Midway Geyser Basin overlook
Tourists getting pictures of the Grand Prismatic Spring in the Midway Geyser Basin of Yellowstone National Park (Photo by T. S. Bremer, 2021)

“Tourists want natural beauty,” writes James Conaway in Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes, “but at the same time demand amusements and accommodations that make change inevitable.” Here we see the paradoxical quandary of tourism development: the demands of the tourist trade diminish the appeal of the attractions that bring the tourists. In his essay on California’s Napa Valley, Conaway turns to former planning director Jim Hickey, who notes that tourism depends on agriculture and agriculture depends on land. Tourists’ demands for amusements and accommodations gobble up the land, which in turn destroy agriculture, paradoxically diminishing the appeal of Napa Valley for tourists. Hickey concludes, “If we ever reach the point where tourism, not agriculture, drives the economy, we’ve lost the ballgame” (257).

The tourist as consumer

In most places the ballgame has changed, and the tourist paradox that Conaway ponders in the Napa Valley is an obvious instance of this new game we find ourselves in. Tourism is a lot of things, but above all it involves a travel-based hyper-consumerism. Tourists and those who cater to them literally consume and thus degrade (if not destroy altogether) the very attractions that appeal to them in the first place.

Tourist visitors in Acadia National Park, Maine (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2018)

This self-destructive impulse, of course, is not limited to tourists alone. For all of us living in this era of market capitalism, our mindless consumer appetites inevitably end with self-consumption; when we engage in consumption for consumption’s sake, we have lost our way.

But controlling these appetites is about as easy as refusing cake at a birthday party. Our consumerist hunger is fed at every turn by the Amazons and legions of other corporate interests intent on capturing every possible dollar at the expense of public good. And despite slick greenwashing PR campaigns, concern about the future of society takes a back seat to the bottom line.

As Conaway observes, corporations can be “efficient mechanisms for producing revenue, but they are dreadful exemplars of social responsibility, since the ultimate objective is profits, not community or democracy, and the most single-minded rise at the expense of all else.” A single-minded focus on wresting dollars from hapless consumers spins us all downward in an insatiable spiral that eventually devours the very source of its own wellbeing and the justification of its own existence.

Every destination has its gift shops, even churches, like this one in Taos, New Mexico (Photo by T. S. Bremer, 2022)

A new tourist destination

At the global scale, these sorts of self-destructive spirals are most evident in devastating consequences of climate change. Our unrelenting appetites have gnawed away at the delicate balances that make our existence on Earth possible, and we seem intent on consuming ourselves right off the face of the planet.

But what an amazing attraction this will make for the extra-terrestrial tourists of the future: this little planet far off the beaten path of galactic travel where a now-extinct species of human mammals once evolved to the point of self-destruction. Travelers from every galaxy will be adding this destination to their bucket lists of places to visit.

[This essay was posted originally in 2016 – this is a slightly revised version]

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