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TOURISM UNVEILED

Soria Moria Palace – Painted by Theodore Kittelsem

About 17th century travel bloggers and the mysterious power of heritagization. Why are millions of people every year willing to leave their home, travel for miles to see the Colosseum, the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu, the great wall of China or the palace of Versailles? Why do they feel the need to dive into new realities for days or weeks? And why, on the other side, should the locals be willing to host them?

Words By Lina Prencipe

The History Of Tourism

The things we give for granted in life are countless: well-established practices, both peculiarities of certain cultures and greater truths about human nature. Among them we find tourism. The noun tourist made its first appearance in the early 18th century and according to William F. Theobald (1994) the term tour etymologically comes from the Latin, “tornare” and the Greek, “tornos”, meaning “a lathe or circle” and that tourism is thus conceived as the activity of circling away from home, and then returning. 

The history of tourism though traces back long before the coinage of the word “tourist”. In the Western tradition, organized travel with supporting infrastructure and sightseeing of curated destinations can be found in ancient Greece and Rome. “Heritage tourism” has its roots there, as a practice aimed at the celebration and appreciation of historic sites of recognized cultural importance. We can thus associate the Seven Wonders of the World of the ancients to our UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

As an experience reserved to very few people, mainly the royalty and upper classes, tourism maintained this connotation through the 17th century when young men of high standing were encouraged to travel through Europe on a “Grand Tour”. The main purpose of this trip, lasting from a few months to several years, was for the upper-class young Europeans to get exposure to the cultural legacy of classical antiquity and the Renaissance, thus embracing the roots of Western civilization. Travelling for leisure gradually became more affordable, but the reasons that moved the upper-class Brits in the 17th century to explore the world are substantially unaltered from those times.

Gallery of Views of Ancient Rome, painted by Giovanni Paolo Panini 

Scholars that studied the Grand Tourist identified various factors that remained constant in travel practices. Notably, they created and popularized travel itineraries that still persist, as the unchanged set of must-see European cities. Paris, Rome, Venice, and Florence were the most favoured destination and did not lose their attractiveness in three hundred years. The Grand Tourists were driven by the “I saw it first” culture: they crossed the Alps on foot, on horseback or if they were lucky in a chariot, anything like direct flights of highways was there to improve their journey. And still, it was a relatively small price in a world without smartphones and cameras, to study the works of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, or to sit and sketch the ancient ruins of Pompei. Feeling inspired by those journeys, they were eager to share their knowledge with their peers back home and to leave traces for their descendants. This is the reason why we can now appreciate their adventures in their diaries and in a variety of art expressions. “My purpose in making this wonderful journey is not to delude myself but to discover myself in the objects I see“, said Goethe after one of his Italian journeys, something that could have easily been stated by any modern tourist on their instagram feed.

“In a nutshell, Grand Tourists were travel bloggers without internet connections, influencers ante litteram whose travel portraits were selfies in disguise.”

A recurrent theme in the literature of travels is the research of authenticity in tangible and intangible cultural heritages. “Authenticity represents the past but is perceived and consumed in the present” (Nilsson). The most fascinating things are always contradictory and this is not an exception: the past is not something tangible and truthfully represented, but is only what exists at the moment of observation and has been shaped by the people preserving that heritage throughout the centuries. This research and the overall experience of the journey is not lived as mere external exploration but perceived with an existential and inner connotation. Every trip is the personal elaboration of the places the travelers visit, interconnected with her unique previous life experiences.

Trip to Middle East, painted by Eugen Bracht

Cultural Heritage and Heritagization

Sorry for abruptly waking you up from this oniric idea of the personal journey of the individual on this Earth, but what about the locals? What was and is their advantage in hosting and sharing their cultural heritage with tourists? In many occasions, the tourists’ passage has been emphasized as a harm for the locals, due to physical damages of tangible cultural heritages and severe environmental impact. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (2003) among those damages we can list depletion of natural resources, pollution of air and of land through waste and littering, and loss of biodiversity. The environmental impact can also extend outside local areas affecting the global ecosystem, the main case currently debated is the demonstrated contribution of air travel on climate change. And we are not done yet: it has been proven that negative social impact of tourism includes culture clashes and social stress as a cause of increased demand for resources.

These arguments inevitably fueled a negative view of the relationship between tourists and heritage preservationists, and in light of them it has been legitimately questioned why the locals should welcome and incentivize tourist presence in their areas. In addition to the well-acknowledged economic benefits as a consequence of the increase in commercial activity, when developed conscientiously and sustainably, tourism can and does contribute to a higher quality of life of residents. In terms of cultural impact, an interesting phenomenon detected is heritagization. This process makes the inhabitants in a region feel that certain cultural heritage is more relevant to them than to foreigners. Feeling the need to present a coherent and congruent picture of the past and of the local value to visitors, they start recycling old ideas and making them relevant again, starting a process for repossessing the past in a way that supports the legacy of the present.

In this way tourism fosters the strengthening mechanism for the identity of local residents. Locals understand the value of their tangible and intangible cultural heritage and feel the urgency to preserve and protect it, they develop sense of belonging and willingness to share its value with others, as well as the recognition of the importance of passing it to future generations through education. The desire to explore the world to enrich their own self-identity and to share the amazement of new discoveries with others is a peculiarity of travellers of any historical time. The need to protect and perpetuate the cultural identity of collective experiences and values are felt by folks in every corner of the world. Both of these traits are undeniably human and are the proof that the best way to preserve something you truly care about, whatever it may be, is to share it with others.

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