Room Full of Mirrors:
Virtual Tourism and First World Technogaze

Kali Tal and Gene Lyman. All rights reserved

A shorter version of this article appeared in Artbyte (May/June 2000).

When he goes out

he sees the surface

of things until he catches

sight of himself in a shop

window shimmering in the cool

glass, and inside

the indistinct shapes

of a veiled woman,

a man robed in white,

bolts of cloth, pattern

a separate world.

—from Sonia Gomez, "The Traveler's Sight," Journal of African Travel Writing, Number 3, September 1997: 80)

I used to live in a room full of mirrors..

— Jimi Hendrix

The tourist is a spectator who observes and consumes the culture of the Other without belonging to it: "just passing through." Tourist economies rise and fall based on how well they can deliver "the goods"--the "experience" which, though totally constructed, does not seem vicarious to person who has paid for the tour. The tourist industry currently relies upon the willingness (or desperation) of native populations who recreate their traditional life and customs for the camcorders of relatively well-off visitors in return for monetary compensation, and it also relies on those populations to carry out the menial service tasks required to keep tourists comfortable. Imagine, however, a "virtual tourism" that replaces travel with a realistic simulation not bound to regional economies or local politics. Designers of such tours would be responsible only for meeting the desires of tourists by providing them with perfect "Dream Vacations." Does the idea thrill you? It gives me nightmares.

The vicarious life, life lived through the experience of others, passing through, connecting at a distance (gazing and hearing, but not touching) is nothing new. Most cultures have their armchair travelers who serve as an audience for written, oral or graphic accounts of places beyond the horizon. Souvenirs and artifacts make their way from foreign shores to the homeland in the collection of adventurers --the few who eschew metaphor for actual walking, riding, sailing, or flying. These artifacts serve to underline the "reality" of the exotic places now inscribed in the stay-at-home's imagination. Until fairly recently in history, this 'virtual' tourism was, in fact, the only kind available to the majority of the world's population. Those who travelled were those who had to: nomads, merchants seeking profits in exotic goods, soldiers looking for conquests, refugees fleeing wars or disasters and pilgrims demonstrating religious devotion. Those who remained home listened to the stories of those who had gone and returned, gazing in awe at relics of distant saints and trembling at the travelers' tales of one-footed, quasi-human anthropophagi.

Fodder for the imagination of the virtual tourist was moreover, hard to come by. Travelling was often difficult and unpleasant even in familiar regions. Venturing into literally uncharted territory was dangerous and frequently fatal. But as methods of transportation improved, distant regions grew more accessible to outsiders and were fully charted. Colonial powers conquered the lands they'd "discovered," subduing the "natives" and bringing the bureaucratic structures of imperialism to every New World, Asian, African, Australian and Pacific island port. And as the European colonial regimes expanded, "tourism" in the sense of actual travel for the sake of personal pleasure began to emerge. Originally a pastime of the privileged classes, tourism expanded during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to include a increasingly wide range of social classes and 'exotic' destinations. As tourism became an increasingly popular pastime, the old literary genre of the travel narrative began to morph into the commercial travel guide. Murrays and Baedeckers abounded, and for those who preferred more exotic fare (without necessarily actually going anywhere 'primitive' or 'dangerous') there were the colonialist monographs printed in National Geographic. By the late 20th century, tourists (real and virtual) could find multiple guidebooks for every region and country of the world.

Enough history. Despite the 'expansion' of tourism between the eighteenth century and the present day, in order actually to be a tourist you still need to have 1) leisure time and 2) money. This leaves out the bulk of the world's population, who have little of either. In Third World and in poorer nations, the bulk of the citizenry still stays at home. In the few countries that are (relative to the rest of world) very rich (for example, the United States, Canada, Japan, most of the nations of western and northern Europe), travel for pleasure is much more commonplace. Tourism, in fact, is the largest global industry, and is supported by three pillars: the business and professional class, the military, and mass tourism dedicated to serving the vacationing middle- and upper-class populations of the First World.

All tourists are initially armchair travellers. In order to plan a trip, one first has to have an idea where one is going. Today those ideas are most often derived from travel brochures, television commercials, and popular culture. Countries hire public relations firms to help them plan campaigns that will improve their international image and attract more tourists. We're inundated with images of "exotic" foreign lands, often to the point where it becomes background noise, tuned out with barely a thought, though the images with which we are bombarded have a long half-life. The "Welcome to Jamaica!" posters plastered on travel agency walls and routinely hung in American-Jamaican restaurants are already cliché, with their happy, smiling native children and bikini-clad or wet-t-shirt-wearing black models silhouetted by sky and sea. On television the same images serve as background to smiling, beautiful young Euro-American couples who cavort in the camera's eye--a promise of renewed romance in a primitive paradise. Japan is represented by the requisite shot of Mt. Fujiyama reflected in water, the high-rise buildings of Tokyo, and geishas in traditional white makeup and elaborate kimonos. I could go on, but there's no need. Use the search engine of your choice and type: "Travel [country]" and you'll get a list of tourism sites, most of which use imagery so similar it's hard to believe that there isn't at least a tacit agreement on the character and composition of each nation in pop culture representation.

Expectations serve as filters for reality, and it's no surprise that travelers often "read" the landscape and population of the foreign countries they visit in a way that affirms the images that attracted them to that country in the first place. In addition, the tourist industry does its best to make image and "reality" match. Resorts are located in remote and "unspoiled" scenic sites, and are planned to provide access only to members of the local population who are employees and who have been taught proper conduct (i.e., conduct that matches what the tourists expect). Resort workers are sometimes instructed to wear "the colorful costumes of their native land" to please tourists, when in fact the daily dress of the locals is quite different. Tours are carefully planned to take visitors to picturesque locations, and travel outside of protected and manicured areas is strongly discouraged, usually by claiming that non-tourist areas are dangerous. So there's a sense in which "real" tourism may be always already virtual in the sense that Disneyland is virtual or, in Baudrillard's terms (and what cyberculture essay can do without Baudrillard?) simulation.

The presence of the internet lifts the question of "real" versus the "simulated" tourist experience to a new level of complexity. The metaphors of motion and geographical location are central to our conception of the internet. We "go to" each new URL, we "surf" the Web, we "meet" in chatrooms or MOOs whose net.addresses we take most literally as "addresses". We rely on the power of the image, the community of imagination, the immediacy of the media, to put a roof over our heads and a floor under our feet in an environment that, for many of us, feels almost "real." This is not to suggest that someone who is, say, looking at a website advertising tourism in Barbados is going to think the experience is the same as actually going there. Not yet, anyway. But the concept of cyber- "space" increasingly maps our experience of the online "world" onto something that is, perhaps, as real as anything else in our lives. Certainly the boundary between a neatly manicured "tourist" experience in the "real" world and a well-presented advertisement or cyber-tour is getting blurrier and blurrier.

Since "real" tourism is most often promoted and managed by governments and organizations heavily dependent upon First World funds, it's not surprising that reality is frequently reshaped to suit fiction, or that the fictions created are often Western stories rather than those of the natives. It's a small step to replace reality entirely with fiction, either in "real world" simulations (like Disney's Epcott Center, which simultaneously sanitizes, commercializes and exoticizes foreign cultures) or in electronic virtual simulations. Proponents and opponents of virtual culture have pointed out that "virtual tourism" is already possible in limited form, and some suggest that a more compelling form of virtual reality will eventually replace "real" travel, epitomized in popular culture in the form of the Holodeck on Star Trek. In the Holodeck you can be any person, of any gender or race, at any time in history. Program in your desires and, voila!, you will "be there." And if the Holodeck seems too far fetched for you, consider the new phenomenon of virtual-reality simulator rides. At the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas, you can walk into "Star Trek: The Experience", a 70 million dollar simulation of the starship Enterprise. Epcott Center on steroids, perhaps? On a more terrestrial tack, Bank of America is using a smaller virtual reality simulator to run "Outback Airlines" for its "Down Under Tour", a travelling ad-stravaganza promoting the Bank's sponsorship of the summer Olympics in Sydney. This simulator is about the size of a minivan, is mounted on hydraulics and can "fly" it's "passengers" anywhere in the world, or outer space, for that matter. You can "go" to Mars or Australia already. The only limit is the rapidly dropping price of computer power.

The question is not whether "real" is better than "virtual," but rather who does the imagining and whose story is replaced by the product of whose imagination. If it's the middle- and upper-classes of developed countries whose fantasies and desires are reflected in virtual tourism (as they are reflected in the resorts of modern-day mass tourism), then we can expect the status quo to remain unchanged: things will be more like they are now than they ever were before. One can see this happening already in real-time discussions on the net, where black people are in very short supply, and where representations of black folks are much more likely to be drafted by white writers than black writers. For example, in virtual interactive environments like MOOs, it's common knowledge that most of the characters self-presenting as black are actually white, just as most "beautiful Asian girls" are neither Asian, nor girls. And even in ostensibly all-black forums, black netters can tell story after story of catching out whites who attempt to pass. This sort of identity tourism (detailed most notably by Lisa Nakamura's article listed in the URL below: results in a situation where most of the "black" people that white players run into are actually white people enacting their fantasies about what black people are, and confirming the reality of those fantasies in the minds of the white players with whom they converse on-line. "Real" black people are at best redundant, and at worst, annoying eruptions in this white-generated fantasy world and one assumes that it would be a relief if they simply disappeared and quit messing with the plotline.

Likewise the presence of real "natives" may soon no longer be required. It will be possible to travel through a "Global Village" in which there are, in fact, no actual villagers. The upper- and middle-classes have always imagined the poor and oppressed, and seldom interacted with them as individuals, so what would be new about virtual tourism, except in degree? Maybe nothing much. Maybe indigenous populations would be left alone, finally, to direct their countries and their cultures as they saw fit, without the pressures of global mass tourism twisting their economies and pressuring them into imitating Western ideas about "traditional" life. Then again, it's hard to envision the neglect of the tourist industry as benign in the face of global capitalism. Part of what holds multinational corporations back from raping and plundering all the natural resources of underdeveloped and poor countries is that the scenery (or at least some of it) must be preserved for the tourists. And though it's hard to tell how much multinational employers care about the opinions of tourists (Nike factories are, for example, located far off the beaten tourist track and closed to the Western public), I suspect that without even the threat of being seen by representatives of the developed world, they'd happily engage in even more barbaric, repressive and exploitive employment practices than ever.

Ninety-percent of the world's current population will never in their lives make a phone call, so access to the virtual "destinations" on the internet (not to mention the high-priced systems one needs to access virtual reality in its current infant form) is available to a population pretty similar to the one that can afford "real" tourist travel. It's a given, then, that even when "true" virtual reality becomes possible and affordable for the social class that currently has access to the internet, we'll have ten percent of the world imagining the other ninety percent--imagining them so convincingly and in such sensory detail that there will be no need to ever travel in the "real" world. And of course, the imagined "other" will, like the imagined Anthropophagi of old, only serve to reinforce the self-image of those who do the imagining. Are you thrilled with a room full of mirrors?