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Tourism’s future
What China taught me about Maine

Postcard from Emei Shan: In early August, I was exploring China’s western province of Sichuan with four American friends. One dawn, we headed in a creaky minivan out of the smoggy provincial capital of Chengdu, which has a giant, white Mao Zedong statue in the central square. We drove south to Leshan to see another object of worship, the world’s largest Buddha, carved over 1200 years ago out of a red sandstone cliff above a turbulent river. Then we went west to the nature preserve around Emei Shan, one of China’s four Buddhist holy mountains and one of its top tourist attractions. After a night in an inexpensive hotel with 800-year-old banyan trees in the courtyard, we rode a bus halfway up the 10,000-foot mountain, curling around forested gorges, their ridges soaked in mist.

At a crowded bus parking lot, a stunningly long line of people waited for a cable car to the summit. Many wore street clothes and street shoes. We paid a stiff, 120-yuan park entrance fee (about $15); attendants photographed us to put our faces on the tickets. Abstaining from the cable car, we followed a maze of stone-stepped paths up and across the mountain to visit some of the preserve’s 20 temples. One had a large, flower-filled courtyard and almost-psychedelic statues of the historic Buddha, Sakyamuni, and other holy beings. The Buddhists among the tourists, including my American friends — I was the only non-Buddhist in our group — prostrated three times before the images and left small amounts of paper money at their altars.

As we threaded the trails, literally thousands of tourists descended from the cable-car terminal and joined us. There were few pilgrims. Instead, here was overwhelming Asian mass tourism like what I had seen the week before in Beijing’s imperial compound, the Forbidden City. I had to brake sharply my walking pace to go with the crowd, attentive not to step on someone or get stepped on.

Thus, I could not appreciate fully the exotic natural world around me — though as I looked at the jagged peaks, clouds swathing them, and the tropical and temperate mix of bamboo and fir, I realized that the idyllic Chinese landscape paintings I had long admired were actually realistic. I also realized that the ancient wood-and-stone temples (the oldest founded about 300 AD) once must have been wonderful settings for meditation. But not now with these mobs.

Stalls and teahouses lined the paths, selling T-shirts, jewelry, walking sticks, brass Buddhas, candy, sausages, and full meals. When some people got tired, they hired pairs of muscular young men to carry them in chairs hung from poles across the men’s shoulders. As the bearers tore up or down the wet steps, they yelled the Chinese for "Make way!"

The mountain was lovely but utterly overrun. I grasped just how much it was a Buddhist Disneyland when I saw a sign for the "Donald Duck Tree." It announced in Chinese and English that Donald’s silhouette was visible across a gorge.

Observing these crowds, I became conscious of their resemblance, though on a larger scale, to the seasonal swarms on the streets in Bar Harbor, my birthplace, or Camden, where I had once lived. In Camden in July and August, I had rowed across the harbor to go to work in order to avoid the throngs that sometimes pushed me off the sidewalk.

How could anyone participate in this form of tourism, I had long asked myself? The answer finally came to me on this mountain in China. Most of the tourists seemed uninterested in their surroundings — in the sacred mountain with its woods, streams, colorful birds, and graceful temples with their golden Buddhas bursting with religious, historical, and artistic meaning. Instead, they bought things — trinkets and snacks — while joking with friends or family. I concluded they were interested in the outing itself almost regardless of its location or what one might call its content. They hardly looked around, and it was difficult to do so: They might trip on someone. When they did lift their gaze, it was to take a hurried photograph.

Similarly, the tourists I had closely observed at home all my life rarely seemed to get outside of themselves to pay attention to their surroundings, whatever they might say about why they came to Maine. For most, the outing itself and its many purchases — the shopping, the meals, the drinks, the hotel — were the important things. The outing was one big purchase.

But I am not surprised that purchases are the path most people follow at Emei Shan, Bar Harbor, Camden, and most other tourist destinations — rather than appreciation of nature, history, or art or religious devotion. Shopping is largely what members of our species homo economicus do, if they can afford it (even if they can’t, as credit-card debt proves). LL Bean has more visitors (3.5 million in 2002) than Acadia National Park (2.7 million). A few weeks in China instructed me that materialism or consumerism was becoming as important among the Chinese as it has been for a long time among Americans. China reportedly is developing a string of Buddhist theme parks. So much for fabled Eastern spirituality. The Chinese Communist government is turning it into a tourist trap. It is part of their economic development strategy. The Chinese seem to have abandoned Mao as well as the Buddha, fully converted to the American religion.


As a Bar Harbor boy, I was brought up to scorn tourists, and — I’m sorry — I must confess I still am a bit scornful. But weren’t you a tourist in China, the quick-witted reader may ask? No, as a writer I am never a tourist; I am always working (but my work is happiness as well as duty and maybe compulsion). In the case of my trip to Asia, one member of this group of American Buddhists, an old friend, had invited me to write magazine articles about their pilgrimage-trek to a holy mountain in Chinese-ruled Tibet, and we visited Buddhist sites in China en route.

I believe history has justified my early aversion to tourists. (Of course, I don’t mean I dislike them as individuals.) To me, they and their automobiles have spoiled the relatively quiet Bar Harbor of my childhood and marred much of the coast, where the great majority of them go.

I am not alone in my hand-wringing over the destructions that Vacationland has wrought and suffered with mass tourism. A report, Tourism and Maine’s Future, published a few years ago by the Maine Center for Economic Policy, details and quantifies the damages, as do other writings: the congestion and its traffic delays; the environmental costs (air and water pollution, litter, and noise, for example); the infrastructure outlays that we pay for with taxes (from ever-widening highways to summer police forces); the seasonal, low-wage, benefit-less, dead-end service jobs; the inflation of living costs, including the price of property in tourist towns, limiting where poor people can live (though many tourists seem to enjoy our picturesque poverty); the export of profits to out-of-state business owners; the spoiling or ruin of beaches, mountaintops, coastal islands, and wildlife habitats; the trampling of cultural values such as peace and quiet and safety from crime, drugs, and other "city" ways; and the loss of self-respect and authenticity when independent Mainers become kowtowing servants.

The threats keep growing. A Study of the Vacation Industry in Maine, published in 1961, reveals that in the peak tourist month of August in 1959, when I was a kid, about 217,000 cars went one-way through the southern Maine Turnpike entrance. In August 2003, 1.1 million did, according to the turnpike authority, close to a 500 percent increase, while in 44 years our population only grew by about a third. The Maine Tourism Association, a trade group, says the industry now accounts for 15 percent of the state’s economic product and is its largest employer — this the benefit in exchange for all those costs.

Our tourism explosion is part of a worldwide phenomenon. Tourism is often referred to now as the world’s largest industry. It employs 200 million people, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, and in 2001 nearly 700 million people traveled internationally.

By contrast, "In 1950, there were only 25 million international travelers," says Costas Christ, Bar Harbor’s new chamber of commerce director and an internationally recognized tourism expert. That’s a 2800 percent increase. (And these numbers don’t take into account domestic travelers.) Even in the immediate wake of September 11, 2001, global tourism grew, Christ says. Annual growth estimates vary from four to 10 percent.

And now the Chinese are coming — from an increasingly prosperous population of, currently, 1.3 billion. The World Tourism Association believes 100 million Chinese will travel abroad each year by 2020. China may be the dominant tourist country before then. Some will come to Maine.

Cadillac Mountain is not yet Emei Shan, but in summer the summit parking lot is painfully congested. On each of the last two times I climbed Mount Katahdin in August, I found about a hundred people on its summit despite the many restrictions on Baxter State Park use. For me, the intangible, almost religious goal of the climb and the wildness of the place were stained.


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Issue Date: November 19 - 25, 2004
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