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Should tourism be more real?

Editorial: Does tourism ignore a destination’s history, particularly if that history is disturbing? Yes, says Jan Morris, the highly acclaimed travel writer. “Tourism,” she says in an interview with The Paris Review, “encourages unreality. It’s easier in the tourist context to be unreal than real. Tourism encourages and abets this sham-ness wherever it touches. I detest it.”

Forcefully expressed perhaps, but when thousands of people took to the streets across China to protest Japan’s claim over disputed islands in the East China Sea, as they did a few weeks ago, I was reminded of the atrocities that had been committed by the Japanese during World War II and so understood some of what was behind it.

I was recently a tourist in China and Southeast Asia and as a habitual visitor of museums there knew that memories of the Japanese occupation had not faded. So it was not surprising to learn that the Chinese protest took place on September 18, the national day to remember Japan’s wartime occupation of Chinese territory.  Even as a tourist it’s hard to miss the significance of an occasion if it strongly  marks a country.

Morris suggests travel should be used as an opportunity for extended observations on a nation and its people. That seems particularly good advice for Sarawak, Borneo, the destination that is featured this month. Sarawak’s history is fascinating. There’s the Englishman James Brooke who with his family ruled the region for 100 years as the ‘White Rajah’. The family supposedly respected native customs although they did discourage piracy and headhunting. When the Japanese arrived in 1941 they fled.

Enter Tom Harrisson, an eccentric English adventurer who was parachuted behind enemy lines in Borneo to organize and lead an army of native soldiers whose weapons were poisonous blowpipes and who managed to kill and capture many Japanese and cause severe disruption to their operations. Harrisson later became curator of the Sarawak Museum and was instrumental in rescuing baby orang-utans.

The end of the war brought enormous change to Southeast Asia as colonial powers departed and  new political orders took shape. While the English (and Dutch and French) masters were no longer there, imperialism undoubtedly left its brand.

Morris writes about that too and I have ordered her Pax Britannica trilogy where she traces the decline and fall of the British one. Another step, hopefully, towards being an informed traveller.


Sylvia Fanjoy

Photo credit:  Ishikane, Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT)

© Riding the buses 2012

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