the tourist observes other tourists and commercial activities capitalising on tourism. Only imaginatively is it conceived as somehow a rich cultural experience.
If it is the case that the social and power relations which constitute these spaces are predominantly organised around tourist activity — that a mobile middle class drops in following established routes to consume a place reduced and represented to and for them-, then it might be said further that this is therefore the reality of the space, in contrast to the unreality of its representation. The unreal representations, however, appear more real than reality due to the predominance of imagery and the tourists’ belief that they are neutral, external observers (dislocated and disembodied) of a phenomenon — whereas in fact they are inevitably part of it and reconstitute its dynamic:
The primary, if not sole, purpose of sites of cultural tourism is to be looked at, and spaces or objects that exist only visually are images. As images, these spaces become ideal and splendid, timeless, narrow and still; they are mostly romantic and exotic representations empty of broad and ongoing life, activity and people. Under such conditions, the sought after and boasted ‘culture’ is necessarily lacking because diverse social relations and activity are excluded from the picture.
Thus, the spaces of the Athenian Acropolis, the Eiffel Tower and La Sagrada Familia are now only distinguishable by superficial aesthetic form because their only present characteristics are visual –the raison d’etre of these spaces is only to be viewed (as instructed). Hence, they are imaginary and spectacular spaces, static and timeless images standing in for diverse and unfolding activity here and now that truly would constitute a social and cultural space — a living space.
The meaning and value of the space and the ‘culture’ is therefore narrowed and determined through representation in discourse and imagery. The representation, furthermore, is distorted (a misrepresentation) by virtue of presenting the foreign as simple and interesting (romantic and exotic). Free floating objects and complex phenomena are transformed into unified knowledge; an easy narrative and a complete image which substitutes the true lived dynamic. As far as the place and culture exist as represented simply and distorted in brochures, leaflets, guidebooks, media articles, information signs, conversations and the artificial organization of the attraction, they are not only an image but also imaginary.
The tourist believing herself to be a neutral observer, separate from the space, not only disembodies and makes passive her experience but also reinforces and consents to the imaginary representation. A spectacle, after all, requires a spectator.
It might be summarised then that spaces of quick, easy, commodified ‘cultural’ tourism only appear real. Activity, use and social relations — which more essentially constitute the space — are obscured and the space exists only as an image to be viewed passively, and the image is simple, fixed and complete. Thus, participants of space (the tourists) are reduced to spectators of a space conceived and represented. Exposing ‘cultural’ tourist attractions as such, all pretentious social media posts boasting of extraordinary experiences of culture are falsified. To learn of a culture, passivity will not suffice; it is more advisable to live a life among the people of a place.
If it has hitherto been made convincing that such ‘cultural’ tourist experiences are unreal and passive, then lads-on-tour and other such holiday experiences are by contrast real and active:
The lads-on-tour and other such holiday experiences are those epitomised in the stereotype of destinations such as Magaluf, Ayia Napa and certain Thai islands. For the most part, time is spent at parties — in clubs, on boats, on the beach, by the pool –, (scarcely) punctuated by activities including sunbathing, swimming, jet skiing, speed boats and all-you-can-eat buffets.
To go on these holidays is, in my opinion, to dip into the world’s pockets of hell. However, this form of tourism is at least honest in that the aim is only hedonistic pleasure, the ego is at the centre of the space and experience, and it is not pretended otherwise. There is no desire nor need for the place and attractions to deceive and so it is presented for what it is: a space explicitly and wholly of and for tourists. The aesthetic pretence of ‘culture’ is here suspended, giving way to a tourism of immediate experience, feeling and bodily movement. It is therefore directly lived and active.
The claim that tourist experiences of culture are more valuable and superior to the lads-on-tour and other such forms of tourism can only be made soundly if the experience and culture are real. Since the spaces of cultural tourism are not real, the claim is unsound. Furthermore, because lads-on-tour and other such tourists are embodied participants rather than dislocated spectators, their holiday might be said to be one of the living as opposed to the unliving.
The lads-on-tour holiday was selected specifically here because it typically comes in for criticism and judgement whereby it is caste as the most filthy and inferior form of tourism. Hence, the sting is greater when the more ‘refined’ cultural tourism is shown to be superficial and illusory in contrast. For a better lived, active and embodied tourist experience, I recommend a camping or caravan holiday with spontaneous adventure and socialising. Or, alternatively, visiting friends who live elsewhere.
It may be that the majority of cultural tourists are indifferent to reality and unreality if all that matters is to represent themselves as ‘cultured’, in which case my words are of no importance. Although, the appearance of being cultured depends on others being convinced by it, and perhaps now the reader will not be convinced and see the emptiness of this tourist; in this respect, those indifferent to the content of the essay might be impacted by its effects (such a sentence can only be written in the hope of a very unlikely large readership).
It may be accused that I have herein attacked a straw man; that I have mischaracterised a form of tourism which is not so rigid, and in any case no holiday consists absolutely of visits to unreal attractions. I need only make clear in this regard that I write of the attractions and experience common to these holidays, but which are only a greater or lesser part of the whole holiday. The unreal experiences described will likely be preceded or followed by real experience — exploring, swimming, dancing, relaxing etc. If my depictions veer slightly towards exaggeration it is only to make a true point more acute and make the contrast between the two forms of tourism more obvious.
*By the same token, cultural locations, ‘distinction’ of place, become capitalised assets managed to an economic logic whereby the ultimate objective is to extract exchange value. Value in this sense is extracted from the ‘asset’ through ticket sales to the specific site in competition with other attractions or by leveraging it to boost (paying) visitor numbers in the city or region in competition with other cities and regions. Again, social relations, activity and living experience are eschewed.