Uluru is a massive, gorgeous, red sandstone monolith in the heart of Australia’s outback.
Named Ayers Rock by white settlers, its deed was officially handed back to the traditional custodians, the Anangu people, in 1985. The Anangu promptly returned the rock to its original name, and installed signs informing tourists that because Uluru is a sacred site they were requested not to climb on it or show disrespect to it.
But for 34 years, many tourists blithely ignored those signs and happily scaled the rock. One woman filmed herself performing a striptease on the rock. Several people have hit golf balls off the top of Uluru. Many have urinated on it.
This year after decades of lobbying the government, the traditional owners finally succeeded in banning the climbing of Uluru, and announced that all pedestrian access on the rock itself was to cease at 4.00pm on October 25.
You’d think this would confirm that how seriously the Anangu people took this matter. After over 30 years of politely requesting we not climb their rock, they were now resorting to outlawing it.
However, instead of an immediate drop in the number of climbers, 2019 saw an unprecedented increase, as tourists from around Australia and overseas rushed to Uluru to climb the monolith before the ban came into effect.
Pictures of hundreds of visitors snaking up the red rockface confirmed the flagrant disrespect being shown to the Anangu. Tourists knew that climbing the rock didn’t become disrespectful on October 25. They knew it was always against the wishes of the traditional owners. Nonetheless, they turned up in droves to climb it while they could.
Naturally, Indigenous peoples of Australia saw it not only as disrespect, but as racism. And Aussies aren’t the only guilty ones.
Also in October this year, two visitors to Starved Rock State Park in Illinois scrawled their initials on a 400 million year-old sandstorm formation that is considered sacred by Indigenous Americans.
In fact, the instances of tourists behaving like jerks are too numerous to recount.
In cathedrals across Britain and Europe, there are signs requesting no flash photography, but these are completely ignored by tourists.
Rome’s Sistine Chapel is full of signs in various languages requesting that tourists respect the sacred nature of the sanctuary and be quiet and reverential. But of course, there’s always a din, as excitable tourists snap selfies and make raucous conversation.
One tourist in Nanjing was criticised for her uncivilised behaviour after she took selfies while sitting on top of a 600-year-old statue outside a Ming dynasty tomb, in spite of clearly marked “Do Not Touch” signs everywhere.
But not only can tourists’ behavior be disrespectful. It can be downright harmful.
Two peacocks died of shock after being manhandled by visitors to a Chinese zoo recently. They picked the birds up to be photographed with them, and even tore feathers from the birds’ tails as souvenirs.
At Auschwitz in Poland, an American man was caught trying to remove a piece of the historic train tracks leading to the death camp.
And in Russia, masterpieces by Francisco Goya and Salvador Dali were seriously damaged when a group of women knocked over an entire museum wall while attempted to take a selfie.
You probably don’t need any more examples. The disrespect shown to the Anangu people is racist in nature, but it’s also sadly typical of the behavior of many tourists, a behavior that can be seen as representative of more and more of us, whether we’re travelers or not.
Sociologist and philosopher, Zygmunt Bauman identified the various identities people adopt when making their way in the world. We can either be pilgrims or strollers, vagabonds or players, or more commonly we can be tourists.
For Bauman, being a tourist isn’t merely our identity when we travel on vacation. Tourism, he suggested, has become a metaphor for how we behave all the time. This has a lot to do with the looseness of our attachment to place. Like travelers, we see our homes and neighborhoods temporarily. We don’t think that we belong to the place, so we’re often not locked into the rhythms of local life. Such looseness of ties (geographic, physical, social) shapes our outlooks and our social identities. He wrote,
“The purpose is new experience; the tourist is a conscious and systematic seeker of experience, of a new and different experience, of the experience of difference and novelty — as the joys of the familiar wear off and cease to allure.”
Think about the behavior of tourists. They want the quintessential experience. They want the new, but they require it in familiar proportions. They are highly critical, supremely self-focused, and perpetually impatient. They figure they’re not coming back to Rome/Paris/Uluru any time soon, so they must have the iconic experience now!
Bauman says this posture is increasingly becoming our standard social identity.
“In the tourist’s world, the strange is tame, domesticated, and no longer frightens; shocks come in a package deal with safety. This makes the world seem infinitely gentle, obedient to the tourist’s wishes and whims, ready to oblige; but also a do-it-yourself world, pleasingly pliable, kneaded by the tourist’s desire, made and remade with one purpose in mind: to excite, please and amuse. There is no other purpose to justify the presence of that world and the tourist’s presence in it.”
In other words, tourists are jerks, and we’re all tourists.
The Anangu’s rockclimbing ban is a buzzkill. So are all those signs telling tourists not to touch or take photos. So we ignore them. Our desire for new experience trumps everything else.
Unlike Bauman’s other social identity types (the pilgrim seeking the sacred; the stroller noticing the unnoticed; the vagabond bringing joy to others), the tourist is voraciously self-interested. Tell tourists there’s only a few months left to climb Uluru before it’s closed forever, and they’ll book the next flight to Alice Springs.
We can roll our eyes at the lines of tourists at Uluru. Or we can see ourselves in them.
We all need to repent of self-interest, unchecked pleasure-seeking, and the absence of roots. The purpose of the world is not “to excite, please and amuse” us. It is to glorify God and our task is to become again truly human, as God created us to be in the first place.
That kind of being human involves selflessness, justice-seeking, peace-making, finding roots, belonging to a community, serving others, practising hospitality and generosity. As Albert Schweitzer once wrote,
“It is only if the longing to become again truly human is kindled in the man (sic) of today, that he will be able to find his way out of the confusion in which, blinded by the conceit at his knowledge and pride in his powers, he is at present wandering.”