All the best to HCTs and guides

This is a quick plug for Hidden City Tours, which came to life during the build up to the RTD7 conference and launched on the post-RTD7 weekend, with several RTD7 delegates among the first tour group led in English.  Not only will these tours offer an alternative to canned tours of the city, divulging insights into the social realities of Barcelona’s Old Town past and present, they will also be contributing to better lives for their local guides, as they make their way back from living in difficult circumstances.


Representing place

Barcelona map exaggerating its main roads

Barcelona map exaggerating its main roads

“The land itself, of course, has no desires as to how it should be represented.  It is indifferent to its pictures and picturers. But maps organise information about a landscape in a profoundly influential way.” (Robert Macfarlane, in The Wild Places)

It struck me that guide books, canned tours and signed tourist itineraries could be considered similarly.  Echoing Robert MacFarlane’s words, they “carry out a triage of [a place, not destination‘s] aspects, selecting and ranking those aspects in an order of importance, and so they create forceful biases in the ways a [place, not destination] is perceived and treated”.

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“The Relief of Relief”

"When this old world starts getting me down..."

“When this old world starts getting me down…”

If you love human diversity, Barcelona ain’t a bad place to be, particularly as much of that diversity can be spanned in an evening’s walk, slipping through neighbourhoods of various affluence, textures, smells, noise and colour. But this is enabled by apartment-living and jeek-by-jowl population density. Here, a house with a garden arouses curiousity. And you occasionally see where a long-term resident has acheived an abundance of mature greenery in a balcony-sized biosphere. Otherwise, the trees that line the neighbourhood streets and arterial avenues are a mere distraction; an ambience creator shot through by the metal menace, noise and fumes of a vast colony of motorists that thread in, out and around this city incessantly, daily. Which is why, when I walk up into the very hills we could blame for Barcelona’s urban intensity, I so clearly recognise Robert MacFarlane’s sentiment, “the relief of relief” (in The Wild Places).


When tourism parodies places

McCarthy's Bar, by Pete McCarthy

McCarthy’s Bar, by Pete McCarthy

McCarthy’s Bar keeps revealing on-the-trail observations that chime with my own concerns about how some places seem to be losing the fight to maintain their character and distinctiveness in the face of tourism and “inward investment”.  His book was a “Number One Bestseller” so I may be among many others with similar concerns:

“Now the Irish economy is so driven by tourism, will every special little place end up like this, as they see what’s to be earned by marketing their idiosyncrasies, leaping aboard the Celtic Tiger, and getting the builders in? A successful tourism industry can quickly turn itself into a parody of itself.”

Clearly this is pre-“crisis” (the book is copyrighted 2000), but the same sentiments can be applied to other times and places.  Just think about the comments you have perhaps heard in relation to the charm of Havana, Cuban people, other places in Cuba, and what lies in store for them once the country “opens up”.

So why is it that when the money blows through some places–investment (chicken or egg?) or tourist cash (egg or chicken?) that it seems to get spent on making them poorer in terms of charm and interesting detail?  Is there some kind of underlying mechanism (“globalisation”?) that makes this inevitable?  How can a place–i.e. the people of that place–conserve its charm and distinctiveness without “selling out” to moneyed “others” and the tourism entourage?  How should destination managers and promoters best communicate the said  idiosyncracies of the place their livelihoods are set to be based on, if at all? Perhaps, in fact, these little sources of charm and distinctiveness should be left to personal discovery and real-world encounters, with communication being equally diffuse thereafter, via post-trip musings via the digital ether and maybe even…  in books.


Real versus contrived places

In Titanic Belfast – it didn’t rock my boat travel writer Catherine Mack contrasts beautiful, “real
breathing spaces [that] are part of our living heritage”, with a designed (or contrived) visitor attraction built on tragedy and destination marketing thought:

Titanic Belfast Visitor Attraction

Reading her piece had me balancing the following:

  • investment in the places to date
  • investment needed to maintain the differing attractions (thereby benefiting the communities most closely involved)
  • the cost to the visitor of visiting (“entrance fee”)
  • enjoyment and illumination
  • underlying motives–which do we really want to be sustained three or four generations from now?

It’s a close-to-the-heart piece, so perhaps the most pertinent question is…  Which of the places she throws into contrast are most likely to fill locals–and maybe even visitors–with pride?


Respecting the power of food

In the country, food is a continuous preoccupation, not simply a pause to refuel. Country people know the sweat that goes into an ear of corn, a pail of milk, a churn of butter, bread warm from the oven, and the eggs and bacon that sizzle in the breakfast frying pan. Food is hard-earned and requires the proper degree of respect.

This quote from Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One immediately struck a chord, reminding me that the enjoyment of “country food” is intensified considerably when you appreciate how hard-earned it is, how it is inextricably linked to the people and place that have provided it, and how it can play with each and every one of your senses in powerfully evocative ways.


Sensing outstanding natural beauty

The remarkable CoaST team and people at Tamar Valley bring on sense of place to better appreciate the value of this AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, in Britain) and hopefully draw appreciative visitors to the area too.

For illumination visit www.coastproject.co.uk/theland/tamarvalleyasenseofplace.


Where white elephants roam amid “modern ruins”

A year or so ago a friend took me through the Marina d’Or development near Orpesa in Valencia.  Slowly driving up and down the deserted avenues of high-rise holiday apartments, I experienced a peculiar mixture of awe and aversion.  Never mind the environment, or local people’s interests, or indeed the cultural heritage that this place might once have afforded, here was economically irresponsible tourism development—grossly misjudged speculation—and it was staring me in the face.  It was ghostly, sickly, tacky and surreal.  (And Castellón airport lay redundant just miles away, and along with it, millions of Euros of public investment.)

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Places not destinations: a conscious shift with thinkers and followers

A previous post called for conversations on places rather than destinations.

A number of voices and sources can be drawn on to support the case against places that are contrived, often from elsewhere (i.e. destinations), and in favour of places that are enabled to flourish from within (richly textured and distinctive places; places with integrity).

Greg Richards and Julie Wilson, for example, suggest that creating places as products for their marketing as destinations is of limited value, as it can often lead to the serial reproduction of culture (Richards & Wilson, 2005).

Similarly, Chris Murray concludes that “the notion of designing identities for places should be rejected as in the end it leads to disaffection (…) and there is insufficient evidence that it works” (Murray, 2001: 73).   He proposes that a more appropriate process is to identify and build on distinctive local cultural resources for successful place branding and marketing.

Anna Pollock’s framework on conscious travel indicates a similar shift from product-led thinking, which sees destinations treated as products, albeit complex ones, by their marketers and some “been-there-done-that” consumers, towards concerning ourselves with “people and place”:

Instead of discounting their primary asset – the Place – [conscious travel advocates] focus on protecting, expressing and celebrating its unique Personality to sustain and increase its value to guests.


Memories of Down Under and visiting the “real” Australia today

When I was in Australia, over ten years ago now, aboriginal Australia seemed largely absent from the coastal cities of the south and south-east.  Not an uncommon sensation for newcomers and visitors, I suspect.

It wasn’t until I visited Darwin and other parts of the Northern Territory that I felt I had arrived in the Australia of my preconceptions, as well as the Australia of certain desires I perhaps held at the time.  I had heard accounts of horrific events and read about the chronically dislocating effects of colonial and other incomer changes wrought on the aboriginal people of Australia.  I had witnessed a couple of saddening sights first-hand too.  But I felt that at least here I was closer to Australia’s soul, where people’s connections with their environment were “real, deep and distinctive”, as in steeped in ancestry and a profound understanding of the land.

Then again, I might have been “place dreaming”.  You see I was also aware that those Australians who helped impart all this to me were in fact white descendants of Europeans, particularly a remarkable friend of my parents, the late Lance Brooks.  They too had intimate connections with this part of Australia.

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