Welcome to Fabulous Roswell: The Rise of Postmodern Tourism

What Chernobyl, Las Vegas, and a Santa Claus theme park in Finland tell us about the value and absurdity of travel


A man wears a hat shaped like an alien spacecraft while videotaping the arcade outside the international UFO conference in Roswell, New Mexico. David Akes/Reuters

In the coming months, Chernobyl will open for sightseeing. Each year, more and more people try to sneak in to North Korea. Ever been to Branson, Missouri? Ironically?

Probably not. These are all odd locations, almost the opposite of what most people would aim for when planning a vacation, yet they draw more and more onlookers every year. Abandoned shopping malls and decrepit factories are the folly of an ever-growing urban exploration movement. Sites like Roadside America traffic in the oddities of Americana, from Mystery Spots and Muffler Men to Civil War dinosaur parks. Atlas Obscura covers the same terrain, but on an international scale. There's something almost perverse about intentionally choosing Truth or Consequences, New Mexico over Bermuda for a vacation, but there are other reasons to travel besides sunshine and cocktails.

Essentially, a majority of tourism is exploration. The common variety involves seeing more of the world, experiencing it, and learning some history while away from work. In the past, that appeal to explore and unwind almost always led vacationers to beach-side resorts, natural wonders, and museums of art and history. These were once adventurous destinations in a time before commercial aviation and affordable travel.

Postmodern tourism might mean visiting Roswell, New Mexico, not for the history of alien visitation, but for the spectacle of American alien fascination.

That idea of traveling to a far-off location, sightseeing, and returning with a souvenir is now in direct competition with home entertainment systems and 3-D video games. For those still interested in widening their horizons despite the burden and cost of international travel, few frontiers are left. The mysteries of the world are well-known and easily Googleable. Locales that, 50 years ago, were considered exotic are now relatively tame. There are regular flights to Easter Island and Antarctica. McDonald's now has franchises in Africa. Machu Picchu and the Galapagos Islands are overrun with ecotourists. Mount Everest is strewn with the garbage from the thousands of hikers that pass through its peaks every year. Without the draw of something new and untouched, these locations become just another place to go and take pictures.

What we end up with instead is something artificial that says a lot more about who we are as a culture—Las Vegas, for example. The city built by mobsters in the middle of the Nevada desert is a paradoxical monument to our hubris and a reflection of our baser instincts. It's a testament to the addictive power of gambling. No longer content to define their own Western American interpretation of utopia, newer Vegas casinos have been mimicking international cities such as Paris, Venice, and New York City. In the process, Las Vegas is transforming into an oversized Potemkin village that exists as an imitation of other cities. At some point someone will build a Las Vegas-themed casino, completing the circle of absurdity.

Simultaneously experiencing and interpreting Las Vegas in this way is, in a sense, postmodern tourism. Or one manifestation of it, since postmodernism doesn't really have a fixed definition. Postmodern tourism is one part viewing the world through the lens of symbol and illusion, one part personal interest, and one part ironic detachment. It might mean visiting Roswell, New Mexico, not for the history of alien visitation, but for the spectacle of American alien fascination.

Vacationing as something more than self-indulgence is nothing new. Philosophers have been writing about the topic for the last 100 years. Baudelaire wrote about the peripatetic flâneurs who loitered and meandered in French streets, examining everything as an attraction. Walter Benjamin, one of the fathers of postmodernism, observed the abandoned arcades of Paris, a forerunner to the malls of today. Jean Baudrillard created the archetype of postmodern tourism in his book America, where he traveled throughout the U.S., commenting on all the absurdity he encountered. But perhaps most illustrative of a region's potential to draw both visitors and interpreters of visitors is Michael Pretes's study of a Santa Claus theme park in the Lapland area of Northern Finland.

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Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones is a Washington, D.C.-based writer whose work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, Morning News, Washington City Paper, and the Awl.

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