The Ruricolist is now available in print.


Filling the mind is as easy as reading, but enlarging the mind is a demanding task, best and most easily done by travel. And tourism is still travel. Even shepherded tourists gain new perspective on themselves; gain the precious stirrings of what the ancients called cosmopolis – the membership of civilized human beings in, and their first loyalty due to, the community and continuity of civilization, and the principle called civility or humanity. Even if a tourist does nothing but add to pictures and names they know already the traces of smell, hearing, and touch; even if the tourist comes away with nothing in memory but a sort of deepened postcard; then that is still an improvement. For what is more bitter than Browning on Venice: “I was never out of England; it’s as though I’d seen it all?” What is more high-handed than to condemn those who hope at last to meet what they have long admired, as if their presence would diminish it? There is nothing wrong with being a tourist – nothing wrong with being just a tourist.

A nation of tourists is a healthy and a vigorous nation. Each tour improves the tourist by some increment, however infinitesimal; and each community returned to is similarly enlarged, by the presence of a human connection to what was before only a source of pictures and things. It is not logical, but it is a human truth, that Japan is shelved in the mind beside Ruritania or Middle Earth until some human proof of it is made. It is one thing to know that Japan exists; another to know someone who has been there; and still another to have been there yourself. Even the most credulous still harbor a deep doubt that something could exist whole and right yet different – a doubt which we must take dramatic steps to beat down, and can never fully overcome.

Tourism does incur a kind of homogeneity, a floating country of hotels and restaurants; but its contribution to the world’s homogenization is slight. The vices of tourists are overshadowed by business travelers. Tourism is one of the only forces – in many places it is the only force – giving value to and protecting not just the particular instances, but the general concept, of the individuality of place. What must we think of those who propose to encourage tourism – as if it were rainfall to be channeled – to save this natural wonder, this artificial curiosity, but disdain to be called tourists themselves?

Cities as beautiful as Venice or Prague or New Orleans have not been preserved to us by the pride or taste of their residents; each is frozen for us at the moment of the collapse of its prosperity. We must suppose that cities just as beautiful as these have been torn down by their own residents to make way for the brick of Progress, for the glass of Modernity. Now that these cities have, in a degree, recovered their prosperity, it is their value in tourist dollars, not their residents’ sentiment or sensibility, that preserves them. Business is business, and unless sentimental wealth pays better to preserve than to tear down, to the man with the sledgehammer it is always the season to cast away stones. Tourists vote, with their feet and their wallets, for the preservation of the places they visit. They may do damage in their sheer breathing numbers; but in the meantime their presence as witnesses deters the petty crimes of progress.

Rome died, not quickly at the hands of barbarians, but slowly at the hands of Romans. It was Romans who tore down the marble city of Augustus, breaking up pillars to wall their fields and statues to burn in their lime-kilns. Locals whine about tourists; but of all people, locals care least about their cities. The same people in childhood formed and inspired by the wonders of a place, in adulthood take a special delight in corrupting and destroying them; and when you hear a slogan from an architect it is likely to translate to: “Come, the nest is ours now, let us foul it.” It takes tourists – badly dressed, out of shape, gawking, dumbstruck, craning, pointing, peering, murmuring, muttering, exclaiming, picture-snapping tourists – to save cities from themselves.