Tourism, Postmodernism and Australia

An extract from Holiday Business: Tourism in Australia Since 1870, published by The Miegunyah Press at Melbourne University Press

by Jim Davidson and Peter Spearritt

© all rights reserved

Australian Po-Mo
Two concerns of postmodern theorists apply increasingly to tourism in Australia. One is site sacrilisation, the recognition of an appropriate site and its packaging for touristic consumption. MacCannell lists the stages of the process. First, the site is marked off from similar objects as worthy of preservation. National parks provide an example: the landscape features contained therein are privileged, compared with similar ones just beyond the somewhat arbitrary boundaries. Next comes the framing and elevation phase, when the chosen object is displayed or featured, as in the ruins at Port Arthur being set off by manicured English-style lawns. With most tourists similarly framed by the amenities that guides and tour operators provide, MacCannell might have added, mediation may come to confront mediation. If this occurs on a sufÞciently large scale, then a third phase can occur, of enshrinement.

The Melbourne Shrine, in fact, provides a good example: a vast building whose basic function is to shelter and dramatise, for the populace in general, a representational Stone of Remembrance to honour the fallen. (There Anzac Day, rather than tour guides, provides the human mediation.) But MacCannell, writing with American tourists in Europe largely in mind, cites Sainte-Chapelle, a splendid Parisian church built to house a sacred relic and which itself has become a tourist attraction. An Australian equivalent of this kind of thing might be the new $4 million Eureka Stockade Centre at Ballarat, which not only features an enormous Eureka ßag, but also has a fragment of the original in a glass case on display inside.

Fourthly in MacCannell’s model comes the site enhancement brought about by mechanical reproduction, via such things as prints, postcards and replicas: a child given a Sydney Harbour Bridge pencil sharpener might, if the object is admired by his peers, one day want to see the real thing. As a Þnal stage of site sacrilisation MacCannell points to social reproduction, when groups, cities and regions name themselves after famous attractions. Here the Eureka ßag and the Eureka League again point to a symbolic site, itself sacrilised as a sight till recently only by a single-columned monument.1

Sight sacrilisation in Australia is likely to become conspicuous over the next decade or two. This is partly because tourism, having been overwhelmingly domestic throughout our history, has really been a hidden industry. International visitors even now comprise only one-tenth of Australian tourist trafÞc, but they account for almost one-third of the income. In the eyes of the industry, a lot of ground has to be made up. So up go the signposts, signifying the sight, marking the marker, even if it is only an obscure cairn saying that Major Mitchell passed this way.

The landscape must also be Þlled. In recent years there have gone up, among other things, a Big Pineapple, a Big Cow, a giant Koala, and even a Giant Earthworm. These are not generally museums, but punctuation marks in empty tracts; not so much pagan idols as icons for a postmodern culture, specialising in selling souvenirs of themselves. They are too preposterous to be taken seriously, and in their artiÞciality almost send up the idea of a site. The sight alone is all they offer.

These monstres sacrés littering the landscape are a peculiar variant of the second postmodern concern, the simulacrum. We are meant to recognise them as archetypal, as having elaborated the essential characteristics of the subject even as it caricatures them. In America, as Umberto Eco demonstrated, replication is an altogether more serious matter. There it is seen as an expression of the original’s potency, and often as an improvement. As he journeyed between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Eco encountered seven wax versions of the Last Supper, at least ten Davids, plus several Pietas; usually a cheap print of the original was placed nearby. Its function, he concluded, was not to remind viewers that there was a distant masterpiece that one day they ought to see, but rather to state implicitly, ‘We are giving you the reproduction so you will no longer feel any need for the original’.

When Jean Baudrillard went to California shortly afterwards, he was struck by the raw energy of such ventures into hyperreality. So-called American banality arose directly from the monotony of wide-open spaces and ‘a radical absence of culture’. California might be ‘the world-centre of the inauthentic’, he decided, but this is what gave it its originality and power. Pointing to the enormous variety of such simulacra, John Urry notes that when they are put together with other elements drawn from all over the globe at world fairs or the larger shopping malls, the result is a form of ‘global miniaturisation’.2

Ideas that a simulacrum is, as the OED deÞnes it, the image of something, a shadowy likeness, a mere pretence or even a deceptive substitute, no longer sufÞce in the age of postmodernism and cultural crossover. The deÞnition is rooted in cultural certainties that are long gone. Indeed the erosion of cultural hierarchies license simulacra as never before, while more speciÞcally in tourism sheer pressure of numbers often necessitates them. Atmospheric pollution has wreaked havoc with the Acropolis; human breath was sufÞcient to damage the prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux, to the point where an exact replica of the site was carved out beside the original in order to protect it.
Recently, certain undesirable qualities Eco and Baudrillard discerned in America have become evident in tourist sites here. As discussed in Chapter 9, the label ‘historic’ no longer indicates a sometime importance of function; it has become separated from process, and now simply means old usually with the sheen of restoration. In this we have taken on the New World alienation from history that Baudrillard talks about. ‘Having no primitive accumulation of time’, he says of America, ‘it lives in a perpetual present’.* The result is commodiÞcation; history becomes an exotic, and what cannot be commodiÞed falls away.

Australian distinctiveness
Apart from its overwhelmingly domestic nature, there are a number of features of tourism in Australia that render its history unusual. For one thing, until the recent interest in Aboriginal culture, it was not, as most writing on tourism assumes, a matter of encountering the Other so much as variations on the self. Tourism has always been a kind of appropriation, and nowhere more so than in a seemingly empty continent. Journeying near and far was a way of making good one’s claim, of giving one’s emigrant existence an imaginative dimension. A new home in a strange land is never appreciated so much as when one returns to it after venturing further aÞeld.
The Australian elite, of course, remained Þxated on European travel: that story is beyond the scope of this book. In this it was in no sense unusual. But since both Cape Town and New York were less than two weeks sailing time from Europe whereas Sydney and Melbourne were always more than four, the disjunction there was less striking. Here, at least until World War II, one of the most telling divides was between those who had made the trip ‘Home’, as many of them still called it, and those who had not (Richard White has coined the instructive phrase ‘the travelling classes’).3 Another consequence was that, despite the swank hotels that arose in the capital cities and beyond, the predominant tone of Australian tourism was that it was neighbourly, practical (for many the last frontier) and democratic.

Again it differed, even from America, in the sheer abundance of available space. Initially peripheral settlements such as Manly in New South Wales or Sandringham in Victoria doubled as resorts, while in a number of cities trams would take families from the working-class suburbs to nearby beaches, where amusements proliferated on the foreshore. Beyond the urban perimeter there was camping in Melbourne’s case from Brighton to Mentone, and beyond to Carrum by the 1900s; today it survives at Rosebud. Further aÞeld there was no shortage of suitable places. It was not until the increased population pressure and urgent environmentalism of the 1970s that camping and picnicking became delimited like everything else.

A further property of space in Australia has been to dramatise shifts in touristic fashion. These have been partly determined by broader cultural assumptions, often universal in Western culture at the time. One of these was the taste for mountain, lake and riverine scenery which, when coupled with an anxiety to ßee the heat of the mainland summer, propelled Edwardian tourists to Tasmania in large numbers. Later a somewhat more attenuated anglophilia fastened on Western Australian wildßowers, which could at least in the mind’s eye be romantically picked as if in an English country garden. It was the Transcontinental Railway that made the west accessible; transport revolutions generally have allied themselves with the latest fashion in opening up new areas. The car and the aeroplane enabled Queensland to rise to prominence, with the dominance of the beach culture in the 1950s; then later the Centre, with the discovery of Aboriginality, and later still Kakadu, with the rise of environmentalism. In time some of these will dwindle in touristic importance, just as Tasmania has done and some older Queensland resort towns are doing now.

For all these reasons, while Holiday Business is a study in social history, it sets out to consider tourism as the industry that has arisen in response to the convergence of people on recognised routes and resorts. Valene Smith, the editor of a useful collection of anthropological studies of the subject, deÞnes the tourist as ‘a temporary leisured person who voluntarily visits a place away from home for the purpose of experiencing a change’.4 This deÞnition is not as serviceable as it seems, not least because of convention trafÞc, which deliberately blurs the distinction between leisure and business. It also tends to omit day trippers, historically of greater importance than they are today.

The contemporary tourist industry lumps all overnight travellers together in its reckonings, while increasingly engaging in niche marketing and product differentiation. In the chapters approaching our own time we intend to do much the same. More generally we shall note the dynamic of mobility and response on the part of the tourist, and development on the part of the industry, a triad that can repeat itself indeÞnitely until a place loses drawing power. Ours is now what Lévi-Strauss calls ‘a proliferating and overexcited civilisation’.5 Australia has learnt to recognise that tourism is at the heart of it.


This is an extract from Holiday Business: Tourism in Australia Since 1870 by Jim Davidson and Peter Spearritt published by Melbourne University Press ($65.95).


1 MacCannell, The Tourist, pp. 445; Joe Rollo, ‘Monumental pull at the heartstrings’, Age, 29 Apr 1998.

2 Simulacra: for an anthology of Australian ‘bigs’, see Amdur, It Really Is a Big Country. Eco, title essay, Travels in Hyperreality, p. 19; Baudrillard, America, pp. 41, 86, 104; Urry, Consuming Places, p.149.

3 Baudrillard, America, p. 76.

4 Australians and ‘Home’: McInnes, The Road to Gundagai, pp. 11518; White, ‘Bluebells and Fogtown’, p. 44.

5 V. Smith (ed.), Hosts and Guests, p. 1.


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