Is Nostalgia Harmful for Tourism?

Is Nostalgia Harmful for Tourism?

by Kenneth Rayman on May 30, 2020
When in the senior care industry I wrote about nostalgia being a double edged sword, bringing back the comforting memories for today’s aging seniors, but continuing down the road of 1920s style décor and 1950s soda pop shops in newer buildings would fail to impress and draw future generations. I’m keen to realize now that nostalgia is inherently part of history itself and a danger in the travel writing world as well. I feel as if I take great care in adhering to norms and showing proper respect. I’m sure down the line though, I will foul up somehow and be apprised of an error I’ve made. It’s only natural, but I do my best to observe only. I may even unintentionally provoke anger as has actually happened with changing social and ethno-political tides.

In honor of Victory Day in Russia this year, I decided to watch the 2010 film Fortress of War; the Belarusian film about the start of Operation Barbarossa by Nazi Germany into the Soviet Union. I first heard of Brest Fortress when touring the Moscow Kremlin in 2017. I failed, however, to research it’s singular role afterward thus missing a huge chunk of it and the other 13 Hero monuments’ importance for the war’s remembrance. I knew the background of Stalingrad, Sevastopol, Leningrad, and a few others but not Brest Fortress. After watching the film I felt lost; like I had, not disregarded the experience, but used nostalgia to make sense of it personally when I heard what significance it held.

Nowadays there’s an entire generation of Americans who weren’t even alive during the 9/11 terrorist attacks and I’m using an event, during speeches, before my time in a manner that may or may not be appropriate when equating Brest Fortress as the Soviet Union’s “Pearl Harbor.” The analogy is meant to give my American audience, until recently WW2 generation seniors,  the context with which they can understand a foreign event; but is it insensitive? The concept of nostalgia jars me to be present whenever guides make passing comments about some local happening, making you realize every place has its problems. When in both Poland and Norway, guides made comments about displeasure with their current government when the subject of American politics came up briefly. And in Russia and Norway, there were warnings given out about professional beggars, of which one would chase me down an Oslo street.

The image of nostalgia was first introduced to me in childhood through movies and media about the burgeoning post war community and business growth of the 1950s and the establishment of “The American Dream.” The impact of nostalgia came to light as I grew older though, learning of the Red Scare, McCarthyism, and the Korean War. In fact, one of my college thesis textbooks stated, the Korean War is often labelled “The Forgotten War” because it mars the image of the idyllic ‘50s where the American Dream took hold in the middle class. Nostalgia’s main purpose is to gloss over the unpleasant memories and only recall the pleasant, creating a one-sided narrative of any time in history. It is a danger any time in history faces when someone longs for a return of the “good ol’ days” in response to current controversial norms and events. What I/we  deal with now as adults, our parents did as well when we were children. It either was not made known to the child, we didn’t understand, or care within our own little worlds.

What if this is also the dark side of tourism, itself? Not to be confused with “Dark Tourism,” a tourism category unto itself, but along with overtourism, physical degradation of historical sites, and other societal factors, what if we could add nostalgia as a part of the conversation? In one way the event passes from tragedy to honor of the victims’ memory or the sacrifice of those lost in a brave action, but what if the lesson is clouded over by that reverence and the resulting desire to go pay that reverence?
For instance, I found myself completely unaware of the history I was discovering in places throughout Poland and when I found something that as an American I could relate to, the ceremonial honoring of our military, as I paid due respect to the fallen in a solemn way, the person next to me wanted to preserve the memory with a selfie and the perfect angle of her and the eternal flame. I couldn’t yet understand the significance behind that place of respect and/or the true price of that memory until I learned contextually by visiting the ‘44 Rising Museum, hearing the story behind “The Little Insurrectionist” monument in the Old Town, the massacre at Katyń, and the various subsequent films I’d find on Polish culture and the Polish war. Intuitively, context connected it as an honor, as a foreigner, to be able to see and experience such a place; later, it helped me form more cohesive narratives to share and ultimately respect another culture.
When we visit somewhere, are we given into the “romance” of the story which piqued our interest enough to add it to our bucket list of experiences? Or are we mindful of the true event that made it significant in the first place? The events that draw us to a location were often very traumatic and I wonder if the tourism experience leans unknowingly on nostalgia. In the case of Pearl Harbor and Brest Fortress, yes, they were similar in that they were unprovoked acts and were the start of a new conflict for the victim but what if comparison is a mockery of the very real tragedy beneath it? When standing at the USS Arizona Memorial are we really able to grasp those final moments in those sailors’ lives in the way we honor it, while other boat tours pass by and photos are snapped in an otherwise picturesque location?
When speaking of anger earlier, I received criticism for visiting the Lenin Mausoleum in 2017. Not because I was foreign, and thus no personal significance, but because I treated a grave as a “tourist attraction.” I calmly explained to that person my interest in Russian culture and its influence on the historical development of the country, so visiting Lenin was not a tourist chosen “activity” but a respectful homage to yet another part of the history that had come to define my work. I knew, also, I wasn’t looking at someone who was the best in humanity, nor did I have any illusions of his differences in character from his successor. It was just another part of my Russian journey and educating others on the culture of the country as opposed to the narrative it’s been given at large.

Places like this often have rules of conduct to adhere to: the Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor has a dress code for visitation, the sentry at Arlington, Virginia’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier reminds people to be silent during the changing of the guard and calls out reprimands to those who disobey, a sentry on a Kremlin hill in Moscow whistles at any infraction of dishonor or boundary cross at their Unknown Soldier tomb, the procession through Lenin’s tomb is kept at a constant silent pace, and guides ask you not to speak or take photographs inside the gas chambers in Poland. However, is interest, nostalgia, and a lack of decorum taking away the real story behind those monuments as people see an approaching honor guard and rush to get the perfect spot and their camera at the ready? I was sickened a little seeing people running full sprint in the Kremlin’s Alexander Garden to the ropes in front of the eternal flame at the approaching sound of loud, rhythmic, boot claps on the pavement and the hitting of a clasp against a rifle. An area that, mere moments ago, was sparse with people was now a crowd cramming to get the best angle for their camera or lift their Selfie Stick to peer over. Similarly, the thought of someone trying to take a picture in the Majdanek or Auschwitz gas chambers also sickened me, begging the question of your motivations in seeing the location.

Previously thinking of this issue, I called it “Geographic Isolation induced cultural dissonance” in an attempt to explain how events and cultures are interpreted by a third party. Does our physical distance from something affect how we understand and/or respect the experience of another? With that thought, I wrote, the last time foreign boots were on United States soil was 1812; compare that with the shifting borders of the European continent over the last three centuries, with countries, such as Poland, being abolished, capitals occupied multiple times, or societal divisions through those finding their nationality change from their heritage overnight and recognizing blood over the flag that now flew overhead. 

As tourism is related, is temporal distance making the event and its importance less distinguishable to the person standing with camera ready to capture the moment? These are real places, with real memories. Real experience that stares the locals in the face, day in and day out. There is a collection of pictures you can search out where historical events are superimposed, such as a modern day grass pasture with the black and white Hindenburg explosion in the background, a embraced couple kissing in front of the Eiffel Tower with Adolf Hitler standing next to them as he officially occupies Paris, or beachgoers having fun on a “nameless” beach while Allied soldiers around them advance on D-Day.

While I, myself, am mindful of the history that is around me, it’s because that is the main interest of my travel. I’m also mindful that the story I have may be inaccurate or incomplete and look to the locals to correct or add to it. I feel the gravity of the event and the local experience of it as I welcome this person’s share of that intimate, often personal, experience with me. I find how to connect with them on a human level with a face, name, and story rather than a temporary nameless host. But there are those that don’t and even if they are few in number, their effect and reputation possibly influence the host until someone like myself shows them otherwise.

Watching Fortress of War made me question whether I had the right frame in which to connect the attacks on Brest Fortress and Pearl when the only thing that they had in true commonality was the attack’s sudden unprovoked nature. While people can only understand something through the lens of what they’ve experienced or what they know; did I not account for the real experience behind the imagery of the film, this time? Seeing the brutality of the event on those who fought and those who just tried to survive reminded me that I could not personally know the hell of that experience. So if I continue to use that analogy I must know the “who” of what I’m talking about to explain it more in depth rather than “the Soviet Union’s Pearl Harbor.” The story of the length of the battle, the outcome, and the tragedy after that befell the soldiers and the citizens there must be also told.

I am, I try, and all I can do is be mindful that anywhere I step, there is a story that I’m either ignoring or giving space to. When I hold my camera up, I need to ask these questions: Am I honoring that which I capture? Will I tell its story correctly or is there more I need to learn? Can I truly share what this moment feels like right now? Am I even allowed to tell it or is it only something they can? The questions for other travelers should include: Do I know where I’m going? Do I know why I’m going? Am I in the right “space?” and; Am I ready for what this place asks of me, both physically and emotionally?