I’ve worked in the tourism industry for a bit, running a trekking agency way back and recently a hotel. The experience was enlightening in many ways. One of the reasons for me to get out of trekking was that I noticed an increasing difficulty to listen with an open mind to client enthusiasm for mountain X or route Y. In itself an understandable reaction because after similar story number umpteen about Everest or lovely Sherpa’s most minds start switching off as soon as the story starts. But it resulted in awkward conversations in which clients reciprocated my disinterest with not so nice behavior of their own, which triggered irritation at my end, which in turn fueled their nastiness, and, with another couple of rounds, that spiral made for unhappiness of all involved without anyone really knowing where things had gone wrong. This unfortunate positive feedback loop somehow felt strange. As this is a sad story let me first lighten you up with one of the wake-up-happy songs that my daughter sent me (with an appropriate orientalist touch to it):
I think it felt strange because we both ended up where we started: the client wanted to tell a story and ended up feeling it’s not told cause no one listened, and I wanted to positively engage and ended up feeling rejected. In a technical sense this is not a strange loop because we didn’t wind up in exactly the same spot where we started, we ended up where we started worse off. But who cares, I have a great affinity for the concept and it’s my blog.
However that may be, since that time I see this process everywhere in service provision, be it tourism, education, health, you name it. Over time the service provider develops a professional habitus (always wanted to use that term, obviously here it’s not quite correct but it sounds great and, again, my blog) that is dysfunctional. Expecting disinterested students, boring tourists, or winging patients the way they enter the interaction creates the phenomenon, a self-fulling prophecy as it were. At the individual level, not much one can do. Most who have acquired that habitus better leave the profession. It’s a pretty autonomous process, self-awareness doesn’t really prevent it. But at the collective level an institutional arrangement could help.
Time for another of Keiko’s wake-up-happy songs:
I had to think about that during last weekend in Dahab. Tourism is down, seriously down. Operators struggle to survive (or have closed up already). The ones hanging in there scramble to get the business of the tourists that still come. On the central strip of restaurants one is accosted every ten meters by someone trying to get you inside. Don’t get me wrong: they do their utmost best to stay friendly, don’t push more than twice and generally make a serious effort to ensure a positive, humorous or otherwise final note. Great admiration for that. But because it’s every couple of meters over maybe half a kilometer, I, and I imagine many others, find it a tiring experience. You don’t want to be rude, totally ignoring these nice efforts, but any recognition just lengthens it and, unless you enjoy the banter, prevents you from having a relaxed stroll along the boulevard.
It’s obvious that if just a couple of restaurants and shops would do it, their strategy would pay off. A sufficiently large share of passers-by will find it easier to go along and have a look rather than to ignore or talk themselves out of an engagement . When all do it, their efforts cancel each other out, and only make for tired, and ultimately irritated tourists, unnecessary costs for the operators because they need one or even two fishermen on the pavement, and an ongoing risk of one of these loosing their cool (picture their frustration…), leading to more irritated tourists, making it more difficult to keep your cool, sound familiar?
If the local collective would decide to do away with the tourist fishing strategy, on average all would get the same amount of business, they could cut costs, and tourists would be enjoying the place (even) more, Dahab’s reputation would profit. Possible, but sadly I warned you) not happening, probably desperation makes free riding just too attractive, or the collective is not organized enough.
Such is life, so let me end with one way our species has found to turn pain into beauty, as that is what we’ve got left when change seems impossible.