Is tourism the new world religion?

The Cipriani in Venice

The holiday season is here again, and yet again, the papers and the internet are full of travel articles (as all year there have been hundreds of holiday brochures) referring to holiday destinations as being “paradise” or  “heaven”. In the autumn, when everyone is safely back home again, there will be many more hundreds of articles about holiday “hells”. Try googling it: “holiday heaven” evokes around 2,100,000 results; “holiday hell” gets around 11,000,000.

Especially on your honeymoon apparently, you want a spot of extra paradise not supplied by your new spouse: what about the Cook Islands where, according to the Telegraph, “couples can live the romantic fantasy of a torchlit dinner on a finger of sand stretching into the turquoise lagoon…. Forget Dancing with the Stars, dancing under them to the hypnotic drumming of Aitutaki’s princes of percussion sets up a marriage made in honeymoon heaven”. Not my idea of heaven, but then I’m just an old grouch, whose idea of heaven is the Cipriani in Venice.

But these paradise destinations do not always deliver what they promise: “A Shropshire woman is one of more than 80 people suing a travel firm for thousands of pounds after she fell ill on a “holiday from hell”.,.. They all stayed at the Village Red Sea in Sharm el Sheikh …”. (The Shropshire Star)

Or how about this “Holiday from Hell” , from an American blogger: “I’m just landed back in the US after… our worst vacation ever. It was supposed to be a nice week in the UK with family, a week in Normandy with the kids to speak French and then home. But everything went wrong. We… could only get [airplane] coach seats with extra stops on inconvenient days, including red-eye legs. And we knew that I wouldn’t have Internet access in France (scary!). But it got oh so much worse.”  The poor man had a “weird rash”. And it rained. “Every. Single. Day …. Then the airlines lost our luggage TWICE. Once permanently”.  There’s a lot more but you get the picture.

A character in David Lodge’s novel Paradise News is an anthropologist on a field trip to Hawaii, whose thesis is that “tourism is the new world religion”.  A sightseeing holiday is a pilgrimage (“accumulation of grace by visiting the shrines of high culture. Souvenirs as relics. Guidebooks as devotional aids. You get the picture”); the long-haul beach holiday—the Caribbean, Hawaii, the Seychelles—is part of a search for paradise. In general,  “It’s no coincidence that tourism arose just as religion went into decline. It’s the new opium of the people”.

The only reasonable advice for a holiday which you will look back on with pleasure is simple. Look forward to the break with normal routine: but don’t build up extragavant expectations, which will always be disappointed.  And don’t listen to any of that stuff about the “decline of religion”: it’s all wishful thinking. The only heaven worth longing for is the one we already know something about: not much, maybe, but more than enough.