July 25, 2005

Hypocrisy and the travel snob

Posted in People · 4 comments ·
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You’re sitting at a small bar, drinking local wine and exchanging pleasantries with the local farmers just before siesta time. You’re high up in the Sierra Nevada, gazing down on Granada off in the distance.

You pull up a chair for a civilised looking British chap who also happens to be in this remote Spanish village, miles away from the Costa del Sol. You both marvel at the beauty of the place, how unspoiled and �real’� it is. He nods sagely, but hesitates and pronounces that it is not as authentic as the Alentejo in Portugal.

He then makes a comparison between the Sierra Nevada of Andalucia and the Tatra mountains in that -gorgeous jewel of Europe between Poland, Ukraine and Slovakia – home of Andy Warhol’s family, don’t you know?�

Before you can answer, he adds with apparent self-deprecation that he only has rudimentary Ruthenian. It’s then that you realise you are in the company of a travel snob.

This is not a new phenomenon; the travel snob has been around for years.

But recently we have seen a proliferation of them, possibly as a direct result of cheap airfares. This means that the travel snob has to find even more remote places to go for his holidays. However, it does suggest a boom in the market for authentic experiences, rather than simply two weeks in the sun.

Figures published by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) this week reveal the extent to which tourism and travel are part of everyday Irish life. Irish people made a staggering 1,208,000 visits abroad in the first three months of this year, compared with 1,039,000 in the same period last year, an increase of 16 per cent.

This is more than one in four of us, which is an extraordinary figure. We are going on weekend breaks to the continent in huge numbers – the figures indicate that Irish residents travelling abroad on continental European routes grew by 24 per cent this year, while transatlantic routes were up 32 per cent.

Amazingly, given the price of everything here,1,290,000 foreigners visited us in the first quarter. Granted, a sizeable number of these were on business, but a significant proportion were tourists. In fact, there was a 33 per cent increase in those from the continent coming here.

And as the 25 per cent increase in borrowing over the past 12 months suggests, the Irish are on a spending spree – abroad as well as at home.

So while foreigners spent �711 million here, we spent �857 million abroad. This is quite an achievement because there were more tourists coming here than us going abroad and most countries are considerably cheaper than Ireland. So we were consuming heroically when we were abroad.

However, all this travel, cheap flights and tourism will simply make the travel snob more aggressive in his pursuit of the exotic, uncharted and undiscovered.

Two friends of mine who suffer acutely from this travel snobbery affliction announced about a decade ago that �tourists had ruined Mexico’�. The following year they told me that Egypt was similarly desecrated. Undaunted, they started taking their summer holidays in the oddest of locations.

First, there was the four weeks in Uganda, which was described on their return as �difficult’�. Best of all was the month travelling around west Africa, Ghana, Nigeria and Togo. When I asked my friends how it went, I was told it was �hard’�, which struck me as a rather odd way to describe your annual holiday.

Not surprising when you think that there is no electricity for most of the day in these places. Maybe that’s the attraction – possibly Sierra Leone was �ruined’� by the arrival of electricity.

Despite it being a vision of hell for most sane individuals, the phenomenon of travel snobbery is on the rise. A few years back in Thailand, I was told the distinction between a �traveller’� and a mere �tourist’�. We were all tourists as far as I was concerned, but I was mistaken � travellers were quite, quite different. Travellers stayed in hostels and got crowded, sweaty overnight trains to Laos.

Travellers were at one with the people of the area until it came to prices, when they haggled for everything and prided themselves on the fact that they were surviving on something ludicrous like 5p a day.

Now, of course, Asian travellers are really only tu’ppence ha’penny travellers when compared with the hardcore travel snob who goes to the Burkina Faso film festival every year, but the symptoms are the same.

Both the amateur traveller in Thailand and his snooty counterpart breakout in a rash at the sight of a package tour. Nothing fills the travel snob with such dread as the prospect of a tour bus full of people from their own country.

The travel snob seeks out the weirdest and most inhospitable places, always trying to outdo his last adventure to reach the peak of travel snobbery by going on a three-week barefoot walking holiday with an Inuit guide in the Baring Straits.

Despite all their subtle and hierarchical differences, what binds the travel snobs together is the sense that the natives are on their side, that the furtive glance of a tribesman is an acknowledgement of empathy. It is much more likely to be a flirting game aimed at fleecing the European eejit in his Gortex, all-weather trousers with all the pockets.

It is ludicrous to think that the natives regard travellers differently to the way in which Irish slibhins regard out-sized Americans who’ve waddled onto the pony and traps in Killarney.

But, like all snobbery, travel snobbery exists in the mind. It is simply an extension of the tribal shopping pattern. People are not just saying �oh, I like that’� rather they are saying, �oh, I am like that’�. So if you go to Iran or Uzbekistan and eat almonds with the nomadic shepherds then you’re an Irany-Uzbekistany-almond-nutty type of person who is a cultural cut above someone who pays the GDP of a small African country for a fortnight at the Sandy Lane resort in Barbados.

Over the coming years, these cultural statements are going to become rather less important for the moneyed classes.

The more successful Michael O’Leary is at bringing down airfares, the more the cultured classes will seek out the Tatra mountains in Slovakia.

This is good news for the travel industry in general and even better news for opportunists in the likes of the Andes and the Gobi Desert. These trends will not be limited to professionals in places like Donnybrook and Notting Hill – people everywhere will be on the move.

Soon individuals whose parents never left their own village will be trying out exotic places just to be different.

So if you are about to take your two weeks in the sun, dreaming of a business opportunity that might get you away from the humdrum office for good, look no further than the travel snobs you will see in Dublin Airport with one way tickets to Baku or Tashkent.

In the future, as the rest of us continue to blight the most spectacular parts of the globe with our football shirts and beer cans, they will pay even more to get away from the masses. Why not get your slice of the world’s fastest growing business?

These clients will never complain to you – they would rather die than let it be known their �authentic’� adventure was actually devised, planned and executed by someone else!


  1. Hilary

    Can’t you see? I’m part of the IN tribe.
    The latest in holiday tribalism here in NY is evident in the
    obscure clues brandished by the IN tribes, obscure of course
    to those on the outside.
    The New York Times Sunday Styles section yesterday had an
    entertaining article on the latest in these totems. A canvas
    tote bag embroidered with a zip code, however if you don’t
    recognize that zip code that’s because you are not IN….How
    could one of any standing not know the zip code for
    Southampton? The most desirable holiday spot on Long Island
    for the wealthy and their wannabes. Another example is the
    bumper sticker with letters ACK. I’ve seen this around a lot
    lately and innocently thought it had something to do with
    the Adirondack State park in upstate New York, great place
    for nature lovers, campers, trekkers etc. However I was
    enlightened yesterday by the news that it is the airport
    code for Nantucket Island. Holiday destination for many
    years of the rich and famous. Airport code?
    Apparently the more obscure the clue and location the better
    proof of belongingness, higher the comfort zone. It will
    take a real individual to spent his week off in his backyard
    catching up on his “novels waiting to be read list” and
    sipping a G&T, (oops, should that be Tanqueray and Tonic?)

  2. Nora

    David,
    While I’m sure some of the “Travel snobs” you describe are
    only motivated by the idea of being the only ones to go to
    those remote locations, others might be more interested in
    sharing other people’s culture. Why bother going to
    Thailand or Egypt if you’re only going to be staying in top
    hotels eating western food in the company of other
    westerners and buying western goods? Why not stay at home
    then? At least the “travellers” try to get more
    authenticity out of their experience abroad. I see nothing
    wrong with that…

  3. adrian

    I have to confess to having an allergy to the package
    tourist. None the less, I remember as a child in the 70s
    wanting to be one – as my travel snob cousins went to
    spain for the annual 2 week package holiday. – we had to
    go to a bungalow beside the empty beach in west donegal,
    for a boring four weeks of cycling, boating, crab
    catching, tripping out to the islands, up down Earigal etc
    etc…
    With hindsight we were having a priceless holiday compared
    to the travel snobs on the costa del concrete!
    If you see someone being snobby run the other way, and
    enjoy yourself at all times!

  4. Paul

    Looks like you have upset Nora. However ‘sharing other
    people’s culture’ usually translates into patronising them
    for the period of the travel snobs stay. Spot on with the
    tendency of travel snobs to seek out (exploit) cheap
    accommodation/food then boast about it at dinner parties
    when they get back.

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