Travelling Lite

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Holidays promise imagined places but only give us the familiar.

The postcards have started arriving--and it's incredible how similar they look to the covers of holiday brochures. The single palm bending slightly over a coconut or two, the still lake with snow peaks standing out against a blue, almost cloudless sky. Or there are the views of cathedrals, monuments and museums--the Amsterdam Van Gogh, the Louvre, the Bilbao Guggenheim. The bizarre thing is how close these views are to what we see on the endless holiday programmes where bronzed TV newsreaders take a holiday in the Bahamas and try very hard to look as though it's hard work. Of course, there is always the occasional unlucky one, the young pop idol who drew the short straw and has to represent Morecambe in the rain as a place where happiness can come as easily as in Montego Bay.

Travel occupies more and more television and radio time, more and more acres of newsprint. Travel programmes give us the imaginary landscapes where we can picture ourselves as different, changed, browner, leaner, relaxed and cool with a cocktail in a coconut shell. But these places are fictions, constructed spaces where we can realise the dreams promised by some product or other that bears its name. Bacardi is a nightclub somewhere full of gorgeous sensual beings whose sweat obviously smells of roses. Deodorants and room fresheners take us in an instant to clean rushing water or dramatic mountain landscapes in the Outback.

In fact they're usually studio sets, or carefully preserved 'natural' places surrounded by newly built environments of apartment complexes and shopping malls where all the familiar names lie in wait--from McDonald's to Gap. You begin to wonder if you are 'abroad' at all. You have got into a plane in an airport constructed to be anywhere--and it feels more and more like a shopping mall anyway. The signs list the places we are flying to, but that's probably the only real indicator that we're on the way to somewhere different.

This airport, the complex, the tourist routes and crowded holiday monuments, are increasingly familiar (from postcards and brochures, of course). Because they seem so well known they aren't threatening. You know what to expect and everyone there speaks that universal kind of hybrid language, much like English. The other side of the coin is the sense of unease about what lies beyond, the foreignness outside the enclave. Beyond the familiar places, the street lighting's not so good, the brand names disappear, the street rings with strange words. Out there is the real Dominican Republic, Egypt, Cuba, Jamaica and Spain about which we have so often been warned. Risk and danger don't make for good holidays--backpackers disappear, young tourists come to grief when they 'wander' outside the circle of light.

The 'otherness' of abroad is difficult and threatening, so the global leisure corporations build imagined places where the weather's better but the rest of the landscape is known and safe. I wonder sometimes how we reconcile a culture that is increasingly fearful and suspicious of otherness, of the foreign, with mass tourism that is colonising more and more of the world. The answer is that there is no reconciliation. Instead, the world 'out there' is reshaped to correspond to the image.

There was a recent advert for an Observer 'Point It' dictionary given away with the paper. It showed a middle aged couple being mugged in the street in Spain. They pull out the little book of pictures (the 'Point It' dictionary) and the thief points to the things he wants--a camera, wallet and watch. They give him what he wants and it all ends in a smile. Whether or not it was a joke, it speaks volumes about the consequences of chance encounters with the natives--all communication with foreigners reduced to finger pointing and barter, and informed by deep suspicion.

It leads you back to wondering what travel is for. In the past, when the middle classes did their grand tour of Europe, it was from the safety of a first class railway carriage or an elegant international hotel where all the foreigners were servants. Contact with foreigners was kept to a minimum, limited to a brief sexual encounter or a stroll through the bazaar. In the age of mass tourism that doesn't seem to have changed much. The corporations are colonising bits of the world, transforming them into protected enclaves where the food is imported and the fences patrolled to keep contact with the other world to a minimum. How many tourists in Cuba, for example, go beyond Varadero Beach or the World Heritage Site that is the centre of Old Havana? How many Ayia Napa visitors see the rest of Cyprus? Not many, I suspect.

Travel only broadens the mind if it takes you out of your own world. If you insist on taking it with you, maybe it's easier to stick to the sun lounge at the health club round the corner, with the photo murals of waving palms on beaches...?!