Do you need to take a holiday before you go on holiday? Or, to put it another way, do stressed travellers make good travellers? Sorry if these questions are adding to your existing levels of stress, but there is a point. And for once that point isn’t to bang on about carbon emissions and flying, but to consider how our daily sense of exhaustion and anxiety is directly contributing to the world turning into one giant health spa.
Let me explain.
I was recently asked to appear on some news programmes to comment on a well-known travel publisher’s statement that in 2007 Northern Ireland will be a red-hot destination. The starting point for all the interviews was that the statement was patently ludicrous. I’m still not sure why.
It might have been because Beirut was also on the list – or might it just have been because it was Northern Ireland? The weather’s terrible, shops close for lunch and you’re hard pushed to find dinner on Sunday night. It’s too parochial to offer a cutting-edge urban experience and too urban to be an off-the-beaten-track Hanging Gardens of Babylon-esque wilderness. When the world is a destination tick-list, why would you travel to Belfast when Vilnius is cheaper, Berlin has better bars, New York has better museums and you can fly to Marrakesh for the same price?
We’re living in a strange time when our ability to fly anywhere, cheap as chips, has coincided with us feeling richer and more stressed than ever. This has led to the rise of ‘pamper-me pilgrims’: travellers who flit anxiously around the world in search of soothing therapies, luxurious lodges and designer gourmet experiences – anything that will register on our frazzled senses and restore that elusive sense of peace and happiness to which we feel entitled. And we’re willing to pay big bucks for these luxuries, because – let’s face it – we need a treat and the flight cost peanuts.
As our travel habits have increased from the annual fortnight in summer, to that fortnight plus another week later in the year and three long weekends, we’re all guilty to a point. But this kind of tourism is all about us, and nothing to do with the places we’re visiting. And as destinations scramble to reinvent themselves as centres of indigenous pampering or culinary extraordinariness, we’re in danger of turning the world into one giant massage-and-macchiato resort.
There’s hardly an economy in the world that doesn’t generate a significant amount of its GDP from tourism. And so, in the current pamper-me climate of travel, of course it’s ridiculous that Northern Ireland – with its troubles, its weather and its proximity to home – would be a must-see destination. Its inability to pamper away our troubles, its lack of grandeur or cool cultural slickness, makes it ripe for ridicule and redevelopment.
Which – as independent travellers know – is precisely why Belfast is a must-see destination for 2007: appreciating the subtle charms of non-blockbuster destinations and supporting them with our tourist spend, gives them a fighting chance of remaining real places, where real people with unique cultures and traditions live. The depressing alternative is that it is made over as yet another collection of spas and coffee shops offering globablised luxuries with a regional twist – Giant’s Causeway colonic, anyone?
Jennifer Cox was the spokesperson for Lonely Planet before writing the travel bestseller Around the World in 80 Dates
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