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The End of Elsewhere: Travels Among the Tourists

by Taras Grescoe

These are grim times for travel writing. The glory years, of course, were 1980s and ’90s, when countless authors set out in search of a share of the riches discovered by giants like Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux. Now, as the rush peters out, it seems as if they’ve trod down every road, flushed out every last hill tribe and virgin beach. Mean-while, thoughtful writers have begun to question the assumptions underlying the whole undertaking. Has the genre, with its inevitable “I” passing judgment on an exotic “Other,” been all along a vehicle for Western imperialist presumptions?

Faced with such a climate, several prominent writers have, at least temporarily, simply put travel writing aside. Nicholas Crane has gone over to biography with his Mercator: The Man Who Mapped the Planet, while Philip Marsden recently switched to writing fiction. Canada’s Taras Grescoe, author of Sacre Blues: An Unsentimental Journey Through Quebec, has taken a slightly different tack. Instead of turning his back on the travel genre, he’s put a magnifying glass to it, or at least to the global tourism industry that feeds on its myths.

The End of Elsewhere is a kind of post-millennium Heart of Darkness, with Grescoe’s Marlowe on the trail of a hypothetical camera-toting, Hawaiian-shirted Kurtz. The author’s search takes him to the murkiest depths of the tourist circuit: he bunks up with Let’s Go guide-toting frat-boys in Mediterranean budget hostels (and aptly compares their booze-soaked voyages to the journeys of English lordlings on the 18th-century Grand Tour). He visits the Swiss Alps and hangs with various extreme-sports types, and is appalled by their dangerous, petty quests to conquer nature and each other. He takes a seven-day, seven-country packaged bus tour of Western Europe. The horror, the horror indeed.

Grescoe’s portraits of his companions are often wilting, and some readers will probably peg him as a familiar sub-species of snob: the self-labelled traveller who turns up his nose at the clueless masses of inferior tourists he meets along the way. But while Grescoe may be a curmudgeon, he’s a funny, intelligent one, armed with a wonderful knack for teasing absurdities and truths out of people and situations.

He’s also quick to turn his nimble wit against himself, and to frankly admit his own prejudices and foibles. Grescoe’s unsparing depiction of his personal battles with drug addiction, a compulsion he thoughtfully compares to his constant voyaging, constitute some of the strongest sections of the book.

He cranks up his critique as the journey moves from Europe to troubled Asia. First, he serves up a tough look at the rut that’s sprung up around the Lonely Planet series of India guidebooks, a hermetically sealed bubble insulating travelers from meaningful contact with the cultures they’re visiting. But this is lightweight compared to a chapter on Thailand, a place where a whole other level of exploitation takes place in the brothels and sex clubs. The End of Elsewhere is a powerful indictment of contemporary tourism and, more fundamentally, it’s a cry against the West’s exploitation of the Third World in the era of globalization.

Grescoe offers suggestions for improving the situation, emphasizing the need for travellers to actively break out of their bubbles, to engage with natives on an equal, honest footing, and to avoid tourism’s circuses. Great ideas, but the book as a whole (as its title suggests) begets pessimism about our ability to adopt them in an age when the whole world is beginning to resemble an enormous theme park. As the exhausted, depressed author gratefully heads back to Canada at the end of his long, strange trip, I couldn’t help wondering whether he would join other top travel writers in simply staying home next time.


Reviewer: Nicholas Dinka

Publisher: Macfarlane Walter & Ross


Price: $34.99

Page Count: 320 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 1-55199-082-2

Issue Date: 2003-3

Categories: Reference