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Wanda Vrasti, The Politics, Economics and Ethics of Independent Travel: Rewriting the Ethnography of the Travel Trope

For a number of years, the theorization of travel and tourism was left up to the fields of sociology, cultural anthropology and literary/cultural studies. In these contexts, the study of travel and tourism digressed in three distinct directions, with sociology reading these preoccupations structurally in light of the existential dilemmas of their practitioners (e.g. loss of authenticity, nostalgia, spleen, alienation) (MacCannell, 1973; Cohen, 1979; Urry, 1990), cultural anthropology pursuing increasingly sophisticated ethnographies of the encounters between “tourist” and “local” cultures (Clifford, 1997; Bruner, 2005) and continental semioticians (Boorstin, 1961; Baudrillard, 1988; Eco, 1986) highlighting the economy of signs and appearances at work in travel and tourism. Perhaps the time has come to remove travel and tourism from under the auspices of any single academic department and conceptualize its operations, implications and significations in the context of critical theory, thus highlighting the simultaneous political, economic, cultural, racial, subjective and ethical ramifications of the travel trope. To better understand the political relevancy and the ethical urgency of the travel trope, this paper will attempt to construct a broad ethnography of the travel trope by paying closer attention to the ways in which discourses of travel (more specifically, the discourse of independent travel) inscribe and naturalize various trajectories of mobility, economies of practices and cartographies of desire.

In what follows I wish to understand how the discourse of independent travel writes and inscribes difference onto marginal (Third World) localities, lifestyles and bodies to promise the young generation of Western backpackers and ecotourists cultural capital in the form of spiritual regeneration, cultural learning and life-altering experiences. In doing so, I will look at the practices involved in the construction of desire, taste and place, authenticity and nativity. I will also try to understand why these promises continue to remain unfulfilled desires or unattainable goods and how this failure affects the discourse of independent travel. This paper, however, does not seek to contribute to the growing literature that portrays independent travelers as innately self-absorbed, amoral and violent. Neither does it wish to argue that the contemporary discourse of independent travel is little more than a continuation of a colonial vision of the other, the strange and the exotic. On the contrary, by combining elements of Marxist thought and post-colonial discourse analysis, this paper wishes to acknowledge independent travelers as significant political subjects, who can (potentially) disturb dominant discourses of travel and practice more responsible modes of engaging with difference, instead. As such, this paper will conclude with an exploration of the various possibilities for responsible travel: resistance, hospitality and solidarity.

A final remark is necessary here. Classical distinctions between travel and tourism, where the former is a purer, heightened and more noble form of the former no longer hold (Fussel, 1988:155). The idea that there is some ethical differentiation between independent/alternative travelers who carry out the hard work (from the French travail) of seeing, exploring and knowing the other and mass/package tourists characterized by docility and a lack of curiosity has been discredited both in popular travel narratives (Garland’s The Beach, Sutcliffe’s Are You Experienced?) and in academic work, where critiques of both types of mobility are growing and increasingly adamant. Nonetheless, this paper will be mostly concerned with the practices of independent travel, presuming that travelers can still symbolically differentiate themselves from mass tourists through the desires they pursue, if not through the ethics it engages in.

Who Shot the Tourist?

With an infectious degree of self-irony Taras Grescoe (2003:285) tells how, immediately after being paid for his services in full, his tourist guide in the northern hill tribe region of Thailand grabbed a guitar, opened up a bottle of rum and started singing in an East Londoner accent: “I shot the tourist! But I swear – I swear it was in self-defense!” This story begs a complicated question: Who is the tourist/traveler? And why is s/he such a problematic, even detested figure?

At a basic level, the idea of tourism is based on the premise that there is a clear dichotomy between the local and the foreign, the domestic and the international. This distinction is violent and hierarchical not only because travelers are deemed as authoritative, cosmopolitan, and autonomous at the expense of the locals (after all, in a strictly empirical sense this hierarchy is accurate: travelers have a greater freedom of mobility and economic leverage than locals), but because it naturalizes this hierarchy by hiding the capitalist and Orientalist dynamics that make this structural inequality possible in the first place (Clifford, 1997). Yet the guest/host, traveler/native distinction is also a convenient one: without differentiations such as these, we would all be travelers or, better even, nomads escaping the modernist techniques of fixing difference into rigid territoriality (marginality), temporality (authenticity) and identity (nativity). While this may sound like a liberating and empowering utopia, this view of travel entails a series of pitfalls: it glorifies movement and transversality at the expense of denigrating the legitimate need for dwelling; it provides a quick and slightly doctrinarian post-modernist “solution” to a complex problematique that can only find subjective forms of expression.   

To avoid the post-modernist rhetoric of an unbound, de-territorialized and cosmopolitan world, James Clifford (1997) attempts a more ambitious engagement with the notion of travel. Departing from the premise that discourses of travel rest upon essentialist representational practices (“metonymic freezing”, ibid.:24) that localize and fix culture(s) according to taste differentiations, Clifford theorizes culture as a constant interplay between traveling and dwelling. Travel is no longer a cultural phenomenon characteristic to developed societies, but a foundational feature of culture in general. However, in identifying change and movement as universal, even primordial features of culture, Clifford risks obscuring the extent to which the trope of travel is not a natural given, but a political economy construct overcoded by capitalist and Orientalist power relations (ibid.:44).

Influenced by the work of Mary Louis Pratt (1992), Edward Bruner (2004) also seeks to theorize culture through the lens of travel yet reaches a somewhat different conclusion. According to Bruner, the roles of travelers and locals are not pre-scripted, determined in advance; they are co-produced, ever-changing and invented through spontaneous interaction. To embrace a static mode of differentiation between tourists and locals would not only deny individual agency, but also a priori assign travelers a violent role and locals an innocent one (ibid.:12). The meeting point of travelers and locals is a seen as a “borderzone”. This is not an empty space, a tabula rasa, but a space of post-colonial encounters often charged with Orientalist and Occidentalist (the reverse ethnography found in subaltern histories) tropes, narratives and expectations. Rather than structurally determined, borderzone encounters are spontaneous and improvisational. Unlike Pratt’s “contact zone… where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly symmetrical relations of domination and subordination” (1992:4), Bruner’s touristic borderzone is closer to Bhabha’s “third space”, which is a space that does not arise out of the amalgamation of two pre-existing ontological categories (colonizer/colonized, traveler/travelee), but a new and unrecog
ni
zable space of transversalit
y, of no return, of productive creation and self-representation (1990:211). Regardless of the liberating potentialities this third space may theoretically open up, we have to remind ourselves that travel functions through master narratives (e.g. popular representations, the advertising industry, travel literature) as well as through private tales (private accounts, story-telling, travel writing), with the former embellishing, contradicting and transforming the latter (Bruner, 2004:24). In what follows, more attention shall be dedicated to the master narratives of travel simply because of their ability to structure, order and discipline personalized travel accounts and, with them, empowering promises of the third space.

Despite the significant attempts of Clifford, Pratt and Bruner to demolish the traveler/travelee binary, it is important not to use the travel trope to describe a world of unbounded global flows. This could lead to a gratuitous, even dogmatic celebration of travel as freedom and emancipation. Discretion must be exercised to distinguish between the various historical, economic and political conditions that make mobility possible for some and difficult or impossible for others (Kaplan, 1996). Although the categories of tourists, immigrants, refugees, exiles and guest workers can be gathered under the heading of traveling culture and/or transculturation (Appadurai, 1996:33), there remains a crucial difference between forms of mobility animated by choice and opportunity and those induced by displacement and dispossession. At a most basic level, if the tourist is presumed to hold all the rights and privileges of a citizen, no refugee can qualify as a tourist.

The Preoccupation(s) of Travel

Classical (mostly sociological) accounts conceptualize travel as an escapist practice from the malaise of modern everyday life (Urry, 1990), which may include banality, routinization, alienation, apathy and nostalgia. As such, Third World travel destinations can offer Western travelers a variety of cultural goods towards their spiritual rejuvenation. The Third World has thus become not just a playground for Western fantasies (Maoz, 2005:223), but also the world producer of “natural” resources such as authenticity, nativity, exoticism, sensuality, the picturesque, adventurism, spectacle, and even catastrophe and destruction (see post-Tsunami tourism).

But these cultural resources of the Third World do not exist in nature; they are constructed by the travel industry and popular media through the representation of stark differences between the everyday and the extraordinary (Urry, 1990:14). Distinctions of taste are mapped out onto a cartography of places, where each place is invested with desire according to an economy of signs (promises of images, commodities, bodies and experiences). These signs represent the localities to be visited and construct the anticipation necessary to mobilize travel. It is these signs that are being desired, pursued, consumed, photographed, and then taken back home for display (Urry, 1995:133). Within most sociological accounts, this logic serves to demonstrate the point that travel practices are worthy of serious academic investigation beyond their leisurely implications because travel is ultimately an illustration of cultural capital.

In its original formulation, cultural capital is conceptualized as a specific form of capital that can be translated but never fully reduced to economic capital (Bourdieu, 1986). Unfortunately, the usage of this term within sociological accounts of travel remains limited: in failing to distinguish between the embodied (race and gender differences between travelers and travelees), objectified (cultural artifacts, signs and symbols), and institutionalized components (qualifications, credentials) of cultural capital, sociological accounts of travel cannot fully explore the inequalities (economic, racial, gendered, knowledge-based) underpinning travel practices to the Third World. Within sociological accounts, it is usually maintained that cultural capital plays a role in travel because it can be translated into professional credentials and job skills (Desforges, 1998). In fact, this idea is so wide-spread that it has even become a source of sarcasm amongst skeptical travel authors such as William Sutcliffe’s alter ego who claims that a backpacking trip to India represents the “University of Life. Year One – Advanced Adventure Playground. No revision, interest, intellect or sensitivity required.” (in Tickell, 2001:48) Contrary to this notion, I wish to argue that the cultural capital of travel manifests itself through the contribution independent travel brings to the forging of a “planetary consciousness” – the global bourgeois subjectivity launched during the era of exploration to fit the new stage of global capital expansion (Pratt, 2002:9). Thus, to the extent that cultural capital plays a role in travel it is mostly because of the ability of Western travelers to capitalize the embodied components of cultural capital: racial, sexual, religious and linguistic differences thus become the ultimate objects of desire. These embodied differences must not necessarily be regulated and disciplined, like in colonial times; now they must be found, seen, explored, experienced, admired, photographed, imitated and learnt from.

To better access these components of cultural capital, each traveler seeks to be the first and the only one to follow into the footsteps of Columbus or Captain Hook in order to discover and then preserve the world’s cultural treasures. Yet this desire is impossible to fulfill not only because desire functions according to the logic of deferred gratification, but because the quest for authenticity and nativity is a futile one that rests on the illusory distinction between commodified and uncommodified localities, natures and bodies (Amnesley, 2004:559). This being a false dichotomy, authenticity and nativity can never be accessed. Levi-Strauss (1973) was one of the first ones to note that there was simply not enough authenticity to go around, thus representing travel as a highly competitive enterprise, the main commodities of which (authenticity, exoticism, locality, risk, adventure, remoteness, uniqueness, secrecy and originality) are scarce, precarious and often inaccessible. Yet the disappointment that flows out of these melancholic realizations rarely discourages travelers. As O’Reilly notes (2006:1013), even as the aura of independent travel is decreasing or worsening (both because of the fact that it is no longer avant-garde and because of the reputed decadence of this lifestyle), the popularity of backpacking and ecotourism continues to be on the rise. This can be attributed both to the effectiveness of the various travel discourses, which continue to give travelers the hope of being able to access these goods, and to the practice of constantly opening up “new” localities to global travelers. As discourses of travel continue to incorporate “new spaces/places into its political economy, these various locales must be empties out of their residual, prior meanings and have their ontology (re)inscribed with desirable attractions and undesirable repulsions (Tsing, 2004:15). Although there will always remain a gap between the ontology of a certain locale and its representation in the minds of travelers, this does nothing to disturb the effectiveness of the travel discourse. On the contrary, every moment of dissatisfaction with the lack of authenticity or nativity of any given locale only helps the travel discourse improve the accuracy of its representations, fixations and inscriptions.

At the same time that a new locality is being drawn into the global cartography of travel destinations, travel discourses must also inscribe the bodies and subjectivities, the (his)stories and narratives of the people who call that place “home”. This is easiest done through the discourse of authenticity and nativity. Modern thought has taught us that the greatest dra

ma of the West is its privil
eged economic, cultural and historical status. Both Weber and Marx deplore the achievements of modernity as a blessing in disguise: progress, development and rationality may have improved and securitized Western standards of living, but they have also demystified, de-rooted, routinized and alienated the Western psyche from its natural origins. It is being argues here that the West has thus lost its ability to act authentically because of its rich and complex historical developments. The native, on the other hand, is thought to remain incarcerated into the space of primitiveness and timelessness. Since this is where the native derives its presumed authenticity from, it can never exit this space without being considered deviant (Appadurai, 1988:37). Time performs a strategic function within this logic: when travelers deplore their belated arrival to their extra-ordinary destinations, they are not only mourning the passing of underdevelopment, but they are also subscribing to the notion of the historical queue (Lisle, 2006:203): the idea that cultures can be mapped out on a spatial hierarchy and a temporal linearity depending on the stage of development they occupy on the progressive trajectory of modernity.

As a result of these inscriptions representations of independent travel are often littered with Orientalist tropes, which fashion the Western backpacker and ecotourist as the brave, lonely explorer, who has to endure natural hardships, poor amenities and unforeseeable dangers in a “savage” and strange land, aided only by the kindness of strangers (O’Reilly, 2006:1003). These Orientalist fantasies are so deeply engrained in the nature of travel that they influence not only the representation of travel, but they also mobilize the desire to travel. Seen in this light, travel loses its noble attributes and its alternative appeal, becoming a self-absorbed search for the affirmation of one’s superiority. Without denying the fact that the ethics of “ego-tourism” is problematic, I want to argue that adopting a moralist stance vis-à-vis the motives of independent travelers is an “easy narrative” that appeals to a paralyzing rhetoric of nostalgia.

In this sense, nostalgia is “a paralyzing structure of historical reflection”: it fixes the time, essentializes culture and idealizes history (Frow, 1991:135). What is more, nostalgia gives the false impression that that authenticity and nativity have existed in nature at some point in history when, in fact, these are “stylized simulations” (ibid., 133) fabricated through an economy of appearances littered with orientalist, racist and capitalist tropes. While nostalgia may indeed function as a critique of the modern for its departure from authenticity (Turner, 1987:154), this critique is not enabling but paralyzing, it is not resistant but desiring. This utopia is free from all political potentialities because it has never existed, nor can it ever exist.

Furthermore, nostalgia is always ideological: the past it seeks to revive has never existed outside the bounds of the narrative – this narrated and imagined past always reproduces itself in terms of an absence, not a presence. Nostalgia neither reflects a condition that once existed, nor can it revive or bring about this condition; nostalgia is desire without an object and, as such, it is insatiable (Frow, 1991:136). As we can see, nostalgia is the fuel that never lets the desiring machine die out. This is why travel is pursued with obstinacy despite the impossibility of ever appropriating the other.

Both travelers and academics interested in travel engage in a discourse of nostalgia when comparing the drifter figure of the 60s with the backpackers of the 90s. Not only is the arrival of the contemporary backpacker belated, but his /her motives and modes of engagement are also morally corrupt compared to the immaculate spiritual search of the drifter. This line of reasoning disguises the imperialist nostalgia for the “good ol’ days” of Mary Kingsley and Cecil Rhodes in a romantic and moralist language that conceals the political implications of this move: to mourn the loss or scarcity of authentic cultures and timeless places is, in fact, to critique the failure of travel discourses to manufacture enough localities and cultural resources to satisfy our desires for otherness.

Responsible Travel?

One of the primary purposes of the discourses of independent travel is to differentiate backpackers and ecotourists from mass tourists through various distinctions of taste, which are supposed to demonstrate the moral superiority of the former. Various strategies of looking local or going native (such as adopting the native dress code, tasting the indigenous cuisine, learning the local language, seeking close contact to one’s “hosts” and, sometimes, compromising one’s standards of personal hygiene, health and security) are meant to help the lonely traveler redeem his/her “shameful” status (Frow, 1991:146). But the quest for nativity is doomed to failure a prioi for several reasons. First of all, strategies of going native are only pursued only as long as they are deemed useful and rewarding, convenient and pleasurable. As soon as the strategies of looking local begin to threaten the overall leisurely character of travel, travelers can opt out of them. They can either leave or find retreat in a local tourist enclave (Muzaini, 2005:156). More importantly, however, travelers and touristees remain separated by an unbridgeable representational and material gap. On a representational level, the attempt of going native is a futile one because it is informed by Western representations of what the native must be and look like. Not only can the ontology of this native not be found “in nature”, but this representation of nativity serves to perpetuate the violent traveler/local binary addressed above. In order for travelers to enjoy and engage in the “game” of going native, they have to presume or, better even, be certain of the native’s perpetual rootedness and immobility. While it cannot be denied that the representation of the native as localized presence is at some level verified by the “native’s” inability to obtain a passport, a visa or the necessary funds to leave his/her locale, this representation mistakes nativity as something separate from the discourse of travel (Kincaid, 1989:18-9) when, in fact, nativity is purposefully inscribed as a pristine existence in the state of nature for the purposes of the political economy of travel. Finally, most Western travelers will never be able to assume the so-called “corporeal malediction” of their “hosts”, thus being doomed to always carry with them the racial markers of whiteness.

Indeed, if the problematique of responsible travel is posed in terms of the discourse of independent travel, it immediately becomes a paralyzing aporia. No politics based on the hierarchical traveler/native binary can yield ethical results. At most, the discourses of independent travel can redeem the traveler’s “touristic shame” by appealing to his/her moralistic inclinations. Yet moralism has its limits: it can either deviate into cynical reason paralyzing social action as pointed out by Cazdyn (forthcoming:5) – e.g. refusing to travel – or it can secure the innocence of travelers without actually disturbing their superiority as exemplified through Memmi’s (1967) typology of the “colonizer who refuses” – e.g. refusing to travel with a Lonely Planet guide because this publication is considered complicit in destroying authenticity and nativity.

A more productive and hopeful way of thinking through the problematique of responsible travel is to dispense of the apartheid representation of travelers vs. locals and view the two groups as born out of a moment of co-presence. This is not only a philosophical ambition but also a logical proposition. Tourists and locals are not essential categories but strategic locations that arise only in the moment of encounter. I

n this case, neither the tourist
nor the native can be vilified or victimized a priori (Bruner, 2004:12). The responsibility of travel or lack thereof emerges always in the contact zone. This is a performative space that can take an infinite variety of forms and which refuses to be absorbed by essentialist representations. Unfortunately it is also a space that does not lend itself to the imagination of universal recipes for responsible travel or so-called “Tourist Codes of Conduct”. This being said, however, it does not mean that the traveler/local borderzone is a tabula rasa open to unlimited transformations and transgressions. Instead, each contact zone comes already inscribed with a certain historical baggage, which can enable or inhibit, liberate or regulate the possibilities for responsible travel. In what follows I shall think through three possibilities for responsible travel as they are commonly performed in the contact zones of travel: resistance, hospitality and solidarity. These do not pertain to specific/empirical examples, but are rather general observations on the nature of travel encounters.

The notion and ideal of resistance has attracted a great deal of academic attention over the past few decades to the point where one could pause and wonder what this word actually means: does resistance simply aim at challenging and destabilizing the hegemonic power structure or does it hope to overthrow and demolish it? If the purpose of resistance remains unclear, we may have less difficulty with the contents of this term. In one of its most common usages, resistance is thought to be enacted through mimicry and ambivalence. Originally conceptualized in the context of Bhabha’s colonial discourse analysis (1994), mimicry and ambivalence have come to embody a politics/poetics of resistance within critical theory. In a nutshell, mimicry occurs when the subaltern copies and imitates the ways of the colonizer both in order to gain access, status and credibility as well as to mock, trick and subvert the rigid (post-)colonial order. In the context of travel encounters, mimicry can adopt either a subtle (“low-key, passive or mediated resistance that may include gossip, obstruction, burlesquing, sulking, and insults”) or an open form (ranging from discrimination to tickstery, mockery and other violent behavior) of resistance (Maoz, 2005:224). In both of these cases, it is doubtful that mimicry and its derivates can have the empowering and emancipatory effects Bhabha envisioned. Rather, these mechanisms become tools of revenge that perpetuate the cycle of violent engagement with the Other. This conclusion should not reinforce Cazdyn’s pessimistic claim that resistance has been short-circuited from the capitalism-colonialism nexus, leaving nothing but shame, guilt and remorse (forthcoming:5). Instead, it should prevent us from celebrating ambiguous agency a priori and encourage us to question who is engaging in these practices, at what cost and for what end. To do this we need to take into consideration both the subjectivity (race, gender, class) and the materiality (sex, chrome, occupation) of subversive agency (McClintock, 1995:64) as well as the relatedness that binds various agencies. For agency must not necessarily be enacted individually; it can also be performed collectively or oppositionally.      

A second possibility for responsible travel is opened up by the idea of hospitality. Traditionally, hospitality has been used metaphorically to describe travel as an act of gratuitous generosity and disinterested friendship. Although the terms of hospitality are ultimately arbitrary (the guest is at the mercy of the host, who can determine the duration and nature of the guest’s stay), hospitality is never supposed to turn into violence as it is underpinned by an unlimited ethics of responsibility (Derrida, 1999:19). Yet, the hospitality trope assumes (and takes for granted) an agency that fails to correspond to this philosophical ideal because in the contemporary contact zone of travel the guest-host relationship has been “corrupted” through commercialization and professionalization. Thus, hospitality risks negating the historical inequalities between traveler and travelees by concealing the double function of the other as an object of curiosity and as a service provider – where only the latter activity is remunerated (Frow, 1991:150). This however should not imply the futility of the hospitality trope. The discrepancy between the ideal (infinite ethics) and the real (finite politics) contact zone of travel provides a great opportunity for ending the moralizing tone of the hospitality discourse (Rosello, 2001:11). If hospitality has become a discipline institutionalized within programs and departments dedicated to the study of tourism management, we have to at least prevent the hospitality trope from also becoming a disciplinary force. The vision of the traveler as guest is a metaphor that can never forget that it is only a metaphor (ibid., 3).

Finally, I wish to briefly consider the possibility for solidarity as an alternative map of the travel encounter. The question of solidarity in travel is a difficult yet necessary one. Most recently, analyses of the travel encounter have been carried out within the post-colonial (or post-68 Theory) framework and have thus ignored the valuable possibility of Marxist-inspired resolutions, such as solidarity. But the (partial) inability of post-colonial resistance practices, such as mimicry, hybridity, ambivalence and hospitality to “resolve” the issue of responsible travel, calls for an urgent need to reconsider Marxist or Marxist-inspired (Italian autonomist) resistance strategies. Herein lays the value of creating a synergy between colonial discourse analysis and Marxist theory. Acknowledging the fact that each (and any) theory bears the risk of having a doctrinarian effect upon its practitioners, combining various strands of critical theory can create something of a philosophical regime of “checks-and-balances”. What makes the Marxist/post-colonialism nexus ever more appealing is its apparent incongruence. The totalizing critique of capitalism is profoundly incompatible with the micropolitics of the body and subjectivity. And this is precisely why the two can have significant sobering effects upon one another in creating a “theory of practices” rather than one of being or doing. The Marxism/post-colonialism theory nexus can reopen the conversation between students of culture and identity and adepts of history and materiality, thus bridging the divide between the humanities and the social sciences (Beasley-Murray, 2000). The question of solidarity seems like an interesting point to start this conversation: how can solidarity take hold between unequal parties? How is solidarity possible without a clear/common notion of an enemy Other? And whom should solidarity be responsible to(wards)?

Conclusion

This paper has attempted to understand the changes in the operation of travel discourses (focusing more heavily on the discourse of independent travel) by taking a closer, ethnographic look at the political economy of travel. In a nutshell, it was argued that travel is far more than a trivial, leisurely activity. Critical theory can help us understand the ethico-political implications of travel by capturing the new libidinal economy that underpins the discourse of independent travel. Because backpackers and ecotourists are the prime suspects in imagining the world as something to “go around” in search for desirable symbolic goods, such as nativity, locality and authenticity, it is important to consider travel as a serious meeting ground of the powerful and the dispossessed. This paper, however, did not seek to contribute to the growing literature that portrays independent travelers as innately self-absorbed, amoral and violent. On the contrary, by combining continental critiques of capitalism and post-colonial discourse analysis, this paper wished to acknowledge travelers as significant political subjects, who can manipulate an

d contextualize gl
obal flows of desire and practice more responsible modes of engaging with difference, instead. Although there are no quick and easy solutions to be offered, I am confident that a more directed empirical and applied ethnographic look at various global/local travel practices is able to provide hopeful alternatives.

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