A Peopled Planet: Tourist Escapism – A Rude Awakening

A piece I wrote on the Lares Trek in Peru spurred a thought in my mind and reminded me of the poet William Wordsworth, the Father of English Romanticism, and the Father of Modern Tourism. In writing his Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth comments on a “wild and secluded scene”, which “impress/thoughts of more deep seclusion;” thus the poet sews the seeds of tourist escapism.

Ideas of “the escape” are deeply ingrained in our cultural consciousness, and since Wordsworth, this has been ubiquitous with an escape from the city, and to the wilderness. There is no doubt that there is a calming aspect to nature, to cleaner air, to life continuing outside our “social contract”, as Hobbes would have it; however, I would invite the reader to consider the role of escapism in our ideas of tourism in a more critical light.

Discussion of an old poet may seem strange to some, in an article about tourism, however, Wordsworth is a significant figure in the establishment of tourist culture. The poet’s 1835 Guide to the Lakes includes what may be the earliest published call for a national park: “a sort of national property, in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy.” The poet is credited with significantly altering the British public’s relationship with the outdoors, and many of our cultural ideas of tourism stem from the ideas of Wordsworth and other Romantic poets of the 19th Century.

As far back as Wordsworth, we see the idea of tourism as an escape to the unknown, the uncivilised, and unpeopled landscapes of the earth. We can see a clear line of thought which sees tourism as an opportunity of an escape, as opposed to a truly generative experience. Rather than growing, we are recuperating. I would wager, however, that there are some important ideas on tourism in Wordsworth which were overlooked, and others which were leaned on too heavily.

Wordsworth betrays his illustrated idea of seclusion through the progression of his famous poem, despite the fixation which has since developed on the idea of seclusion. The landscape he describes increasingly becomes “peopled”, and even industrialised. The “wreaths of smoke/ Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!” which the poet describes are in fact from ironworks within the valley – no different from the Peruvian weavers of the Lares Valley – and the “vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,” and the “Hermit”, who sits beside his fire, within his cave, are actually… Welsh people. Shocker. Whilst this image of the valley’s dwellers is a touch fantastical, the broad strokes of Wordsworth’s Romantic image of the Wye Valley are littered with people.

Is this a problem? Yes. Firstly, because it disregards the fact that there are Welsh people down in that there valley who would rather you just said hello (there happens to be a lovely ice cream shop down in Chepstow, who are very much open for business and require only a social interaction and small monetary exchange to bequeath their frozen dairy treasures to you). Secondly, to disinhabit places where you travel allows tourists to remain blissfully unaware of their role in a very much interconnected global system.

What is it that you cannot bear to look in the eyes? I believe that there is a discreet recognition of ethical implications in all tourists, yet there is something about interacting with a local that some find deeply unsettling, when the implications of tourist escapism are clear, in front of you.

Tourist Escapism

The truth is that there is nothing to hide from, and nothing to be afraid of. Communities are happy to engage with visitors and newcomers, provided that people visiting do so respectfully, and show a willingness to engage. Cultural experiences are perhaps the most enriching part of travelling, and bring a wealth of insight to visitors, which will stay with them long after the view of the mountain begins to fade in their memory.

We are social beings, and those social experiences bring us forward in the world, where we can learn from cultures, and become better informed individuals. One such example of cultural inclusion for tourists and newcomers is Governors’ Camp in Kenya, they engage in projects to build classrooms for schools, plant trees and fully welcome the guests to engage with local communities such as the Maasai people.

Really, this is not a rude awakening. If I am telling you to wake up and smell the coffee, it is one which I have brewed especially for you, and it is delicious, and wonderfully fragrant. What I intend to challenge is the notion that we must escape from ourselves, and from our material reality. Increasingly, an escape to nature is an attempt to come up for air, and I don’t know if you’ve heard but the water levels are rising. We cannot sustain a model of tourism which is predicated on running away from our problems.

This planet is A Peopled Planet, so to confide in seclusion is to reject one of the most important of humanity’s creations: community. Wordsworth describes an uncultivated and cathartic model of travel which he had embodied, where he had traveled ‘more like a man flying from something that he dreads, than one who sought the thing he loved.’ on first arriving in the Wye Valley. Here we can plainly see a distinction between an unhealthy catharsis, and traveling in reverence.

As long as tourism is an avenue of escapism, it will never be truly sustainable; when travelling in reverence, people travel to build themselves. Further, when engaging with landscapes in this way, that reverence is extended to the communities of said landscape. From there, mutual understandings are founded, and increasing gestures of goodwill flow from this. Therefore, when you step first into the Lares Valley, do so as Wordsworth returned to the Wye: not as one flying from something they dread, but as one seeking the thing they love.

In this article I have tried to identify and convey an important concept regarding our approaches to travel, by setting out the ideas of escapism against a more holistic approach. I aim to persuade my reader towards trails which place a greater emphasis on understanding the cultures at the heart of the areas of interest we have as travellers. Building on the sense of achievement one gains from summiting a challenging peak, I believe a greater sense of being is achieved when reconciling oneself against the diversity of ideas which our planet has to offer.

“In the wake of this article, I shall explore a variety of trails, so-picked for the opportunities for community engagement which they afford, and invite my readers to move away from the well trodden paths of the world’s most famous trails, and to explore life away from the thoroughfares. Follow along to learn of the experiences and opportunities that can be found on the Lares Trail, the Annapura Trail, the Pitons of St. Lucia, on Mt. Kilimanjaro, and elsewhere.”

Jonathan Gathercole
Jonathan Gathercole
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