The sublime, subtopia and conceit of tourismUrban centres are sprouting on the fertile plains and river valleys that once fed the population.
An old edition of a popular tourist guidebook series described Nepal as a succession of ladders, which was part of the charm of the hills. Well, the roads have reached the hills, mountains, and inner plains, and the latest edition of the series and its ilk bemoan the loss of pristine travel destinations. But the road is there for the people, and it brings essential goods and services and the world closer to them. The world that tourists and tourism entrepreneurs bring to these places is not only alien but benefits few locals, with hardly any interaction. Tourism, by its nature, as an industry works for and benefits only its direct participants who seek novelty in places and experiences, embodying nothing.
With more than 500,000 directly employed, the tourism (and allied) sector is a large employer in Nepal. In 2018, 16 percent of the 1.2 million visitors to Nepal stated the ‘purpose’ of their visit as trekking/mountaineering though only 13 percent engaged in actual ‘trekking’. And foreign currency earnings from tourism was only about Rs67 billion, which is 5 percent of total foreign exchange earnings and slightly more than 2 percent of the GDP.
Construction of the sublime
The fact that people travel to strange, foreign and usually remote and difficult lands for pleasure can be hard to fathom from many perspectives. As such, trekking is a long and expensive mode of travel that culminates in walking to far-off places with the predominant elements being danger and discomfort. At the end of the journey, the travellers will have experienced many hardships, but also perhaps an inner journey into themselves and become one with the indifferent nature that the ancient Hindu ascetics sought in places such as the Himalaya.
The modern traveller need not have such lofty goals or undergo the same arduous routes. Indeed, the appeal of the mountains for the pursuit of pleasure is a very recent phenomenon in human history. Robert Macfarlane in his 2003 book Mountains of the Mind traces humanity's recent reverence for and obsession with the mountains and their need to understand and conquer them, the latter starting only in the 18th century. While the scientific-minded discovered ancient earth’s past recorded in the twisted strata of mountainsides, the romantics found that the mountains inspired fear and joy at the same time. They had stumbled upon the Burkean sublime in the diversion and distance afforded by the mountains.
Tourist guidebooks perpetuate and impose an ideologically charged Western and romanticised notion of the narrow view of wilderness that has to be conserved to be consumed by ‘tourists’. However, there is no cultural legibility in this view as it wantonly disregards the locals whose proclivities tend to be more mundane. Hence, the tourist guidebooks end up dismissing any roads and modern facilities as intrusions in these remote but beautiful areas and a loss to tourism.
Ian Nairn, in his 1955 excoriating essay on rapacious suburbanisation and development, 'Outrage: The birth of Subtopia will be the death of us', execrates the nightmarish expansion of the concrete eyesores and senseless development that result in indistinguishable universalisation of urban features and woeful neglect of the natural environment in the name of ‘public expediency’. The result is the growth of subtopias that are neither urban nor rural, with none of the humanising influence of either culture or nature. What he is railing against is rampant development ‘masquerading as Improvement, Progress or Amenity’ while at the same time arguing for more open spaces as society and population undergo expansion.
The notion of subtopia could be liberally extended to any of the mindless development in both urban and rural areas of Nepal. Urban centres are sprouting on the fertile plains and river valleys that once fed the population. The capital Kathmandu Valley has seen such unplanned growth that its ancient alleyways and public open spaces have been encroached upon and lost within a span of a generation and transmogrified into a warren of narrow undefined alleys. The 2015 earthquake‑damaged ancient temples and monuments, including World Heritage-listed ones, are yet to be rebuilt amid the needs of restrictive Western but also domestic secular notions of authenticity and traditional, local day-to-day rituals such as worshipping and bhajans.
Roads now crisscross the fertile lands and fragile hills of Nepal, with sometimes catastrophic consequences. Road building that is intended to transform the lives of the people has transmuted into the sad realities of ‘failed’ roads and disastrous landslides and frequent accidents as they neither follow the local needs nor the ecological contours. And along many of the trekking trails that lie within the earthquake-affected areas, the settlements have been slow to rebuild or turned into shantytowns, ghosts of their former selves, in want of government and donor support and the absence of the next generation to live in the houses.
The tourism conceit
Macfarlane in the above book posits that the sense of security provided by modern urbanisation and sedentary lifestyles initially led the Europeans to head to the Alps to experience the dangers and challenges of the wild. This seems to be happening in Nepal as well, as there has been ‘vulgarisation’ of travel, aided in part by the roads and promotion of religious tourism by the government. This goes against the Western prioritising of individual over mass experience and so is not yet validated by the West. This translates into Nepali travellers not being entertained or given the best available rooms in hotels, which is rather offensive considering that the only place where one does not look forward to being welcomed is the prison, not a place of hospitality business.
As one of my senior colleagues remarked, we will become like the Alps, where one drives to the mountains in the morning for hiking and returns home in the evening. This will also happen all over the Himalayas as well, yet the tourists will keep visiting the Himalayas. That is the conceit of tourism.
What do you think?
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