More Travel Thoughts

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I wrote a few months ago about flying as a paradigm for society. Having just returned from another trip — around the world, in fact — I remain convinced that much can be learned about modern society by travel. And it’s depressing.

Consider the tourist attractions owned by governments. It’s been many years since I visited the pyramids in Yucatan, but I was impressed, even then, by the fact that the tourist, who makes it all possible, is given little heed. There were, at least in those days, no places to park at the pyramids. We arrived in a rental car and just left it under some trees (it was a HOT day!) since there were no signs indicating where to park. There was nothing resembling a visitors’ center, with air-conditioning and water. The atmosphere was ambivalent: tourists were desired, and yet nothing was done to encourage them to come or enjoy their visit.

On this recent trip, I realized that, for governments, the principle virtue of a fabulous tourist attraction is the opportunity for hiring people: a make-work scheme donated by the ancients. Petra, in Jordan, is, doubtlessly, that country’s premier tourist attraction, which the government, which claims to own it, got for nothing, of course. It is spectacular. To gain access to this long-abandoned city, you pass through a defile in the surrounding rocky hills called the Siq. It is about three-quarters of a mile, and the footing is treacherous. There are loose stones underfoot, ranging in size from gravel to baseball. It is easy to turn an ankle, especially if you’re gawking at the scenery instead of the footpath. There are native boys with donkeys and horse-drawn carts who will take you to the city and back, for sixty-dollars, round trip, per couple. That’s a pretty pricey ride. Most of us walked there, but coming back, it’s all uphill, and quite tiring. We had negotiated a price of 20 American from one of the horse-cart boys when we arrived, but when it was time to leave, he steadfastly insisted he didn’t know what we were talking about, and had never met us or made us any promises. We noticed that an older man, presumably his boss, was looking on and listening. For all I know, the horse-cart business at Petra may be a government-protected monopoly: no bargaining allowed. It provides work for otherwise unskilled workers, at the expense of the hapless tourist. Has it occurred to anyone in Jordan that providing smooth pavement in the Siq, with, perhaps, electric trams to move people — especially on the uphill leg — would, in the long run, probably employ more people, and make Petra even more attractive? Especially if it were done privately, and therefore, efficiently.

Then there is the Taj Mahal. Breathtaking. Sublimely beautiful — once you get there. If you’re with a tour, you arrive by tour bus — but not at the Taj. No, the Indian government is concerned about pollution from bus exhaust, so you must abandon your bus about a mile away, and jam (literally) into tiny electric vehicles for the final mile. Once there, you must pass "security" (meaning metal detectors) at the entrance, and, a few hundred feet further along, pass through "security" once more — as though someone could have slipped you an Uzi since the last security check! All of this rigmarole provides lots of jobs, but not much benefit to the tourist, who makes it possible. Is there any actual valid evidence that tour bus exhaust has damaged the Taj? Perhaps nobody really cares: it’s good enough excuse to hire a lot of people to do something unnecessary.

We noticed that thousands — probably millions — of trees in India had white bands painted on their trunks. Why? Well, our guide explained, those white-painted trees are located on government property. Ah! So what? I guess it is to discourage anyone from chopping them down, although I doubt anyone would notice if they did. But what an opportunity to hire people to put white paint on millions of trees through that vast land! And no doubt it has to be re-applied from time to time.

Governments everywhere seem to be dedicated to making work for people. In third (or, in India’s case, tenth) world countries, the effort is fairly primitive and crude. "Here, paint these trees white," or "see if any of the tourists will ride this donkey." But America also has its make-work schemes, though vastly more sophisticated. At the top of the chain, it even provides work for the likes of the Carlyle group, or Halliburton. Toward the bottom, examiners of automobile emissions.

One wonders about the pyramids, or the Great Wall! Make-work schemes are the very essence of government, and building pyramids, or great walls, make lots of work indeed!

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.

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