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Tourist trap: looking to travel from afar


From picturesque painting to social media, for centuries tourist destinations have been shaped by the ways they are represented

Piazza San Marco. Empty. The Louvre’s courtyard. A police car silently drives by, the blue of its flashing lights lingers on. Times Square in New York City. Alone, a woman takes a selfie. Her face mask fills eight white pixels and four grey ones. Hitting the red cross, I shut my web browser. 

It’s been such a long time since I’ve watched city webcams. I craved them when I was a teenager. Gazing at all these places I had not been to. People, pixels, moving, right now, somewhere there. It was the end of the 1990s and we’d just had an internet connection installed at home. Among many other things, the Web provided ‘live’ image feeds accessible on demand for the first time. Initially, the grainy pictures would update every 30 seconds or so. There, a bus, gone. A couple, walking hand-in-hand, gone. It soon upgraded along the internet infrastructure to become fluid video streams. On my screen the weather would change, the sun would follow its axis, chasing shadows, and disappear. Only the architecture of the city always remained. It was the least pixelated element too, for it didn’t move. These urban ‘dashcams’ of a sort, initially developed for surveillance and road traffic control, had become pop culture artefacts in their own right. They were cheap: cheap to film, cheap to broadcast, and made cheap entertainment. Soon we had live video feeds for everything: attractions and tourist spots, animals living in cages, and of course ‘real’ people, living scripted existences, 24/7. 



Source: Mike Hewitt / Getty

Passengers departing from Gatwick Airport, determined not to take coronavirus with them

From my London self-confinement, I connect to these webcams for the first time in two decades. I observe the places which I am now lucky enough to have physically visited. I consider my digital relationship to them, past, present, but also future, as I am contemplating the horizon of being stranded at home for months: physically away from friends and family, digitally too close. I am looking at a calendar that has become a list of cancelled travels. I am a secluded traveller. 

‘Landscape is the depiction of a dream, a dream that travellers would keep looking for’

In the 1990s we got the World Wide Web all wrong. We said it would bring us freedom and self-empowerment (which it sort of did but also didn’t). Also, that it would make physical travel redundant. But COVID-19 is bringing us back to the future: work meetings on Zoom, family dinners on Skype, yoga with Adriene, and I’m back watching city webcams of places I wish to be. Until a few weeks ago, the Web had delivered exactly the opposite of what we had been promised. New digital tools coupled with economics and political changes fuelled an increase in physical travels. Globally, more people travelled by plane in 2018 than in the whole of the 1970s. Living in a constant state of migration, we have reached a condition where most of us are tourists. Physical confinement brings myriad existential questions to the fore, on our digital and physical lives, and the way we live them. It exacerbates so many of the issues we have largely put aside: our relationship to space, consumption, identity, belonging, travel, tourism, climate change, and what it is to experience and discover. It brings us back to the essentials: why do we travel? 



Source: STR / AFP via Getty Images

In the age of the selfie stick, tourists turn their backs on the scene to capture it for posterity.

Up until April 1964, Japanese nationals were not allowed to travel abroad for leisure. The government had effectively banned tourism. In 1965, following the liberalisation of international pleasure trips and finding himself with some money aside, 24-year-old Tadao Ando decided to spend it all on a long journey to visit the buildings of Le Corbusier and the historical monuments of European architecture. Over his last years of self-training, Ando had hand-drawn most of these buildings he now planned to visit. Most especially, he had reproduced the blueprints of most of Le Corbusier’s constructions. He had pushed that logic of notional confinement to its limits, but that was not enough. 

When Ando eventually went back to Japan he realised ‘how vast the world is and that borders do not exist’. He describes seeing the Pantheon, with its oculus ‘that alters our sensations according to the light. Experiencing this space taught me a lot about the relationship between light and architecture. Applying this to my work taught me the properties of space’. What Ando crafted for himself was a classic Grand Tour. The way he recounts it is stripped of any bourgeois pretence and focuses on the embodied experience of Europe’s grand designs. In his years of self-teaching, stuck in Japan, he had objectified architecture to its fullest but needed to observe and experience it in the flesh. 



Source: National Trust Images / John Hammond

18th-century tourists turned away from the landscape to observe the scene in a ‘Claude glass’ – a small convex mirror with its surface tinted a dark colour which exaggerated colour and tonal range. This painting attributed to Edward Alcock, painted in 1778, depicts Sophia Anne Delaval, a well-travelled member of the English aristocracy, holding a ‘Claude glass’ to the landscape

Tourism is inextricably linked to the gaze, to designed space and the notion of the ‘picturesque’ (a synonym for ‘Instagrammable’). From the Latin pingere, to paint, ‘picturesque’ describes something worth painting. By extension it would also mean today a nice view, or a landscape perceived as typical or notable. According to art historian Ernst Gombrich, our (Western) vision of nature has been very much shaped by 17th and 18th-century Dutch, French and Italian landscape painters. On 17th-century painter Claude Lorrain (also referred to as Claude), Gombrich writes that, ‘It was Claude who first opened people’s eyes to the sublime beauty of nature, and for nearly a century after his death travellers used to judge a piece of real scenery according to his standards’. Most importantly, those visions of nature are ideas, ideals, because they never existed. These representations of space were not topographically accurate: they dramatised a landscape, a monument, a setting.

Landscape is the depiction of a dream, a dream that travellers would keep looking for. From that dream, we have designed a vision of nature, of what is beautiful. And from that design, we have shaped the world around us. ‘Rich Englishmen went even further’, Gombrich continues, ‘and decided to model the pieces of nature they called their own, the gardens of their estates, on Claude’s dreams of beauty. In this way, many a tract of the lovely English countryside should really bear the signature of the French painter.’ Eighteenth and 19th-century tourists in Europe were upper class, highly educated, relying on some rare travel guidebooks to explore the rural and urban landscapes of the continent, searching to experience representations of nature, space, ruins they had seen in illustrations and read about in books. It wasn’t long before we collectively shaped the world around us to look like Claude’s idealised representations, as valued by the British aristocratic elite. 



Source: Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington

Claude Lorrain’s Landscape with Merchants of 1629. His paintings dramatised the beauty of nature in idealised settings, rather than being topographically accurate.

I always try not to look like a tourist. I hate looking like I don’t belong, standing out for the wrong reasons. Most of the time I succeed I think, until I open my mouth. There are not that many places where I can speak and still pass for a born and bred local: parts of France, tiny bits of Belgium and Switzerland. Mainly cities of course, because in cities we’re all transient. And even so, the impact of 10 years in London on the way I behave, dress, on my speech, make me stand out. When my current state of ‘expatriation’  – ugly word to which I prefer the beautiful and inclusive ‘migrant’ –  is revealed, I usually hear a sigh of relief: it provides a simple explanation, boxes are ticked, and prejudices confirmed.

I was born in Paris. Unlike many of my fellow Parisians, I’ve never despised tourists. For me, they’re part of the landscape, a piece of heritage. As a child in Paris, when I didn’t contemplate the world far away on the Web, I often went tourist-watching at the weekend. I’d go to the tourist quarters, where shops have special authorisation to open on Sunday afternoons. To the Louvre, Notre‑Dame, Place des Vosges. Here you can see how being a tourist is a performance, a way to dress, a way to behave. Shared fears: of being mugged, of being ripped off, of being mistreated, insulted, or losing the passports that prove who you are and where you belong. Shared gestures: wearing backpacks at the front of the body, forming a ‘V’ with their fingers for a picture, playing with perspectives to hold IM Pei’s Louvre pyramid in the palm of their hands, jump photos and, of course, the infamous selfie stick. Many of these gestures are about capturing a moment in relation to a monument, a setting, a landmark. ‘I have been there. I have seen it.’ Sometimes it means, ‘I have been more adventurous than you’. Most of the time it is, still, a demonstration of wealth. ‘I can afford to be here, you can’t.’ 



Tourist landmarks in Italy are now empty due to coronavirus, but can be appreciated as never before in webcams: (clockwise from top left) Piazza di Spagna, Rome; Piazza San Marco, Venice; Trevi Fountain, Rome; Duomo, Milan

Yet with the rise of new technologies and associated habits, many of the performative elements that defined tourists have become more difficult to identify as they are shared more widely by all public space users. The checking of a digital map is now very common. Even taking pictures of spaces, situations, of others and oneself is now mundane. It does not require the extraordinary occasion of being in a foreign space. It happens everywhere, at any time, with anyone. In our everyday life we intimately match space and photography: if you need to quickly find a specific picture in your phone, you might pull up a map of all your geolocated snaps.

The timeline of a particular picture is blurry, but the location and the people present tend to stick in the brain. Tourist-watching, navel-gazing, there is a confusion between the figure of the tourist and that of the local. We have in common the shiny reflective screen of our smartphones, our laptop, our TV: displaying entertainment, social rewards, utopia and dystopia. A black mirror.

The identity of the tourist, the spaces of and for tourism, are also increasingly confused. On its quest for authenticity, tourism shapes the space it seeks to consume and is shaped by it. Phenomena of ‘touristification’, ‘overtourism’ and ‘tourism-phobia’ have so much in common with gentrification. Like gentrifiers, tourists necessarily cannibalise the spaces they enjoy. They seek to share it and keep it for themselves at the same time, in an obvious contradiction. Tourists soil, break and destroy what they touch. Yet the notion of overtourism holds political issues of its own: down the line it critiques the emergence of tourism for the many and regrets that time when it was only for the few. It despises that John and Jane Doe, across the socio-economic spectrum, can afford to travel on a budget wherever they like, relying on digital platforms to book trains, planes, accommodation, settling down to ‘live like a local’ slowly hollowing out city centres from their local life. It’s the vampiric trinity: gentrification, touristification, Disneyfication. 



Source: Reuters / Nick Oxford

Parked planes sit on airport runways around the world as COVID-19 brings global air travel to a near standstill – while devastating for the tourism industry, it gives us a salutary pause for thought

In 18th-century England, authors of travel writings and guidebooks such as Thomas Gray, Thomas West and William Gilpin popularised the use of a small convex mirror designed to enjoy a landscape to its fullest. It required you to turn your back to the setting of your interest and look at its reflection in the mirror you held in your hands. While the convex surface widened the view and sent the background into the distance, the dark tint intensified the colours of the scene. All of a sudden, the setting was dramatised, elevated. Gilpin, who had installed one such mirror in his carriage, writes in his 1794 Remarks on Forest Scenery, and Other Woodland Views, that it created, ‘A succession of high-coloured pictures continually gliding before the eye. They are like the visions of the imagination, or the brilliant landscapes of a dream’. Thomas Gray recounts in his 1775 journal that on one occasion he was so attracted to the reflection that he fell backward in a ditch and broke the joints of his hand – but saved his mirror. At the same time photographic lens, Instagram filter and selfie stick, this artefact made any scenery look like a landscape painting by Claude, without requiring the artist’s genius. It made all space worth travelling for, worth looking at. It was known as a ‘Claude glass’, or black mirror. 

Lead image: Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s tranquil Veduta di Campo Vaccino from 1775 is a romanticised depiction of the Roman Forum, purposely elaborated to appeal to wealthy tourists. Courtesy of Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1937

This piece is featured in the AR May 2020 issue on Tourism – click here to buy your copy today