If you were to comb reality down to a few hairs and then split them open, you might be surprised at what you find. Sure, a whole head of hair looks ample and promising, like one large uninterrupted mass, but really it’s just a bunch of hairs collaborating on a basic outline and in reality, it’s mostly empty space. Even a strand of hair isn’t solid. Under a microscope each strand is like witnessing a vast ocean with an occasional tiny atom whizzing by. Our job is simply to connect the dots.
But as we kick the occasional tire, interpretation is no simple task for us humans.
We can certainly say that something happened because we saw it right there, but our memory often fails us not because we are suffering from some brain disorder, but because it layers itself over the bumpy surfaces of our past experience. Memory is often not what actually happened, but instead how we want to remember it. That fleeting moment of actuality is rarely something that can be described in truth, which in itself kind of bites.
Of all entertainment companies, MTV gave it a shot, airing the “Real World” in 1989, just two years prior to the movie “Reality Bites”. What seemed a simple experiment, tossing a motley crew of youth into forced cohabitation, eventually evolved into a soap opera novella. Nearly 20 years later, the entertainment format that blurs the lines between fact and fiction is still extremely popular. We certainly can’t resist the desire to layer in our own perspectives just to make a good story.
And so if the entertainment industry attempts to capture our imagination through the illusion of reality, the tourist industry might be trying even harder. And as my husband and I have seen through our travels in the US these past eleven months, we believe, and we’re not alone, the entire US is going through a major transition right now. It’s not just because of our new president.
My husband and I left behind our American Dream, and we know we are not alone in this pursuit. We might not be the only ones going through a mid-life crisis.
In larger cities, construction cranes reveal massive development in most downtown corridors. For example, you wouldn’t set foot in downtown Los Angeles after dark 20 years ago, but now downtown is safe and vibrant and hipster vegan Fro-Yo is the new heroine.
Money has always been behind our dreams, and when the banking industry collapsed it became even more pronounced, which might take some getting used to. Take a look at the major employers in any US city. Usually, the medical industry tops the list. Hospitals are expanding, of coursed financed by our pervasive legal drugs. And then there’s that giant invisible web of the internet sneaking around and manipulating our shopping and social behaviors. Just follow the money and you will see the Wizard behind Oz.
And then there are the small towns of middle class America standing empty because we now ship manufacturing to other countries. Tourism might be the only hope for the survival of these former factory towns like Detroit and Poughkeepsie. It’s a desperate measure for the middle class to resort to for survival because tourism has historically been a luxury of the upper class who typically are not known for their loyalty.
But travel can be a great form of cultural enrichment, and tourism can have a substantial positive financial impact on a community. It can increase wealth and create jobs. But there can also be adverse environmental and sociocultural impacts.
Take for example Asheville, North Carolina, home to the Biltmore Estate, the largest privately owned home in the United States. According to a 2015 report, tourism has had a significant positive impact on the Asheville economy, reducing unemployment by creating nearly 25,000 new jobs. Asheville only has 90,000 residents and so tourism happens to be the golden ticket that affords the locals their charmed scenic mountain lifestyle.
The locals won’t set foot in downtown Asheville during the busy tourist season, and Florida plates are often looked upon with contempt during the busy season. Luckily, the weather will eventually shift and they will get their town back until the cycle renews the following year.
Yes, there is a strange relationship that develops between a tourist and their host. I grew up in Hawaii and remember laughing at the white people who would slowly turn red as lobsters and then line up for giant tour busses carting them off to institutionalized luaus. I was probably too young to realize that every camera toting aloha shirt wearing person I ran into was probably in some way supporting my family.
It does seem like certain towns do need tourism to support their dwindling middle class, to preserve that safe and supple way of life with common and predictable dreams and goals that boomed in the last century. It’s quite a challenge to give up that shared experience of a single family home, a car in every driveway and two cute kids to carry the tradition forward.
But we messed up. We wanted the dream so much, but we didn’t want to pay for it, so we shipped manufacturing elsewhere.
And now tourism is the only hope for disappearing jobs in manufacturing. We need some way to fill up the entire towns and the empty shells of factories that were left behind.
But in a way, we might just be falling into our old habits and not allowing the transition to happen. We might just be trying to recapture the American Dream in a different way. We might hope that tourists will appreciate our unique way of life. We might hope that outsiders will share our value for hand made crafts. But often, this is not the case, and our quaint streets are then lined with shops stocked with souvenirs that end up being manufactured in other countries, which sort of defeats the purpose.
We can sprinkle in the locally styled versions of recognizable chain restaurants, which makes outsiders feel at home. But that flies in the face of travel being a way to try something new.
We can stock our visitor centers with magazines and colorful maps, of course funded by paid advertisers.
But the irony of tourism might not even provide the unique cultural experience it claims. A long drawn out street of too-sweet mountain fudge and artificially flavored jars of moonshine, and dusty bottles of chow-chow are not truly a remembrance of a distant Appalachian past. At best, tourism merely approximates culture, which does a slight disservice to the visitors.
And as we know, the visitors themselves get a bad rap from the locals. They pack the roads with extra cars. They might even leave trash behind. Both pollution and noise can increase. There’s often not enough of a labor pool in the local area which puts a strain on staffing during the busy seasons. And because tourists will often pay just a little bit more for everyday essentials, that inflation is also passed on to the community, which really bites.
Of course I am no economist, not even a historian, I am just an observer, trying my best to learn about the country form which I was born looking for some semblance of truth.
With so many negatives in the tourist industry, the main one being inauthenticity, the new question might be what is this that drives us to distraction, if the net gain is not necessarily positive. Is it simply the act of “getting away from it all” that drives us? And what exactly is “it”? Is it reality?
After a while, even the simplest things lose their bearing.
It’s ironic that the more hairs I split in this exploration, the further down the philosophical rabbit hole I go. But then I remember that reality itself is literally comprised of mostly empty space. Meaning nothing. And I remember that the tiny atoms that make up the real world move too fast. And the best we can do is watch them dancing in a submicroscopic water ballet and make our own interpretation of reality.