Looking without seeing: The Tourist Gaze

The conference Mare Nostrum was held at the NAI on May 28 to coincide with the exhibition of the same name at Las Palmas, mounted as part of the second International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam. The central theme of Mare Nostrum (Latin for ‘our sea’) is the explosive growth in mass tourism along the world’s coasts.

Seventeen guest curators from as many coastal regions were asked to outline developments along their particular coastlines and to offer pointers for the future. The point of departure was a possible union between tourist development and the preservation of local cultural and landscape qualities.

The conference started with a presentation by Professor John Urry, sociologist at Lancaster University, UK, and author of The Tourist Gaze. Why do people so desperately want to go somewhere else despite the many obstacles that must be negotiated? What is our relation with the places we visit? And what illusions do we entertain about our destinations? According to Urry we go in search of visual experiences that differ from the everyday in time or culture, an activity that expresses itself in the creation of (historical) illusions. ‘The gaze’, says Urry, is the tourist’s most important activity and motive. The tourist is constantly preoccupied with collecting and comparing symbols of tourist spots (termed ‘site sacralization’ by Dean MacCannell in his 1976 book The Tourist), by means of constant photography. What is remarkable is that the growth in tourism – organised tours and guides first appeared in 1841 – closely follows the development of photography, or ’the rise of the eye’. Sites became sights and land became landscape once the original function disappeared and it became picturesque. Busloads of tourists visit churches but not to pray, façades are carefully restored, rebuilt if necessary, and fishermen’s huts are converted into hotel rooms. People no longer form part of one culture but travel through different cultures. ‘They don’t know why, where and who they are,’ as Koolhaas put it. The modern tourist even ventures off the beaten track in search of experience and authenticity, though even this track is well-beaten now.

Urry highlighted some statistics from the WTO (World Tourist Organisation). International tourism accounts for no less than 11.7% of the world’s GDP (Bruto National Product) and over a third of CO2 emissions. A constant flow of 100 million migrants and 31 million refugees fleeing ‘places of horror’ around the world constitute ‘dark tourism’.

Resort off the coast of Dubai built by Dutch dredgers.

IABR head of exhibitions Christine de Baan followed on from Urry with a wide-ranging account of tourist developments, starting with Brighton Pier in the 19th century, via Prora (Kraft Durch Freude) and Scheveningen, and ending in Dubai (where Dutch dredgers helped create a luxury resort for the financially well-heeled). Her presentation was followed by three thematic discussions, chaired by Bart Lootsma, with policy makers, tour operators, project developers, academics, and designers from the seventeen participating coastal regions. In contrast to many of the exhibits at Las Palmas, the discussions weren’t very progressive and amounted largely to a listing of the many different local problems.

Brian Canin (Canin Associates, Orlando), specialist in the design and development of sustainable communities in the spirit of ‘New Urbanism’, argued that more attention should be paid to genius loci and community spirit. Tourism is a very important aspect of modern life and vital to the economy. Tour operator René Klawer (TUI Netherlands) explained that at least 60% of the profit remains in the country of origin and no more than 40% enters the economy of the host country. The endless strips of urban development that stretch along many coasts are unrelated to the surrounding countryside. Even the snacks and drinks are flown in to make the tourist feel at home. Lootsma argued that these are possibly the suburbs of a future in which people will be able to live in Benidorm and work in Madrid.

Scotland: proposal for a Nuclear Iceberg to combat the greenhouse effect.

Migration and tourism turn out to be closely connected. New construction methods and investment systems used in housing along the coast of Morocco are imported by emigrants who drive hundreds of miles each summer to visit those who stayed at home. On the Turkish coast a piece of Amsterdam has been recreated, as have the Kremlin and White House. Increasing numbers of affluent citizens seek the sun and retire to imported settlements built alongside couleur locale. The pleasures of a Scottish village under the sun. Lootsma suggested that the famous-for-15-minutes adage can be supplemented or perhaps replaced by one that goes ‘in the future everyone will have slaves for two weeks’.

According to Urry there is still insufficient interest among researchers for the issue of tourism, while politicians concern themselves with economic aspects only. Tourism could play an important role in establishing social structures in development areas. The conclusion is that there is little economic or cultural connection with the surrounding countryside in almost all seventeen highlighted areas and that the negative effects on local landscape and environmental quality are becoming increasingly alarming. The various solutions on display at Las Palmas clarify the problems and result in exciting visions, although most of them are impractical.

During the conference the role of the designer remained somewhat unexplored. Can the above-mentioned ‘big subjects’ be solved and do designers still believe that society can be shaped? Tour operator René Klawer, the only representative of the tourist branch present, was delighted that designers were drawing attention to the problems surrounding tourism. The Mare Nostrum conference filled a gap, said Klawer, and the issues raised deserve publicity and the continued attention of both the tourist sector and the design world.