Consider the Cost

This weekend, I listened to an essay titled “Consider the Lobster” written by David Foster Wallace for Gourmet Magazine in 2004. The essay describes the author’s experience at the annual Maine Lobster Festival which draws crowds in the tens of thousands, held each July for over fifty years. Near the end, he acknowledges that he may not be the best person to be writing about the event for an audience of Gourmet Magazine readers because of his personal feelings about tourism in general. He elaborates:

To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all non-economic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: as a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.

Aside from providing some pretty apt imagery (swarms of tourists as flies on “dead” heritage sites) this thought, while unquestionably subjective and even verging into hyperbolic, resonated with me. Though he is speaking specifically about tourism in the United States, some of the issues embedded in his critique feel applicable to preservation theories, specifically regarding current international approaches to heritage tourism. International doctrines on preservation, such as the Burra Charter, advocate a more prescriptive approach to global heritage management and tend to promote the development of heritage sites as tourist destinations in order to sustain economic feasibility.  As a result, heritage conservation has in many ways become synonymous with tourism. Though heritage tourism has been criticized for the negative physical impacts increased tourism can have on sites, it still remains one of the most viable economic solutions for the protection of resources. Perhaps we as preservation professionals have grown to recognize tourism as sort of a necessary evil; it is arguably a means for heritage to support its own preservation, and in many cases, places that wouldn’t be protected otherwise can benefit from some level of protection and recognition as tourist sites.

I think DFW’s critique is geared more towards the attitude of the American consumer—in this case, the consumption of “authentic” experiences—than as a critique of the management of tourist sites, but the two are intertwined and these thoughts are worth taking into consideration. He touches on some of the key points that we repeatedly come back to: value—in this case, economic value, but he’s also suggesting there’s a social value that is degraded by the presence of tourists, and authenticity when he talks about a place being “realer” without tourists. To this end, it also ties into Garret Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons and the idea that the sheer volume of visitors each seeking an “authentic” experience is a contradiction in itself. If everyone is taking advantage of the resource, it ceases to be able to provide a satisfying experience for anyone.

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