Thursday, February 9, 2012

Australian Exports

As Australians we get a pretty good deal whilst travelling - our dollar is high, our airfares are low and our reputation as a fun loving, raucous, give em a fair go species almost always precedes us. It's a reputation that is not, as with, say the Americans, undermined by our foreign policy, which is either meek or eclipsed by other players big enough drown out our voice. For many Australians the virtues of our reputation are well earned. We have fun but conduct ourselves with respect for locals, their culture and history. But for many, and I would venture to say an increasing number, the nature of this reputation has often functioned to disguise boorish disregard for locals, as boisterous love for life. Only now, the wind is beginning to change and, as this disguise becomes more and more threadbare, the rancid smell of vomit is starting to blow back in our faces.

Perhaps some anecdotes to demonstrate what I mean when I say boorish disregard for locals. I can remember a short conversation I had with a fellow Aussie, at the smoky bar at Phuket International Airport. He and his wife were on their way back to Sydney after being holidaying there for two weeks. When I asked him if he had enjoyed his trip he replied in a gravelly voice "'was great - I was at the pub, gettin' smashed, every day while the wife was out buying souvenirs". One might ask if they sold souvenirs of a leathery faced man sitting at an Aussie pub "gettin' smashed".

In London I attended the regular event "The Church" held in a massive warehouse in Clapham Junction one Sunday. This event almost exclusively catered to the antipodean backpacker demographic. Beer was sold in lots to three pint-sized cans, and accompanied with a plastic bag, which once tied around your belt, hold the cans not being drunk. There were a series of acts, including strip shows, which could barely be heard above hubbub. A little risqué but far from loutish. As the day carried on, things descended, and it began to dawn on me that the floor was covered in saw dust to absorb the vomit and piss that was now in free flow, spouting from men and women alike throughout the place.

The difference between those of us that are uncouth louts and the rest that are overseas just trying to have a good time is at its core a difference of purpose and it's high time that many of us asked ourselves why we're going overseas. If you're travelling to enlarge your world with the understanding of another's then you've earned the Aussie reputation. On the other hand, if you're travelling to another country just for cheap booze and the chance to trash someone else's backyard then you haven't. This is because intrinsic to the Aussie reputation are the concepts of egalitarianism and a fair go. If we really believe in these things, then it cannot end at our shores and it must be applied universally.

We have next to no control over our exchange rate, which is, as it stands, gives us a monetary advantage over the vast majority of other countries. Combined with this, our unprecedented access to budget flights mean that it is often cheaper to holiday overseas than domestically. This can lead to a dangerous line of thinking, a form of tunnel vision that discounts everything except for where the money is going. It implies that the mere act of bringing money overseas is worth something in itself and it fosters a customer cashier mentality between them (the locals) and us (the tourists). This McDonaldification of this relationship elevates us above them and subverts our egalitarian tendencies. In other words - we're the customer, we're always right and we're entitled to whatever we want.

The consequences of this line of thinking is that locals are treated as an endless line of service staff, their culture, history and environment commodified when of interest to tourists or ignored when not, as a form of tourist colonialism. This is a manifestation of the unworldliness of mainstream Australian culture. People will cite multiculturalism as a counterpoint but although Australia is pluralistic and culturally diverse, the interest that mainstream Australian has in the outside world is stunningly thin. Just watch the news on any of the commercial stations and take note of how many international stories are run. I think that a curiosity in other country's cultures could go a long way to bring about a respect for the locals when we travel. Before you think that it is idealistic to expect all Australians to put down the budget booze and pick a history book, perhaps its worth considering a reversal of roles, whereby Australia features as a mere tourist destination.

Consider the proposed development of a second $1 billion Casino at the Barangaroo site. In the News Review supplement of March 3, Sydney Morning Herald there is an inset box with a series of quotes which includes one from a Mr John Lee, the Chief Executive Officer of the Tourism and Transport Forum: "It's not our place to cast aspersions on the likes or dislikes of our international guests. We must understand what they like and provide it" In a country that is currently losing a war against problem gambling, in a city with some of the highest housing prices in the world, the development of land that has just been opened up in order to build a second casino seems entirely contrary to local interests. The quote "not our place to cast aspersions" clearly implies that social issues which are attempting to address problem gambling pale into insignificance compared to the tourist dollar. Such "steamrolling the locals to roll out the red carpet for the tourists" mode of thinking does a disservice to us as a tourist destination because it reduces our cultural appeal to that of a ug boot jammed into a poker machine.

If you've ever watched an Australian tourism advertisement, intended for overseas audiences, wheel out the same clichés it has since Crocodile Dundee you'll get an idea about just how glib a business tourism is. These ads does not show the real us but how the world wants us to be. It's our authenticity that's up for sale as we're mostly being pedalled as a ridiculous caricatures. This happens in all tourist campaigns - which if were believed we'd be a world of stereotypes - flinging boomerangs and chopsticks at one another.  My point is that these caricatures, the lifeblood of the tourist industry, are a symptom of a disregard for the local culture, something that us as Australians, need to be constantly vigilant against lapsing into. So when travelling remember where the bloody hell you are.

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