Critical Eye On Tourism
Tourists returning home from their travels are often reciting familiar, positive mantras which can also be read from any tourist guide book or travel agency’s brochure: the weather was great, beaches brilliant, people friendly and smiling all the time, all the sights bigger and better than anywhere else in the world, and the night life buzzing around the clock. Critique does not have a part in this gospel despite the difficulties encountered. This raises an interesting question: Why is criticism silenced? Let us examine two fundamental factors for this behaviour: 1) travel literature and travel-related discussion forums which encourage marketing, and 2) the common misconception according to which critique is negative.
Tourists relate via marketing communities
Critique is, in common knowledge, interpreted as something negative and unpleasant. It is all the more so in travel-related genres, in travel literature and Internet discussion forums like the Thorn Tree of Lonely Planet or Travelpod, where the dominating tone is ultra-positive. Members refrain from presenting any critique but market countries and destinations. It is not considered nice nor open-minded to speak about downsides when you could participate in the mutual praise of all countries. Tourists almost become marketing managers or honorary guests of their favourite travel destinations. Positivity has an important social function here: it connects like-minded people and feeds their daydreams. It creates a community where you can share the positive side of your world view and count on the acceptance and support of other community members.
As comforting as the communities of the like-minded are, the flip side is that they are inward-looking. The community does not develop as there is no new, challenging, or contradictory information. Instead the same mantras are being recited again and again: “What is the best country you have ever visited? Oh, mine as well, isn’t it splendid? Listen, you might also want to consider countries x and y. I just loved them!” If someone dares to present any critique or tell about the troubles he had in this particular country, he will be driven away for the sake of unity. He is an outsider who does not belong to the community because he does not share its values nor follow the silently agreed rules of discussion.
According to a widespread misconception critique and the person presenting it are one and the same thing. Critique is, in this sense, personified and explained away: it is seen as a symptom of the individual’s underlying problems. In discussion forums this means that the critical person is either seen as a sad individual who is unable to see anything positive around him, or as a troublemaker. These kind of views arise partly from the fact that critique is, in this era of yes-men, some kind of a dirty job which requires swimming against the current. It is carried out mainly by scholars and politicians who then have to harden themselves to take in all the shit coming along with it. So called normal people are rarely critical, as it is not "normal" to question anything. The world around us just is, better accept it, warts and all as you anyway cannot change it.
From this point of view the claim that one should concentrate on the sunny side of life and steer clear of things that might want fixing, looks almost logical. There is, however, a danger lurking. The introvert tendency of the communities leads to a phenomena called groupthink. It was studied by psychologist Irving Janis. Group thinking causes strategical miscalculations. In business this could mean, for example, that a self-assured product team who is not listening to customers’ wishes ends up developing a perfect product according to what they see important. They underestimate customers thinking that they know better. When the product is ready to be launched, there might not be any demand for it or nobody wants to buy it, no matter how beautifully designed and technologically innovative it is. If you think about some of the recent innovations in mobile phone business, you will see what this means in practice.
The same happens in discussion forums. The communities of the like-minded end up creating their own ’truths’ as well as the rules according to which the subject can be examined. Moreover, community members rule over other people who do not share their views. As a result, the information presented is biased and one-sided, and only appropriate for the purposes of creating communities and feeding daydreams. When a tourist planning his vacation wants to find out information, pros and cons of the desired holiday destination, he has to look elsewhere. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. When problems and challenges are silenced, next traveller going to the suggested destination will have to face the same problems as the person recommending it. This will happen over and over again, and quite often every time a little bit worse than earlier.
We believe that one of the most important aspects of responsible consumer behaviour and sustainable tourism is telling frankly and honestly all sides of the story without fear of critique. Ultra-positive marketing is misleading and will only create overly high expectations. When the fulfillment then inevitably falls short, customers will feel both disappointed and cheated. We all know that a customer once cheated is not likely to return. This is a nightmare scenario for any entrepreneur working in tourism industry. Anyone wishing to contribute to sustainable tourism, should seek the opposite result.
Critique is falsely perceived as negative
Critique looks an extremely difficult and delicate subject considering the above mentioned arguments, but let us consider a bit more deeply what ‘criticism’ actually is.
The word ‘critic’ comes from the Latin word ‘criticus’ meaning ‘able to make judgments’. Originally, the word does not have any value judgments, but unfortunately the English word has also the overtones of ‘censurer’ and ‘faultfinder’.
In universities critique is encouraged because it is the only way to create new knowledge. Also in business critique is valued as it is a strong signal of caring and devotion. A complaining customer is a real treasure for any company. He shows that he is interested in the product or service, and, moreover, he is willing to invest his time in improving it. How many customers are willing to do the time-consuming process of filing a complaint, let alone participating in the process of product development? Extremely few. Most just vote with their feet and switch to a competitor if problems occur. As a result, the company will never know what went wrong, and why their sales are plunging. The same happens with governments wondering why tourists prefer other countries for holiday destinations, and what makes expats to move into neighbouring countries.
By filing a complaint the customer shows his respect and loyalty to the company by giving it another chance. The company can make the necessary improvements if it chooses to do so. Customer contributes thus significantly to the company by sharing his views on what needs to be done. Critique is, in this sense, positive (if one has to load it with an arbitrary value judgment): it helps to right wrongs and make improvements. It is the key to success as it enables people and businesses to learn from their mistakes. Without critique, we would keep making the same mistakes time and again, without even realizing that.
Presenting or receiving critique is not easy. A disappointed customer hesitates to file a complaint, or even admit to himself that there was something wrong, because he is defending his buying decision. This is common behaviour among all customers regardless of the business field. Silencing the problem or concentrating on the positive side (e.g. “I learned and won’t do the same mistake twice”) works as a defense mechanism. Nobody wants to admit that he bought some crap because he would at the same time admit that he made a bad choice. This would probably make him look stupid in the eyes of other people. Would it not be a shame to make an eagerly anticipated, Thorn Tree-marketed, and terribly expensive vacation look like a bad joke, when one could instead make colleagues, the travel discussion forum readers, and friends green with envy?
Towards sustainable, critical tourism
Critique requires good self-esteem from both the presenter and the receiver. As long as both of these groups hang on to their defense mechanisms, and long for the acceptance of other people, and avoid efforts, there is simply no space for critique. ‘Critique’, as a word, conveys the meaning of activity. It requires that something has to be done instead of just shutting one’s eyes and mouth. Many tourists have good intentions of making a positive contribution to the countries they visit, but they end up causing harm for the same reason. Why not start today and begin expressing your opinions and ideas on how to make this world a bit more ready? As a side effect, the whole genre around travelling would little by little develop to better support sustainable tourism, and responsible consumer behaviour. Just think about it: without critique our world would still be flat and we could only travel the upper half of it. In the same way discovering travel critique could reveal us brand new perspectives on tourism and travelling.