26 August 2009

Authentic Tourism

Two weeks ago, Mirena and I spent a few days soaking up Aegean sun, sand, and surf on the Kassandra Peninsula in northern Greece. Our first night was in Fourka Beach, and while looking for an authentic Greek dinner we were disappointed to find only gyros (fast food) and pizza—in fact, most restaurants were “Italian.” We discovered the reason for this incongruity lies in the demographics of the vacationers (holiday-makers): except for a smattering of Serbian, Bulgarian, and Romanian tourists, this was an overwhelmingly domestic vacation destination (although it will probably become more and more multinational with easier border crossings—see my previous post.) This means these people eat Greek food everyday! When on vacation, they want something different—in this case: Italian.

Three years ago, during my project in Bulgaria, I was tangentially involved in thinking about “authentic” tourism. Specifically, the projects were intended to promote rural and cultural tourism instead of the already over-developed beach and ski destinations. I was skeptical at the time; outside of a tiny, scholarly minority, who really wants to go to a village to experience authentic Bulgarian (or Romanian, or any other) culture? This was skepticism was reinforced when, wherever I went in the region, I found myself a minority in a crowd of domestic tourists. I came to the conclusion that instead of tourism being the path to development, it was actually a sign of the progress these countries had already made internally.

Furthermore, I found that these domestic tourists (who, in a developing/transitioning economies we assume to be poor) want luxury accommodations and attractions as well; for the most part they are not interested in staying in a farmhouse, sharing a bathroom down the hall, no matter how idyllic the setting. Sometimes these local tourist do need some help, and this is why I am in favor of price discrimination. (See my contribution to this discussion in Bulgaria's expat newspaper, Sofia Echoes.)

Tourism promoters of any given country often earnestly speak of the majestic mountains, untouched forests and natural areas, beautiful beaches, and rich cultural history of their country as potential destinations for foreign tourists without realizing that nearly every country has magnificent mountains, verdant forests, some kind of sun/sand/water combination, and a proud history. Unless your beaches are better than the sun-drenched, perfect white sand and clear-water beaches of the South Pacific, Mediterranean, or Caribbean, then it is unlikely you will capture the interest of the proverbial rich, international tourist. (The same goes for mountains—compared to the Alps; history/art/culture—compared to France, Italy, or Greece.)

Despite hand-wringing by environmentalist and cultural preservationists in response to the sometimes ugly developments found at the sea coasts, ski resorts, and other such mass-audience tourist destination—with their tacky gift shops selling the same souvenirs, made in China—just stamped with a different name, and associated troika, this is apparently what the masses want wherever they go: Myrtle Beach, Cancun, Barcelona, or Tahiti. They actually prefer to collect a t-shirt from the “local” Hard Rock Cafe instead of authentic, local goods; and who am I to tell them they must not do this?

Coincidentally, a few days after starting to write this post, I watched My Life in Ruins (in which Nia Vardalos sort of reprieves her role from My Big Fat Greek Wedding as the sometimes beautiful Greek-American woman looking for love.) Her character bemoans the simple-minded tourist she is guiding around Athens, who only seem interested in buying souvenirs and ice cream, but eventually learns to loosen up and just have fun—which, I suppose is my conclusion as well: don't beat your self up about not fully immersing yourself in the “rich cultural heritage” of the county you are visiting, and certainly don't be so pretentious call those that enjoy the crasser side of tourism as boors.

20 August 2009

United States of Europe

Recently, Mirena and I took a road trip from Sofia, Bulgaria to Thessaloniki, Greece to visit the IKEA store there, and then spend a few days enjoying the sun and sea a little bit further south. We had made nearly the same trip in 2006—before Bulgaria entered the EU—and were pleasantly surprised at how quick and easy the border crossing procedures had become. Three years ago, a line of cars and trucks stretched back at least one kilometer from the border, and the whole experience added over an hour to the trip. Each country still has an exit control as well as immigration/customs, but the whole thing—including waiting in a short line—took less than 15 minutes.

Although they are the newest EU members, Bulgaria and Romania will eventually join Schengen, meaning these border controls will be totally eliminated, as they already have been throughout most of the rest of Europe. Then a trip to a neighboring country will be little more than us driving to another state for some shopping and/or a weekend getaway (eventually this will also include exotic Istanbul if & when Turkey joins the EU.) Now, I realize that language and cultural differences make this a bigger deal both in practice and psychologically, and nationalism runs deep in the Balkans—so a significant percentage of people will be more than happy to stay in their own country regardless of the benefits of this easier international travel. Never the less, this openness: namely the free flow of goods, people, and money—the very pillars of the European Union—is inexorably binding EU member nations together into something that is starting to look more and more like a super-nation. While this causes concern for some, I see it as a hopeful future—especially for the Balkans, which has been beset with petty infighting, fragmented markets, and most troubling—systemic corruption. In this new, friction-free super-nation countries will be forced to compete on a more or less level playing field: for investments, for shoppers, for weekend tourist, and even permanent residents.