I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and of the degree of the arcades' curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past...A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira's past. -Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Tourism and Manufactured Experiences

We went to Baltimore this past weekend to visit my sister in-law and catch up with an old friend of mine who was visiting her sister. Baltimore has many of its attractions concentrated in the Inner Harbor, which used to be abandoned factories and warehouses from when the harbor was a shipping center. In the 1970's, it started to be redeveloped with Harborplace a festival marketplace much like Fanueil Hall in Boston and South Street Seaport in New York City. It also became the home of the National Aquarium, which, though we choked on how high the entry prices have gone, is pretty amazing if you are a fish fan.

During the day on Saturday we went to the Aquarium and a nearby children's museum, and I was mostly focused on catching up with my friend Jen and keeping Julian entertained. But Kurt and I went back to the Inner Harbor after dinner to walk around since we figured it would be cool by the water (and my wonderful sister in-law had offered to babysit).

We were amazed at how packed it was. Kurt commented on the number of different languages we heard as people strolled by...In one area a crowd had gathered to watch African dance. Inside the mall the fudge makers at a fudge shop attracted attention with mini performances. People were gathered on their boats moored to the docks. All while we walked past shops and attractions remarkably similar (and yet not the same, exactly) as those in other cities.

I couldn't help thinking of Dean MacCannell's book The Tourist, which is a structural view of tourism, and argues that tourism is a way of contructing social reality, (and tourist sites, are part of the way a society structures itself). I also wondered to what degree my entertainment that evening was manufactured. Certainly the environment was planned and designed, and bears a striking resemblance to Fanueil Hall (not to mention that the Baltimore Aquarium and the New England Aquarium were both designed by the Cambridge Seven). But it was different, and not only because some of the shops sold crab souvenirs as opposed to lobsters. Was it the African dance? Was it the Finnish minelayer docked in the Harbor? Was it the fact that many of the people wandering about were clearly not tourists, but locals?

So I am still pondering this fine line between "real" and "constructed." Sometimes we forget that even those experiences that we interpret as real or authentic at the time are in fact constructed...for instance pilgrimage sites and routes are often quite planned to create a particular experience (well my own interpretation anyway, for more see my dissertation, if you want a long read).

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