The hyperreality of tourism

Tourism, in its essence, is the process of attempting to reconcile fantasy with ‘reality’. One becomes a tourist through presupposing what a certain location might be like to see or experience, and then visiting there in the hope that this fantasy is accurate. As with all fantasy, however, a place in actuality will never compare to a place as imagined through convoluted, mythologised sources – be they films set in that location, poetry proclaiming its beauty, even (or especially, perhaps) the brochures designed purely to get you to go there in the first place. In Platonic terms, as a crude representation of an object (or in this case, a location) a fantasy can never approach the reality of a place because it is so far removed from the source. To adapt an idea from The Republic:

‘we must inquire whether the poets, whom these people have encountered, are mere imitators, who have so far imposed upon the spectators, that, when they behold their performances, they fail to perceive that these productions are twice removed from reality, and easily made by a person unacquainted with the truth, because they are phantoms, and not realities.’[1]

One’s pre-visit assumption of, say, a tropical beach or a major world city, being based purely from an ‘imitation’ of reality borne from a vehicle of artistic, aesthetic phenomena, can never fully represent the actuality of what a place is like. The touristic fantasy is based on assumed perception of what a place is like, even though this fantasy can never become a reality. The realisation of this can often have curious, harmful effects (such as the ‘Paris syndrome’ pheneomena), but it is the coming to terms with this that drives the idea of tourism, as we shall see later. This incongruence between fantasy and reality encountered through the experience of tourism is, therefore, a confrontation with what is termed ‘hyperreality’ – the inability to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality (i.e. that which has been termed here ‘fantasy’). This is most explicitly the case in what we call ‘tourist attractions’ – i.e. that which is specifically and intentionally created to allow the visitor to partake in this ‘fantasy versus reality’ experiment. With this in mind, tourism can be defined as the willing submission and acceptance of such a state. Jean Baudrillard hints at the inherent hyperreality of tourism and tourist attractions in his famous discussion of Disneyland, which he says:

‘…is a perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulation. To begin with it is a play of illusions and phantasms: Pirates, the Frontier, Future World, etc. This imaginary world is supposed to be what makes the operation successful. But what draws the crowds is undoubtedly much more the social microcosm, the miniaturized and religious reveling in real America, in its delights and drawbacks.’[2]

The pleasure of attending a place like Disneyland then, and the act of tourism as a whole, is gained through presupposing a fantasy world but instead finding what the tourist (incorrectly) deems to be the ‘reality’ of the place they are visiting. Baudrillard’s critique of Disneyland can therefore be applied to all ‘tourist destinations’, as they all ostensibly share the same potential for this effect.

With the idea in mind that the act of becoming a tourist is instigated by the desire to reconcile fantasy with reality, we must assume that taking part in this dialogue, this battle, between fantasy and reality is a conscious act, and that the tourist is aware of this taking place. The very act of tourism is an experiment in seeing how the fantasy corresponds to the reality.

If we assume that one must be aware of this attempted synthesis of fantasy and reality what, then, is the purpose of tourism? This becomes clear when it is realised that tourist destinations themselves are based on the tourist’s idealised fantasy of what that location is really like. The ‘reality’ is not real; it is based on fantasy, it is hyperreal.

We see this in any location that can be deemed a tourist attraction: in London the ‘traditional’ red telephone boxes are retained – often far beyond the use of the original function – because that is what our fantasy/reality tourist expects to find in ‘real’ London, while the less iconic, more utilitarian KX100 Kiosk does not play a role in the common phantasmic vision of London, despite that being the one that should exist in an accurate portrayal of the ‘real’ London.

For a more sinister version of this at play we can look to Brazil, which is set to become the centre of the fantasy-tourist universe for the next half decade, with the two biggest sporting events on the planet taking place in the country in 2014 and 2016. The football World Cup and the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro has seen the Brazilian government try their utmost to ensure that their country remains fertile – and lucrative – ground for tourists, thus preserving the idealised fantasy of Brazilian life while the reality of the country plunges into chaos amidst deepening economic inequality and deprivation. For the tourist: sand, samba and sport; for the average Brazilian: increasingly abject poverty.

Then, of course, you have Las Vegas: the endgame of tourism, hyperreality incarnate. Vegas, perhaps even more so than Disneyland, fills us with the sensation of idealised fantasy at its purest, for there is no real there to begin with, only the imagined. One does not go to there to encounter a real location, but to experience fantasy itself.

The experience of these three examples reveals the purpose of the touristic instinct: while the fantastic vision will not have been realised, the presumed ‘real’ that one encounters serves to conceal the banality (London), the destructive effects of late capitalism (Brazil), or indeed the impossibility of a fully-realised reality (Las Vegas).

The tourist, therefore, wants to fail in their quest to find their fantasy realised, for it confirms the ‘realness’ (albeit, crucially, a false one) of the place they are visiting (i.e. ‘visiting this place wasn’t what I was expecting, but it’s not so bad after all’). The initial disappointment of a destination not living up to the presupposed fantasy obfuscates the tourists perception and leads to the assumption that there is no fantasy, no ‘hyperreality’ in what they deem to be everyday, non-tourist life. The failure of fantasy therefore creates a false assumption of the real. As Baudrillard continues:

 ‘Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the “real” country, all of the “real America”, which is Disneyland…Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation. It is no longer a question of false representation of reality (ideology), but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle.’[3]

Tourism therefore is the state in which we most willingly submit ourselves to The Spectacle, to the acknowledgement of hyperreality. However, in doing so the tourist also willingly lets the destruction of the fantasy in turn create an inescapable false reality – a comforting affirmation that the ‘reality’ of their life is closer to the original fantasy than the real-in-actuality.

[1] Plato, The Republic, ed. by Andrea Tschemplik, trans. John Llewelyn Davies in Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology, ed. by Steven M. Cahn and Aaron Maskin (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), pp.24-33, p.26 [2] Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, trans. by Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Philip Beitchman (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983), p.23 [3] Ibid., p.25