I wake up at 5:45 a.m. in my hotel room in Cha-Am, Thailand, and aim a finger at the light switch in the bedside console. I know exactly where it is, even in the dark. After all, it was in the same place in my hotel room in Bali, and in Kuala Lumpur, and again in Nanjing. In fact, almost everything about the room is the same as its forebears – even down to the robe and bedroom slippers, the woven bedspread runner and the nondescript print on the wall that I carefully avoid looking at Phuket tour.
How do I know that I am in Thailand? I confess to checking the menu and hotel stationery on a frequent basis. And yet, it would be so easy to forget altogether, as so many hotel guests seem to do. It is my theory, now established in fact, that it is quite possible to spend an entire vacation roaming in a make-believe world of pools, restaurants and spas – and never have to come to terms with the reality of visiting a foreign destination, except in name only.
As tourists, we travel halfway around the world only to surround ourselves with things that are mind-numbingly and eerily familiar. And we reproduce this model of Western comfort the world over – much like the British Raj who insisted on being served tea, toast and scrambled eggs for breakfast on fine bone china even in the remote outposts of India and Kenya.
We fail to see that each time we export the same resort formula, we are asserting our belief that the Western standard of living is higher, more hygienic, more comfortable and, intrinsically, better than anything the East can offer. Out hotel conquest of the world is, in essence, a declaration of superiority. And the result is a kind of monolithic sameness everywhere. In addition, we may be guilty of actively contributing to the deterioration and eventual disappearance of local culture.
What can non-Western countries do in the face of heavy financial pressure from the giant hotel chains? They are compelled to forfeit whole swaths of coastline to the tourist dollar, to exclude their fellow countrymen from the most beautiful locations (except in the capacity of hotel lackeys), and to tolerate all the offspring of the tourist industry that sprout up to further disfigure the landscape – bars, souvenir stores and so forth.
When I first travelled to Bali more than 25 years ago, there existed a law, passed down through generations, that no man-made structure could rise higher than the tallest coconut palm. Early hotels respected that law and nestled discretely into the foliage, creating unique dwellings instead of concrete eyesores. The very first hotel on Kuta Beach was built by K’tut Tantri, author of the extraordinary book Revolt in Paradise. Kuta Beach was a pristine stretch of white sand at the time and she and her Balinese friends wanted to give their guests a genuine experience of the island. They brought in local artisans to carve the furniture, paint frescoes on the walls and cook Balinese food. Her guests, though small in number, stayed with her loyally until the hotel was bombed during the war.
Why have we lost that spirit of openness, that respect for the rich and wonderful cultures of other countries? It seems that we are locked in a world of familiar comforts, afraid to venture outside those narrow boundaries. We boast that we have travelled to strange lands, but we delude ourselves. We have merely transplanted our bodies; our minds and hearts have not participated in the experience. We return with tans and digital slide shows, but it has been, in effect, a virtual experience, conducted safely within the precincts of some resort or other.