The Art of Travel 12/31/2021
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September 1st, 2020 at 8:39pm
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I can't stand the expression.
Like foodie, quirky, bucket list, soak up, nestled, or authentic, "hidden gems" is a cliché of bad travel writing. I'm not alone in thinking this, but while lazy writing is subjectively problematic, speaking about travel destinations with the language of colonialism is objectively terrible.
Calling a city, restaurant, or hotel "hidden" is no different from saying Hernando de Soto "discovered" the Mississippi River.
Travel contains more than a whiff of colonialism. Yes, we tourists spend money, but what do we do in the process? We show up, make life difficult for the locals, transform the landscape (often in obscene ways), then leave.
In such a light, most people would welcome a "hidden gem" away from the crowds and the noise. It could be a village in Dordogne that, for some reason, everyone drives past, a boutique hotel in Miami which always has a double room available, cheaper than one would expect, or a food truck in Singapore that never has a line.
An enormous problem exists, however. The "hidden gem"
- Is only undiscovered by outsiders
- Is uniquely precious to outsiders
- Could lose its value to everyone if too many outsiders visit
Is this ringing any bells? Let's break it down to hear the carillon.
We use the expression "hidden gem" to describe something which locals already know about, visit, and patronize.
The real question, therefore, is: hidden from whom? The answer is simple: from the consumptive, potentially destructive gaze of tourists. "Hidden" describes how that place exists in relation to us as a group.
We slap that label on a location other tourists don't know about in order to give the place a special kind of value (more on that in a minute), but calling a city, restaurant, or hotel "hidden" is no different from saying Hernando de Soto "discovered" the Mississippi River.
It's uniquely precious
We know what Europeans wanted when they arrived in the New World (which wasn't new to its inhabitants): to save the souls of the godless, naked savages who hadn't found Jesus. Of course I'm kidding. They came for wealth. Natural resources. Silver. Gold. Gemstones. They came to plunder and cash in. They killed children for that shit.
Calling a place a "gem" isn't troublesome in itself. It's the pairing that makes the word thorny. It implies these colonial treasures exist to be:
We can't steal a place, but we can destroy it, which is the same thing—and that is occasionally what ends up happening.
It's more valuable hidden, until it's not
Unfortunately, being a "hidden gem" won't shield places from overtourism. It just tees them up for the future travel consumption machine unless they stay well and truly "hidden."
They almost never do.
The crush of mostly Western tourists may, over time, obliterate the location. Then no one can enjoy it. I call this phenomenon the Bourdain Paradox.
If we manage to hoard the "hidden gem," we are Gollum as traveler, pickled in Western privilege. This place that isn't mine to possess in the first place? It's all mine!
As is usually the case, however—because we just can't help ourselves—we expose the hidden gem as scarce and special. (Type "travel hidden gems" into a search engine and see how many articles appear.) Then the gem is in danger of being inundated with tourists.
At that point, the gem begins to lose its value. Our Instagram feed will look like everyone else's. We won't be nearly as cool at book club. Or the crush of mostly Western tourists may, over time, obliterate the location (this was common pre-pandemic). Then no one can enjoy it. I call this latter phenomenon the Bourdain Paradox.
COVID solved overtourism—at least temporarily.
Perhaps we can use this time to reflect on the intrinsically colonial mindset of "hidden gems."
We use the expression "hidden gem" to describe something which locals already know about, visit, and patronize. The real question, therefore, is: hidden from whom?
"Hidden gem" isn't just a lazy cliché. A travel destination's qualities don't exist in relation to us, the place isn't hidden to locals, and it's not a precious object for us to hoard or steal.
Why not just call it "less crowded"?
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Postcard: Lake Tahoe 4/30/2021
Baedeker's United States 4/5/2021
To Shake the Sleeping Self 3/7/2021
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