Editor Advocates Understanding Through Travel

Jonathan B. Tourtellot
National Geographic Traveler
Updated January 23, 2004

TravelWatch is produced by the geotourism editor for National Geographic Traveler magazine, Jonathan B. Tourtellot. TravelWatch focuses on sustainable tourism and destination stewardship. This column, updated for National Geographic News, appeared originally in the print magazine. Look for TravelWatch every other Friday.

This column often addresses the problem of too many tourists. There's one thing worse: too few, especially when it comes to international travel.

The understandably jittery United States has been issuing terrorist alerts, aborting the occasional international flight, and fingerprinting visiting foreigners. When war was getting underway in Iraq, the conflict fostered a frenzy of French-bashing, Jew-bashing, Brit-bashing, Arab-bashing, American-bashing, East European-bashing, even Cameroonian-bashing. (Cameroon was in a hot seat on the UN Security Council.) It's enough to make you want to stay home and fling the occasional epithet over someone's frontier. Please don't.

I live in the U.S. When I phoned an expert in London a while ago to discuss global warming, he took me aback by asking, "You mean you people still care about this sort of thing? After Kyoto and all … ?" (The U.S., you may recall, opted out of the Kyoto Protocol against greenhouse gas emissions.) Kyoto aside, what surprised me was how easily even this sophisticated man assumed that all Americans' opinions would match their government's official stance. Not so, of course—nor would it be for any other country.

My wife and I recently stayed for Christmas at a country hotel in Scotland, where we ended up hiking the hills and sharing dinners with another couple: She was English; her husband, an Iraqi Kurd. They'd met in Copenhagen years earlier. Needless to say, we learned a lot from each other, busting stereotypes all around. It was a good trip.

Media, by contrast, tend to trade in stereotypes. Pundits, politicians, late-night comedians—all simplify things. Travel, however, complexifies. By traveling we learn that not all French love the UN, nor all Americans hate it. That some Arabs think more about the next rain than about Osama, and that some Cameroonians wouldn't mind a little respect, please. In a global atmosphere polluted by acid stereotyping, the wisps of fresh breeze come from those travelers just back from wherever, who tell their friends with pleased surprise, "The people weren't what you'd expect. They were really nice to us." We would do well to leave the epithets at home and fling ourselves over a frontier. Travel abroad. If you don't live in the U.S., come visit in spite of the hassles. Perhaps then we can hear each other, as individuals, above the sound of the televisions.

Massachusetts Maps Raise Eyebrows

Travelers who like to visit the Berkshires, or Cape Cod, or any other place in Massachusetts for that matter, might wonder just how much more development these popular regions can handle without losing their appeal. So do people who live there, but until now it's been hard for them to visualize the future.

To help, Massachusetts completed in 2002 the nation's first statewide set of "build-out" maps. Areas shaded in purple on the maps show townspeople how much open land remains and could still be developed under current zoning.

Results could be startling. Residents of Edgartown, Martha's Vineyard, for instance—a town that saw 27 new subdivisions in the 1990s—discovered their map still had more purple blotches than a laundry load with a leaky pen.

Inspired by the build-out maps, 61 towns are now adopting another state program that helps towns preserve open space, historic districts, and affordable housing—all of which keep these places worth visiting.

Geo-savvy Tip: If you fear too much development in a favorite vacation spot, sound off about it. Visitor opinion has clout in places that depend on tourism.

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