Nothing is More Distant from Travelling Than Tourism

In conversation with Rodolphe Christin
by Valentina Pigmei

Venice, April 2020: the images of the city’s clear blue waters made their way around the world. The capital of overtourism suddenly came back to life thanks to the standstill of the lockdown. A few years ago, Rodolphe Christin wrote a short, enlightening essay entitled L’usure du monde, critique de la déraison touristique, denouncing the excess of mobility devastating the planet a long time before the pandemic hit. “Re-evaluate boredom, drawn-out times, lengthy stays. Revel in people’s ordinary lives”, the French sociologist wrote in 2014. For Christin, sustainable or responsible tourism doesn’t exist. Tourism is totally encapsulated within capitalistic and destructive logics and going on holiday is always an induced desire, an anaesthetic, a let-off valve institutionalized by consumerism. Nothing is more distant from travelling than tourism. 

Can we still travel today? Is there anyone who really still does? 

The easier it is to get around, the more difficult it is to travel. Now that moving around is just getting from A to B the experience of travel has become very sterile. Perhaps the true travellers of these chaotic times are the migrants who stake everything on their journeys. You can travel by chance too, discover something you didn’t expect on the corner of the street or far away, it doesn’t really matter. Objective distance doesn’t count.  

And yet for some, migrants are also the victims of a fascination for Western cultures and consumerism. 

Migrants, and I’m talking about the ones I’ve met, in particular in Senegal, were obsessed by a sense of need. Plagued by devastated economies, in order to live and allow their families to live, they had to leave. For them, leaving was like paying off a debt, remaining honourable in their families’ eyes. It seems to me that if they’d had the choice, they’d have stayed. 

For a writer like Michel Houellebecq tourism is “the economy of frustration”. So, tourism or revolution?  

Tourism shows that capitalism is able to make bowing down to its commands desirable. To respond to the ill of which tourism (together with other things) is a symptom, we’d have to spark a cultural revolution. The problem of cultural revolutions is that often they turn out badly. Will we able to do better than our ancestors, and if possible, avoid a bloodbath? In this field, nothing is certain. Maybe we’ll act because we have to, since we won’t be able to carry on consuming the world for much longer. In any case, not without sadly accepting the consequences. You could say that the party’s over. Capitalism has reached its limits, it’s showing its ability for destruction, but it can adapt. So, there’s no reason to cry victory. If we don’t change our lifestyles, we’ll be heading straight towards a medical and ecological dictatorship. It’s already making an appearance. 

In your opinion, the relationship with nature and the wild (in particular the mountains) is almost totally impaired and fake. “Sustainable” tourism seems to be a contradiction in terms. Why? Is it the same story for the sea?

Protecting “the wild” is the other face of its exploitation. The sea is one of those great spaces that fascinate me, like the mountains or the forests. Unfortunately, it seems that it’s full of particles of plastic and that not even the sea can escape the devastation that’s underway. It’s become an exploited place just like the others. The same goes for the ocean. Some even say that we know too little about it and that if we knew it better, we’d be able to make the most of its resources. It’d seem some of these people do have good intentions, they do all in all hope to protect the oceans better. They’re just naïve: what can be, will be exploited. 

Is that type of slow traveller who chooses not to travel by plane or gets around on foot or by bike or thanks to sharing economy platforms not trying to revive that “welcoming tradition” that you think has died?   

They may well be. Tourism has wiped out hospitality. We should welcome anything that could bring it back to life. 

Tourism is closed, travel is open, you say. Holiday resorts or clubs are by their very nature the very emblem of closedness. But those who travel by boat or camper van take their home around with them in a very different form of “closedness”. 

When I talk about closedness, I’m alluding to the actual closedness of some places, where you have to pay to get in, because they’re dedicated to tourists’ leisure. I’m also referring to the symbolic and organizational closedness of the tourist trails at famous places that you just can’t miss to get full value from your tourism experience. The question of means of transport is different, even though boats, campers, cars and aeroplanes are all vehicles that you have to close yourself into. Nevertheless, we have to be able to travel like this. There are some who’ve said you can travel without even leaving your room…

Jack London, the supreme travel writer, anticipated just about every modern vision about travel: from the lure of the abyss to the adventurous and slow journey around the world, through the migration from the city to the country, to the obsession with the wild. Does a new Jack London exist? 

I don’t know the new Jack London. Now, somehow adventure has become an institution, with its icons, its festivals and its commercial products. At the start Jack London tried to survive, we could say he did whatever it took to live a bit better. That’s why the tearaway with the tough childhood went to look for gold in the Klondike. If a migrant were to create a work from their adventures today, they might become the new Jack London. Who knows.

Does adventure still exist? 

Adventure exists and its definition remains unchanged: it arrives by chance, unexpectedly, circumvents all plans and at times resembles a misadventure. There are no recipes to be sure to run into one. Most adventurers even try to avoid them.

Mobility ups roots, travel puts them down. Why are roots still so important? 

In order to grow and mobilize the human resources needed for it to work, capitalism had to sing the praises of mobility and set out its rules. So, it came to be a virtuous activity, it opened minds, to move economic agents around according to need. In truth, it’s a way of putting people at its beck and call, tearing them away from their territories. In this case, we can speak of uprooting as an active ingredient and consequence of globalization. This situation makes mobility inevitable, a moral requirement and a way of organizing reality around adapted material infrastructures. When I say that a journey gives you roots, I’m saying that a memorable experience, in a fascinating place, manages to structure an individual’s memory and makes that place a part of his or her personal history. This assumes an open idea of the concept of roots: there are roots that are inherited and roots that you choose. You could even talk of anchoring, if you want to use a maritime metaphor: casting and raising the anchor… For me roots are about memory more than anything else.  

When you published your book, we were a long way off the health emergency that we’re going through at the moment. Do you think Covid is enough to change things? 

It’ll change so long as the health restrictions condition mobility and border openings. If the restrictions are lifted, everything will start again. Or at least it’ll try to.   

With Covid it’s become clear that excessive mobility also brings contagion with it. What do you think? 

First of all, what is causing contagion is the tendency to devastate the world and, by so doing, to come into mass contact with disorientated living beings, whose living conditions have been changed. If I’m to believe some news stories, as the permafrost melts, the worst is yet to come. We could do to make sure that the world is kept inaccessible. Mobility should be rare, difficult enough to make us think twice.

Are you not afraid of accusations that you’re a reactionary when you criticize the excessive mobility of our society? 

I’m not criticizing single individuals or ethnic communities. I’m criticizing a system that banalizes the whole wide world in order to exploit it to the full. Capitalism is a successful kind of internationalism. And so I defend the cause of the Treatise on the Whole-World byÉdouard Glissant: a world made of relations freed from the desire for conquest and submission, a world where the ethics of “globality” takes over from the greedy economy of globalization. 

What do you advise us readers? 

Take your time. Put your duties and commitments to one side, or there’ll be no leaving them behind.

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