It’s hot, the water’s warm, and blue skies stretch as far as the eye can see. Which actually isn’t very far at all since, all sensory evidence to the contrary, we’re indoors — clustered inside a giant plastic globe in one of the oldest industrial centers of Northern Europe. Welcome to the world of “fake vacations,” as documented by Austrian photographer Reiner Riedler.
Many travel magazines, guide books and websites focus on “authentic” experiences; off-the-beaten track places that reveal the genuine culture beyond the touristic clichés. Riedler has spent the past decade documenting the opposite phenomenon — artificial destinations that mimic other places around the world, foregoing any sense of authenticity in favor of ease and convenience. Whether watching a Pacific sunset in Germany, dining beneath Mayan ruins in Florida, or snowboarding in Dubai, a lot of people are happy to skip the effort and expense of travel in favor of a cheap, comfortable simulacrum of the real thing.
Riedler’s interest was first piqued by pop-up, artificial beaches he saw in Berlin and Hamburg. As humans, he says, we all crave a deep contact with nature. But “we are also very simple. It just needs a few ingredients like sand, beach chairs, a cold drink, some water and music, and we feel like we are on holiday.”
One of Riedler’s favorite subjects, Berlin’s Tropical Islands Resort, boasts 50,000 different plants, a huge lagoon and a wrap-around artificial horizon, all housed within a dome worthy of The Truman Show.
Of course, the northern European climate makes it a little easier to understand the appeal of a warm getaway, however manufactured. The Pacific Island-themed Vichy Aqua Park in Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, offers a year-round hot, humid escape from the prevailing Baltic gloom.
Here, you can follow your Bora Bora sauna with a Tahitian Mist steam experience, before heading over to replace some of your lost liquid weight with a Polynesian cocktail or two at the Aloha Bistro.
The formula is reversed in Dubai, home of the world’s largest (of course) manufactured snowscape. “Many people there have never seen snow; they go just to touch it,” says Riedler. “No one was a good skier.”
While some attractions are content to mess with geography, others take liberties with history, too. The Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, includes a massive temple, an arena for preachy rock groups, and a building full of brightly painted statues of biblical figures.
The main attraction, though, is the “Walk of Death.” Every day, visitors can stand on the street and watch as Roman soldiers beat the living hell out of Jesus before nailing him up to be crucified. “Seeing people cry during the performance and applaud after it was … strange,” says Riedler, with Teutonic understatement.
The Titanic Beach Resort in Antalya, Turkey, is less theatrical but just as macabre. Though it bears little resemblance to the ill-fated ocean liner, it does mimic the shape of a generic ship’s hull: However warm the water, it’s hard to swim in the surrounding pool without thinking of the 1,500 souls who perished in the icy North Atlantic.
A seafaring vessel of a quite different kind is the inspiration for Minsk World, in Shenzhen, China. This military-themed park centers around a retired Russian aircraft carrier, with the main attractions including a handful of MiG fighter jets, a couple of helicopters and a whopping M-11 Shtorm naval surface-to-air missile system.
Window of the World, also in China, is a kind of greatest hits of global tourism writ small. It recreates iconic destinations in 6:1 scale, allowing pedestrians to cover everything from the “Amazon Jungle Shuttle” to “Alpine Ice World” — complete with glistening, translucent castle and indoor ski slope and ice rink — in one day.
Riedler’s photographic technique, especially his use of color, heightens the artificiality of these escapes, but his aim is not to make fun of his subjects. Quite the opposite. “I always respect people in what they do and how they behave. I completely understand why people yearn for places of their dreams,” says Riedler. “We all have that.”
The places themselves may be patently fake, but the desire for them — for a shared escape into a collective, imaginary other place — is real, and substantial.
And just as repeat visitors get hooked on these ersatz getaways, Riedler himself seems unable to stop documenting them. “It’s like a drug,” he says. “I cannot give it up.”
All photographs © Reiner Riedler. Courtesy Sous Les Etoiles Gallery, New York, Heartgalerie, Paris, and Anzenberger Gallery, Vienna.