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.

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.

Lapland is an area of immense beauty and home to the unique Sami culture, but attracting visitors to an area that gets below negative 40 degrees C in the winter is tough. It was only after the local government built a Santa Claus theme park that tourists began to show up.

In his study, Pretes understood Lapland's need for tourism. It was essential to the region's economy, but he didn't understand why people would be drawn to a cartoonish amusement park. He assumed most people would want to experience something authentic while on vacation, to see nature and how other people live, not contrived nostalgia. But he also wondered if the intentional spectacle of the Santa Claus theme park might be an improvement over "the seemingly authentic realm [of tourism] in which the tourist is permitted to wander, but is nevertheless still removed from the real culture."

More and more academics like Pretes pondered on the meaning of postmodernism and tourism in various journals, but it never caught on as a pastime outside of academia. That is until recently.

As we speak, Detroit is actively battling to stop the flow of ruin tourism. The city's post-industrial decay has already been the subject of numerous coffee table books, documentaries, and essays. Proposals to preserve the city's decay as a metaphor for "America as modern Rome" and the decline of capitalism have been met with resistance. The city wants to re-brand itself as a phoenix rising out of the ashes, with art communes and urban gardens, not as an abandoned ghost town.

Yet visitors still want to explore how the industrial center of American progress and ingenuity could have fallen so far. Detroit photo books, with images of dilapidated Art Deco theaters, ivy-strewn houses stripped of their copper wiring, and abandoned auto plants covered in graffiti, make for dramatic visuals, but they don't give a complete picture of what it is like to live in the city. They say nothing about the people, their culture, or their living history - those nebulous concepts that are hard to pin down and recreate in a museum where life is frozen in time. For that, you would need to visit Detroit firsthand.

As educational as it might be, few people will choose Detroit as a holiday destination. No classroom will be chartering a bus into a land of disrepair even though that experience would be more relevant to a student's day-to-day existence than a visit to a Civil War site. There are now tours available of West Baltimore neighborhoods featured in episodes of The Wire that would better explain the complexities of society than any textbook could, but getting permission slips signed might be tough.

Still, it's a chance to see a perspective of the world that most people are unlikely to see or ever know about. Visiting these locations and thinking about the world in this way alters casual tourism into active participation. The sightseer is no longer a passive observer expecting to be entertained by natives, but someone engaging with the world around him.