Dear Paul Theroux, Stop Being Mean To Tourists

Just because we can't all afford to travel like the great man, doesn't mean we're not enjoying ourselves.
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Just because we can't all afford to travel like the great man, doesn't mean we're not enjoying ourselves.


Dear Mr Theroux,

Half my life I’ve been reading your books and I’m almost down to single figures. Finally, I’m this close to catching up with your continuing output. In your travel books you’ve often disparaged tourists and depised tourism for its environmental impact and grotesque commercialism, but also for its failure to incorporate real adventure, by which you usually mean danger, discomfort and lack of privacy. My own travels over the past thirty years, though not always packaged, have mostly been of the tourist sort. So being a fan of yours and knowing your opinions on it can be a little confusing. On the one hand, a writer I admire is telling me I’m a dork and a nuisance. On the other hand, Mr Theroux, few people are lucky enough to have the kind of life that you enjoy: the freedom to leave your desk whenever it suits, take off and head for a remote spot on a map with a publisher’s advance – all of which you would probably read as critical and bitter, which is not my intention. Envy, perhaps, though not really – your life of solitary travel has evidently been at the expense of time with loved ones.

My aim isn’t to grumble about you, Mr Theroux. You’re a fine writer with many intelligent observations about the world and the many places you’ve seen and people you’ve met in it, and I respect your professionalism. The kind of travel you undertake, and by implication endorse through your resentment of tourism, however, is not possible for the average citizen of the developed world. In some nations, including your own, workers are lucky to get a week’s leave in a year. If they want to see the world, that’s the only time they can devote to the project. Small chunks, far apart. Some might dream of a windfall that will free them from the ties of a job and allow them to do it properly, your way. Some will do it when they retire, though by then many of them are too creaky and lacking in stamina to bear the kinds of inconvenience and jeopardy that you are willing to put yourself through. What’s more, independent travel to unvisited regions takes money as well as time. Your visits to out-of-the-way places were initially motivated as a professional writer – you described your first trip, The Great Railway Bazaar, as a money-raising venture because fiction wasn’t paying the rent – and they would seem to have brought you a good living.

Your beef can’t be with these people’s citizenship of the developed world since it applies to you too. As for the other factors that force people to settle for the tourist option, you express a healthy liberal contempt for capitalism’s exploitation of the global economy, but are certainly not against the working person, man or woman, per se. Just, it seems, their right to be a tourist. Your early writings came from your experiences of living and working abroad, and tourists figure very little, if at all, in any of them. It’s only since you became a traveller that you’ve had it in, in print, for tourists, and that raises a debate that has been going on for decades, if not centuries. Travellers versus tourists. The very ‘foreign visitors’ that you deplore have been heard to make that distinction too, in beach clubs from Goa to Mexico. ‘I’m not a tourist, I’m a traveller because I have no particular destination and I don’t know when I’m going back.’ Sound familiar?


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The only ones who aren’t saying it are the real tourists – the fodder of the tourist industry. Hard workers having their fortnight on a beach in Benidorm or going on safari in Kenya. It’s not a class thing, but it’s snobbish nonetheless, or at the very least, curmudgeonly. If you mean the general public shouldn’t travel at all, then it’s both, and a lot more besides. Your environmental concerns, of course, are impeccable. But your prior concern is for people and the development of their societies. If you’re critical of labour exploitation, you’re also a defender of hard work and free enterprise, and mature enough to recognise that we’ve evolved too far down the capitalist road, for better or worse, to turn back. Tourism is worth a trillion dollars a year, one of the largest industries in the world, and the reality, despite all the hows and whys, the admirable concerns, is that many people’s livelihoods depend on it.

Like I said, I like your writing. You live being a writer, and can write about it in a way that only a handful of writers can: Geoff Dyer, Michel Houellebecq – fill in your own examples; writers whose lives and art seem thoroughly combined without making them write falsely or pompously. Whether it’s true or a trick doesn’t matter, the effect is everything, either way. All three of the writers I mention, including yourself,  have written about tourism in your various ways and we believe you because what you say, in the context of your individual works, makes sense. What I might question is your understanding of the tourist experience, something you tend to shorthand in your journalism and stereotype in fiction. The idea that tourists don’t communicate with the local people, for instance, would I think be offensive to, say, the thousands of birdwatchers who visit Gambia every year. No visiting twitcher escapes the persistence of  local guides, but once they hire one he can quickly turn into a friend, one they might even keep in touch with from back home. Please don’t tell me you never paid for the services of any of your guides or informants.

You may have faced many dangers on your travels, including insults, threats, hostility and debilitating illness, but without wishing to belittle them, anyone who’s holidayed in the Mediterranean or visited the Egyptian pyramids will tell you the same story, and to them it will be just as vivid and personal. When I swam close to a shark in Malaysia, it was not dissimilar to your own description of finding yourself swimming with sharks. When I got charged by an elephant, when I feared the presence of hyenas in the African bush, when I climbed a rumbling volcano at night on Java, when I drove a hundred kilometres straight on a single road across the Arctic snow, and when I watched Bollywood movies in the home of a family in Sri Lanka, they all happened in a way as real as you would have made it in your writing, which is why I read you, and they all happened on tourist vacations. While travelling on organised itineraries and the huge profits made from it, mostly by multinationals at the cost of wage-lowering, may be regrettable, it’s most people’s only opportunity to get out and see the world and meet its people for themselves, and whether they choose to do that while they’re there or simply soak up the sunshine and drink pina coladas is really their own business. It doesn’t make their experiences any less individual, and I don’t believe it makes them morally or qualitatively inferior to your own.

If you would like to discuss this in person, and if you can afford it, my partner and I would be happy to take a trip to the States to come and meet you.

Yours sincerely

John Lake