Tourism as a participating sport

About ten years ago it became popular to declare that, next to television-staring, tourism and become the chief symbol of passivity in our time.

The tourist, a lax creature shamefully conditioned by the push-button mobility of automatic transmissions and such, wanted to be hand-carried through the world more or less like a Chinese emperor. The idea was to see the Seven Wonders while remaining air-conditioned at all times, with ice cubes and a translator by one's semireclining elbow.

When the noble sights got a little messy out there, a nice hygienic piece of glass between the tourist and nature would be appreciated -- anything one could take a decent shot through. For the camera, the commentators explained, was the real witness of the tour, and the slide show afterwards, the real tour.

Tourism, it seemed, was driving the world to package itself as a sort of global Disneyland, designed to cater to the prevailing taste for pseudo-authenticity. Natives were becoming costumed actors. Whole countries were on their way to being staged as pageants. The Grand Tour was turning into yodeling waiters and Buckingham guards, and things could only get worse, the social observers promised.

Then, suddenly and unpredictably, tourism became as active as it had been passive. It all seemed to start with downhill skiers, looking for the perfect slope, along with those intrepid types who negotiated the Snake River on rubber rafts. People began to ask, not "Where did you go on your vacation?" but "What did you dom on your vacation?"

The stakes went up. The scripts got wilder. The African safari, the little paddle up the Amazon, the odd climb in the Himalayas -- all became well-advertised deals.

The travel agent did a 180-degree turn from selling comfort to peddling challenge, even hardship. Thus the walking holiday, beloved by centuries of Englishmen, escalated into the jogging vacation. A travel agency in Cambridge, Mass. -- Marathon Tours -- serves exclusively those who take their vacations on the run, a potential public of some 30 million jogging Americans.

Has the passive tourist now gone too far in the opposite direction? And too fast? A case in point:

A correspondent for the New York Daily News reported that during a recent "Run the Himalayas" vacation the tour leader, bored by the slow pace of the paying plodders behind him, took off in a sprint somewhere in the middle of Nepal and was never seen again. The panting subscribers indignantly demanded their money back, and got it -- something in the vicinity of $3,000 apiece.

Ordinary people are hopping into rowboats and heading for England, or maybe Guam. The baloonists soar above them. The long-distance swimmers thrash on either side. At any given moment, someone from New York is walking to Los Angeles, and someone from Los Angeles is bicycling to Anchorage.

The ultimate wilderness vacation threatens to be a cookout at the South Pole.

One can fantasize a tour: "Roller-skating across Tibet."

The traditional tourist dreamed that exposure to Culture would automatically produce a rub-off effect. What does the spectator-turned-player tourist dream of? That some primal confrontation with an exotic part of the universe will lead to some primal confrontation with an exotic part of the self?

It is as if vacation has become a time of quest, when we venture into some lovely dark wood and pit ourselves in trials against the dragons. And if we survive, we will emerge, we promise ourselves, as true and perfect knights.

Maybe we will even understand what a true and perfect knight is.

Every tourist, somebody once said, is a pilgrim at heart. Half mystics, half adventurers at the moment, we appear to be hang-gliding our way to Canterbury.

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