Bryan Caplan  

Stop Thinking Like a Tourist

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Friedman in 1946... Can majoring in philosophy mak...
The year is 1997.  You visit a lovely rural town in North Dakota.  Population: 3000.  You take a bunch of pictures with your analog camera to treasure the sweet memories.

Twenty years later, you return.  The lovely rural town is now a regional fracking center.  Population: 100,000.  The charm has vanished beneath a tidal wave of new construction - residential, commercial, and industrial.  You take one picture with your smart phone where you shed a tear of sorrow with New Frack City in the background.  Your caption: "Progress?"

From a tourist's point of view, you're clearly right.  Lovely rural towns are much nicer to visit than regional fracking centers.  Almost anyone who saw Before-and-After pictures would agree with you: the town's gotten far worse.

But what's so great about the tourist's point of view anyway?  Tourism is just one tiny industry in a vast economy.  If a billion-dollar fracking industry replaces a ten-million-dollar sight-seeing industry, that's a $990M gain for mankind, not a "tragedy."  The transformation is clearly good for the 97,000 new residents of the town.  It's good for everyone who consumes the new petroleum products.  And while the original inhabitants will probably gripe about all they've lost, they're free to sell at inflated prices and move to one of the many remaining lovely rural towns. 

Why then is the tourist's perspective so compelling?  Let me count the ways.

First: As Bastiat would say, touristic charm is "seen," while industrial output is "unseen."  You pass through a lovely location; you immediately sigh, "Aah."  You pass by a fracking field; you immediately grimace, "Yuck."  To appreciate the wonder of fracking, you have to set aside your gut reaction and visualize the massive and manifold global benefits of cheaper energy.

Second: Tourists hastily impute their initial disgust to locals: "If looking at fracking once makes me feel bad, it must be hell to actually live here."  But this impulsive reaction ignores everything we know about hedonic adaptation.  Once I got a flat tire outside of Sigmaringen, Germany.  When I complimented the guy at the repair shop on his idyllic town, he furrowed his brow and reflected, "Oh, I guess.  We don't really think about it."  The broader lesson: If you live with beauty every day, you largely take it for granted - and the same goes for ugliness.  That's why most people happily live in places most people wouldn't like to visit.

Third: Tourism has high status in our society.  Elites travel widely, and look down on provincial folk who don't.  As a result, many of us tacitly treat touristic beauty as a merit good - and many more pretend to concur in order to bolster our own status.  Could elites be right?  My default is to say, "Yes," but as merit goods go, tourism seems like a pretty arbitrary selection.

This summer, I'm spending a month in France.  It's a lovely country; I'd happily spend a year there, just nosing around.  But that doesn't mean that France is an especially wonderful country overall.  If France had ten times the population with half of France's current per-capita income and none of its famous attractions, I probably wouldn't want to visit it.  But all things considered, why wouldn't that be a huge improvement?




COMMENTS (16 to date)
malkav60 writes:

Back in the 90's or early aughts Paul Krugman wrote a column making this same point.

Peter Hurley writes:
If France had ten times the population with half of France's current per-capita income and none of its famous attractions, I probably wouldn't want to visit it.

I find this interesting, since what you described is essentially "France, but with radically open borders." Though I assume they'd keep the attractions - nothing about open borders militates for scrapping the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower.

If nothing else, as an economist interested in such a question, it would seem to be the sort of place you'd very much want to visit.

Steve writes:

Isn't income (and very marginally cheaper gas) much more subject to the hedonic treadmill than the sense of community and belonging, often built over generations, that makes a "lovely rural town"? Empirically, it seems like rural people who feel their community has been destroyed do less transplanting to other theoretical replacement rural communities and more wallowing in existential misery.

I'm not claiming certainty one way or the other, and the hypothetical tourist might be perfectly delusional (though, for me, pure nostalgia trumps 1-3 as the source of my emotional reaction), but it seems like more work needs to be shown to conclude we're better in a world of pop-up fracking megacenters vs. lovely rural towns (worth considering even if there's no path back to the latter).

Nicholas Weininger writes:

So, do you endorse Parfit's Repugnant Conclusion?

Ahmed writes:

In light of terrorism, tourism is a fragile industry.

More than a year has passed since Seifeddine Rezgui, a student and wannabe breakdancer, smuggled a Kalashnikov onto Sousse's Boujaafar Beach in Tunisia and started firing. But the massacre he perpetrated in the name of the Islamic State, which left 38 tourists dead, has cut visitor numbers in half and left Tunisia's reputation as the Mediterranean's most affordable package destination in tatters.

The British market has made the most impact so far. Home to 30 of the Sousse victims, the UK accounted for more than 420,000 visitors to Tunisia in 2014. But last year's atrocity prompted the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to issue an advisory warning its nationals against traveling to the country. No longer able to insure their customers, the major tour companies immediately pulled the plug on their Tunisian operations. Charter flights from the UK abruptly ceased.

I've come here against the advice of my government to see firsthand how one man with a gun can bring an entire industry to its knees.
—Vice.com

Incidentally, I'm from Lebanon living in Canada. Some of my fellow compatriots want to return Lebanon to once again being the Switzerland of the Middle East. I always explain to them that those days are gone when a couple of terrorist attacks can destroy your tourism industry in an instant. Better to always leave tourism as a small fraction of your total economy.

Market Fiscalist writes:

Its quite possible that the economic benefits of fracking outweigh the benefits of tourism in some or even most cases.

But I think the anti-fracking sentiment may be based on a couple of genuine concerns:

- Fracking creates externalites (ugliness and pollution) that is not correctly included in the cost.

- The people who control the use of land (land-owners and politician) may have gained that control illegitimatly and may be making self-serving decisions against the long-term interests of the people from whom control has been seized.

Weir writes:

In the first draft of the script for the Matt Damon movie about fracking, it wasn't about fracking. It was about wind turbines. And the contribution of renewable, sustainable, eco-conscious, super-shiny green wind energy is, to the nearest whole number, zip. Their ugliness is infinite. Their output is null. The turbines wouldn't exist except for subsidies. They don't make energy. They make energy more expensive, which is different.

So here's a test for the tourists. Alongside the difficulty of framing out the wind turbines on the horizon that would otherwise clutter up every wide-angle photo you took on your road trip up and down the coast, there's that other difficulty of not being a huge hypocrite. On this subject, but also more generally.

Because if you're happy that billboards have been banned from all the highways in New Zealand, shouldn't you be seriously unhappy that the same government funnels subsidies to companies that erect these massive whirring blades a hundred times taller than any billboard? Is it any excuse that the wind turbines are supposed to be saving the planet?

Not for the consistently Nietzschean tourist. Not for the last man, posting pictures on Instagram. The Nietzschean last man is indifferent to the concerns of the kind of people who worry about paying their electricity bills, the same as he's unmoved by the kind of people who get all worked up about how this rural town is supposedly different from some other rural town. The last man is too rich to work and too detached from anyone to feel bound to any one community. So it's the opposite of a Sophoclean tragedy. It's a J.G. Ballard novel instead.

"It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world appear justified." So of course the last man is a tourist, like in a novel by Don DeLillo or Michel Houellebecq.

Michael writes:

An anecdote about a mechanic carries too much argumentative weight, in my view. I've made real financial and career sacrifices to live and work in more beautiful places. Some people don't want to go on holiday to Venice and don't much care about certain kinds of 'touristic' beauty. But plenty of other people do.

Often I'd side with you against the heritage lobby and apply cost-benefit analysis, although I'd want to put a higher value on 'tourist' assets. Sometimes I would draw red lines and say there are things that should be preserved at all cost, because they are so beautiful and important and cannot be replaced at any price.

As someone with feet in two rather hostile camps, I don't like it when conservationists drum up tribal support by deriding 'neoliberalism'. I don't like it when libertarians are too dismissive of history and beauty, either.

Thaomas writes:

On more populous France:

Depends on the alternative set of policies that led to the higher population/lower per capita income?

@Weir

I've never thought that wind turbines are ugly. Do they make electricity more expensive? Depends on the cost of CO2 emissions avoided. I'd guess that some do and some do not.

Dan King writes:

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db writes:
If France had ten times the population with half of France's current per-capita income and none of its famous attractions, I probably wouldn't want to visit it. But all things considered, why wouldn't that be a huge improvement?

I understand your point here to mean that, overall, the suggested situation would have five times the total income of the existing situation, indicating a significant overall economic growth, which should be good overall for everyone, assuming it continues. But are you suggesting that the original inhabitants still in residence have experienced, on average among them, a halving of their per capita income along with the new residents? Or that the influx of new residents at much lower income levels has adjusted the overall per capita average income to one half of the previous value?

From an individual standpoint, these can be considered very different. Assuming the new residents have moved to the area in response to better wages than they saw in their previous homes, they will have experienced a net improvement. Likewise, if the original residents have experienced an increase in their per capita income, bully for them. But if the original residents have experienced a sharp decline in their incomes, and presumably also standard of living, it should be obvious that the utilitarian view of overall improvement might to them be cold comfort.

I suspect your original meaning to be more like the "floats all boats" case rather than the "least common denominator" one.

Hazel Meade writes:

Yes. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I bet when that "lovely" rural town was first built, the local Dakota Indian tribe thought "Ugh, what an eyesore, why does the white man like to live in these ugly wooden boxes?" And when the railroads cut through the natural landscape lamented the loss of the unbroken horizon. Now people take pictures of old trains because they look charming.

I think you could expand the point to say "stop thinking in terms of subjective aesthetic judgments"

Eric Mack writes:

Some years ago on a family car trip we stopped for the night in Dodge City, KS which has huge cattle stockyards. As I was checking into the motel, I asked the nice lady at the counter, "Do you ever get used to the smell?" She smiled and said, "That's exactly what I asked my son-in-law when I moved here. And he said, 'Mom,that smell is the smell of money.'"

paul writes:

I don't know if you have seen the movie "Local Hero." Having lived in both Scotland and US it has a special poignancy for me. Oil is discovered in a tiny village in the Scottish highlands. The Texas oilman sent to buy out all the locals loves the place. But, of course, the locals mostly want the money. I won't put any spoilers so you'll have to watch it to find out how it happens.

John Aiton writes:

I had responsibility for a factory in Italy.
Italy is a wonderful place to visit , a horrible place to do business.

IronSig writes:

@Paul Did "Local Hero" have Mark Knopfler attached to its music soundtrack? You'll run across a "Local Hero Theme" in Knopfler/Dire Straits collections every so often....

I'm from a section of the Rockies where wind turbines get tested, wind farms are envisioned and locals squabble about how much they should allow new land owners to develop any of this intermittent power supply. Local governments salivate over the teased revenues, certain landowners and their conservationists friends say something about "priceless vistas" and skeptics of wind-power and of naive interventions, like myself, laugh at the lawyer-on-lawyer, lobbyist-on-lobbyist and billionaire-on-billionaire proxy battles.

Just cut the subsidies and stop filing injunctions when land you don't own gets developed by the actual owner.

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