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The Naked Tourist: In Search of Adventure and Beauty in the Age of the Airport Mall
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The Naked Tourist: In Search of Adventure and Beauty in the Age of the Airport Mall

by Lawrence Osborne

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From the theme resorts of Dubai to the jungles of Papua New Guinea, a disturbing but hilarious tour of the exotic east—and of the tour itself

Sick of producing the bromides of the professional travel writer, Lawrence Osborne decided to explore the psychological underpinnings of tourism itself. He took a six-month journey across the so-called Asian


From the theme resorts of Dubai to the jungles of Papua New Guinea, a disturbing but hilarious tour of the exotic east—and of the tour itself

Sick of producing the bromides of the professional travel writer, Lawrence Osborne decided to explore the psychological underpinnings of tourism itself. He took a six-month journey across the so-called Asian Highway—a swathe of Southeast Asia that, since the Victorian era, has seduced generations of tourists with its manufactured dreams of the exotic Orient. And like many a lost soul on this same route, he ended up in the harrowing forests of Papua, searching for a people who have never seen a tourist.

What, Osborne asks, are millions of affluent itinerants looking for in these endless resorts, hotels, cosmetic-surgery packages, spas, spiritual retreats, sex clubs, and "back to nature" trips? What does tourism, the world's single largest business, have to sell? A travelogue into that heart of darkness known as the Western mind, The Naked Tourist is the most mordant and ambitious work to date from the author of The Accidental Connoisseur, praised by The New York Times Book Review as "smart, generous, perceptive, funny, sensible."

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“[Osborne] grabs the bull by the horns . . . Through the most surreal environments (the fabricated islands of Dubai, the medical resorts of Thailand) he is funny, intelligent, insightful and honest.” —Max Watman, The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly
When a neighborhood is described as `seedy' by some Lonely Planet prude," Osborne (The Accidental Connoisseur) declares, "I immediately head there." But even the boldest of travel writers can become jaded by visiting locales that have recreated themselves in romanticized "exotic" images, making one feel one is merely playing the role of a tourist rather than seeing anything new. So Osborne sets out to visit a tribe in Papua New Guinea that's had barely any contact with Westerners. Instead of heading straight for the jungle, however, he embarks on a lengthy trek along "the Asian Highway," clusters of tourist attractions that lead him through Dubai on to Calcutta and Bangkok. The story is strongest when Osborne drops the world-weary tone and simply engages with his surroundings: a hellish drive through Indian jungles, for example, or a whirlwind tour of Thailand's inexpensive medical centers. Once he fully abandons his comfort zone and plunges into the remote swamps of Papua, his encounter with the Kombai tribe is anticlimactic. Although he writes of the "shimmering hysteria" that came with stripping away nearly all vestiges of modern civilization, Osborne's account never fully embraces that vertigo, remaining just another well-crafted travel story. (June) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
"We're flying to the most godforsaken place on earth. Compared to Wanggemalo, Wamena [Indonesia] is like Manhattan," observes Osborne (The Accidental Connoisseur) of a dense rain forest in Western Papua. Having an aversion to the homogeneity created by the global tourist industry, Osborne set off on a six-month journey to that remote part of New Guinea. En route he visited Dubai, the Andaman Islands, and Bangkok before meeting up with an adventure tour operator in Bali who took him and a few others on an expedition into Western Papua. While all the places Osborne visited are exotic, he manages to put a new spin on more familiar tourist haunts by focusing on some intriguing aspect of their culture, like the spa and cosmetic surgery facilities in Thailand. But the apogee of Osborne's travels is reached in Western Papua, where he eats mouse hinds for breakfast with natives who have never seen a white man. As compelling as the narrative are Osborne's literate ruminations on travel and the writings of anthropologists. This Bruce Chatwin readalike is highly recommended for armchair travelers.-Ravi Shenoy, Naperville P.L., IL Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.65(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Naked Tourist

In Search of Adventure and Beauty in the Age of the Airport Mall
By Osborne, Lawrence

North Point Press

Copyright © 2006 Osborne, Lawrence
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0865477094

Excerpted from The Naked Tourist by Lawrence Osborne. Copyright © 2006 by Lawrence Osborne. Published in June 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

It came upon me quite suddenly, like a mental disorder unknown to psychiatry: the desire to stop everything in normal life, to uproot and leave. It could be a disease of early middle age, a premature taste of senility: the need to leave the world as it is today behind and find somewhere else. You pack your belongings with a bitter fatalism, as if you know that it is now time to get moving again, to regress to nomadism. You pack your bags, but you have nowhere to go. It is like being dressed up for a ball long after the ballroom has burned down. The desire is there, but there is no object for it.

I leafed through a hundred Web sites--tour group organizations, government brochures, fact sheets, traveler accounts. But the problem of the modern traveler is that he has nowhere left to go. The entire world is a tourist installation, and the awful taste of simulacrum is continually in his mouth. I searched high and low, but nowhere satisfied the need to leave the world. I thought for a whileof simply checking into a hotel in Hawaii and sitting there for two weeks in front of a television. Somewhere like the Hilton Waikoloa, perhaps, where I could laze on an artificial beach and take a monorail to the hotel nightclub. That would be more interesting than trekking with a small group through Patagonia or winging through the rain forest canopy of Costa Rica in a cable car. I could stay in New York and travel by subway to the forlorn Edgar Allan Poe house in the Bronx. No one goes there. There were exotic possibilities, but they were not very exotic--and I wanted something exotic.

Think back to the mood of childhood when you get into the family car and depart for places unknown--how difficult it is to recover the inner dimension of adventure. Modern travel is like fast food: short, sharp incursions that do not weave a spell. In our age, tourism has made the planet into a uniform spectacle, and it has made us perpetual strangers wandering through an imitation of an imitation of a place we once wanted to go to. It is the law of diminishing returns.

For a long time I had wanted to take leave of Planet Tourism, to find one of those places that occasionally turn up in the middle pages of newspapers in far-flung cities, in which--we are told--a mad loner has been discovered who has lost all contact with the modern world. It seems inevitable that this desire will one day be listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association as Robinson Crusoe Syndrome. But the stories are sometimes real. Recall the Japanese soldiers emerging out of Pacific jungles fifty years after their nation's surrender: what stupendous islands, we would like to know, had they been lost on? Once, flying around Indonesia, a journalist from Jakarta I was traveling with pointed down to the bewildering archipelagos of paradise isles below us, somewhere near Molucca, and said that he knew for a fact of a group of Germans who had sailed to one of them in 1967 and had never been seen since. All he knew was that a small local airline dropped them beer every few months. There were so many hundreds of islands that the wandering Teutons had simply disappeared. But I wanted to know which island they were on, if they existed at all. Because it's a potent idea, this promise of leaving the world, even if we know it's a myth.
* * *
Tourism is the world's largest industry, generating annual revenues of $500 billion. It defines the economies of scores of nations and cities across the globe. Between 1950 and 2002, the number of international travelers, including business travelers, rose from 25 million to 700 million a year: a sea change in the way the world conducts its affairs. The principal occupation of hundreds of millions of humans is now simply entertaining hundreds of millions of other humans. As for the rise of recreational travel, it is rising at all only because, one might presume, we are bored, because we want to have a transforming experience of some kind in a place other than home. We want a new experience--and we want an experience that is commodified, that can be bought for cold cash, but that is safe.

Tourism has also spawned many subsidiary professions. Not just agents, hoteliers, guides, and resort managers but also what are lugubriously known as "travel writers." A technocratic culture loves to precede the noun "writer" with an adjective, thus assuring itself that the said individual is not a charlatan, that is, a loner with a voice, and that he is not--horror of horrors--just a writer. If you publish something only once about a foreign city, you instantly become a travel writer. Thus, I have often found myself called a travel writer, whatever that is, and consequently I have been induced occasionally to make a living at it. Sadly, this has led to a long collusion with the forces of global tourism, to long spells of aimless peregrination across entire continents, to 1,034 hotel rooms in 204 nations. Passing one's time in this way is a novel form of dementia. The hotels all look the same, because they are run by the same people; the places all look the same, because they are shaped by the same economic drives. Everywhere resembles everywhere else, and that is the way it has been designed. One day the whole world could easily be a giant interconnected resort called Wherever.

The Marxist theorist Guy Debord once said, "When the Spectacle is everywhere the spectator is nowhere at home." But at the same time, there comes a moment of revolution in the life of the pathetic travel writer, the man who travels to write and who writes to travel, when the world he has spent half a lifetime crisscrossing begins to taste like so much dead paper. He wants to leave and yet he cannot think how to do it. He wants to transcend being the tourist that he really is and become a true traveler again.

In a way, I reached this point quite early on because I have no home and have not had one in decades. A nomad makes for a perfect tourist, but also for a perfectly disillusioned one. The travel writer in me began to decay almost as soon as he was born, but he did confer upon me the will and the means to construct a kind of grand tour for myself as a farewell to "travel writing," in which I no longer have much faith. But how does one rediscover real travel?

The word "travel" itself is surprisingly old. It dates back to 1375 and originally derived from the French verb travailler, "to toil or labor," which in turn derived from the Latin word for a three-pronged stake used as an instrument of torture. Travel began, therefore, with the notion of doing something extremely nasty--to go on a difficult journey. It's a medieval concept derived from pilgrimages. Suffering is implied, for to travel in the year 1375 was to suffer indeed. But it was seen as a transformative suffering, an escape from the boredom of daily life. Later, the notion of travel as an improving exercise emerged in the Grand Tour of the eighteenth century, as enjoyed by young British gents. The Grand Tour was entertaining, but it was not supposed to be. Nor did it entail venturing into the unknown. It was a cultural pilgrimage to the known world.

But over the next two hundred years, a curiously wild and romantic conceit took hold of the Western itinerant. Once upon a time, there used to be two kinds of places: those you hadn't been to personally, and those that nobody had been to. Accordingly, there were places like Venice and Rome, which the Grand Tour had always taken in, and then there were primitive jungles, desert islands, remote peoples, and exotic cultures that remained mysterious and inaccessible. Tourism, as it became a multinational industry in the nineteenth century, began to trade in both these kinds of places simultaneously. It did so for obvious reasons. Tourism is always looking for new frontiers and novel experiences--which it then immediately liquidates. The colonial system of that century, made safe by British gunships, made the "primitive" enticingly available for the first time. It was only a matter of time before such primitives (inhabiting the most tourable Edens) were brought into the tourist fold.

In the twentieth century, the two kinds of places became deliberately confused. And it is this forced mixing up that has resulted in what I have called "whereverness." It is almost as if a plurality of different kinds of places--some known, some unknown, some civilized, some wild--have been flattened into a single kind of place that tries artificially to maintain all those qualities at the same time, while achieving none of them. The impoverishment is catastrophic, yet since tourism is consensual it is difficult simply to disdain it. All one can do is record its strange, unprecedented whereverness.

This is why I think it must now be said that travel itself is an outmoded conceit, that one no longer travels in the sense of voyaging into cultures that are unknown. Travel has been comprehensively replaced by tourism. But tourism itself is so improbable, so fantastical, that this process is almost impossible to grasp unless one takes a moment to look briefly at its history. For, as I have already suggested, the modern tourist is the descendant not only of the pilgrim but also of the Grand Tourist and the organized travelers of the imperial age. How, then, did this evolution occur?


Excerpted from The Naked Tourist by Osborne, Lawrence Copyright © 2006 by Osborne, Lawrence. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Lawrence Osborne has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and other publications, and is the author of four previous books, including The Accidental Connoisseur. Born in England, he lives in New York.

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