The Places We Go

by William Harris


The year has turned, and Turkey’s olive groves have given way to a food scene; Hangzhou’s artistic history has been upstaged by e-commerce; three hundred new restaurants have opened in Oakland; planes will soon touch down in Saint Helena; the Alps are metastasizing with mountains of development; country clubs have taken over Vietnam’s coast; St. John awaits a megamarina; luxury bungalows have sprung up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and a kitschy fleet of museums is set to shake up Switzerland. There’s even more, and it’s all captured in the New York Times travel section’s “52 Places to Go in 2016,” an advertisement for places, hotels, museums, restaurants, architectural firms, and the type of world the travel section wants to see cities and nature become. It’s also maybe a dystopian novel, a stylized safe travel report from the state department, a pirouette on a postcard from this year’s most thrillingly gentrified districts.

Each year, the travel section condenses into list form the somersaulting highlights of capitalist junkspace, in which the ideology of the cityscape, as the architect Rem Koolhaas put it, is tabula rasa: rife with perpetual renovation, reinvention, razing. Last year’s list was the first one I’d read, and it was, as always, strung between development and ruination. Tourists were encouraged to go to Oman, to see its silent mountains rising up out of the desert, to see its sea breaking softly in oriental splendor, to see the moon shining over its cliffs. But they had to go immediately, before 2015 vanished, because Oman was “in the throes of a hotel boom of Dubai-like proportions,” and, due in no small part to lists like this, was about to be ruined by a stream of tourists and tourist infrastructure.

Reading the list turns vacation planning into a form of frenzied panic: Are there any idyllic locales that haven’t already been trashed and carnivalized by people doing the exact same thing I intend to do? And yet there’s hope in junkspace, or more precisely: Junkspace is hope. The list’s final irony is its faith in the magic of gentrifying reinvention. A ruined city is never actually ruined. A new christening is always just around the corner, for replacing blight or nature with a Frank Gehry is a sure way to find yourself back on the list. Hangzhou, a city an hour outside Shanghai, has twice made the list: in 2011, when the first Shangri-La hotel was built, and then again, this year, when the Shangri-La franchise decided to build the city yet another.

You get the sense there’s a system of exchange at work. It’s as if all the adjectives, or even whole sentences or paragraphs, could be cut-and-paste from one place’s description to the next, or even from one year’s list to another’s. “Always blessed with natural beauty, [X] has successfully recast itself in recent years as a luxury destination.” Is it Ubud, Indonesia? Kansai, Japan? The Southern Gulf Islands near Vancouver?

A different writer pens each entry, and what ends up coming across is the impersonality of the list, how it expresses itself through a set of moneyed preferences, a happy accordance with modernity and all it’s brought us. In a subsequent feature explaining the travel section’s choices, the editors described aiming for places “we expect to be particularly compelling in the coming year; reasons might include a museum opening, a new transportation option or a historical anniversary.” And yet there’s a clearer way to frame the formula: Follow the money. The emphasis on money and makeover puts the list in thrall to current luxury taste; it showcases a consensus, among the global jet-setting riche, of exactly which kind of spatial transformation would most enjoyably shock through our cities and peripheries.

But where has the consensus arrived? I recently saw a sample of Roland Barthes’ diary in which he journals his likes and dislikes. There’s specificity and idiosyncratic qualification to Barthes’ likes: “too-cold beer,” “flat pillows,” “loosely held political convictions.” There’s attention paid to the personal charms of place: “the bend of the Adour seen from Doctor L.’s house,” “the mountains at seven in the morning leaving Salamanca,” “walking in sandals on the lanes of southwest France.” There’s provocation (“having change,” “all kinds of romantic music”), winningly inane incontestability (“colors,” “salad,” “toast,” “the piano,” “coffee”), and a playful range (“Sartre,” “Brecht,” “the Marx Brothers,” “all kinds of writing pens”). And then there’s what he dislikes: “villas” and “the afternoon,” among other things.

The 2016 travel feature’s list of preferences, by contrast, revels in abstraction, in pseudo-contradictions, in a mix of obscene wealth and anodyne current taste, and in a perversely generous wish to offend no one which naturally turns into its opposite. The travel section likes “newly paved roads,” “lonely dirt roads,” “local over commercial,” commercial over local, “authenticity,” the spread of global capital, “Noma-inspired” restaurants, “Uber,” “bike paths,” “adding more jewels to cultural crowns,” “remote stillness,” condos, private villas, “eco-conscious treehouse-inspired resorts,” “barefoot-casual resorts,” “endearing locals,” “undulating wooden structures,” “biodiversity hot spots,” “mindful living communities,” “interactive deep dives,” “English-language travel apps,” “cool alternatives,” “locally grown avocados,” “artichoke tea,” “growing asparagus,” “eternal spring weather,” “beautiful vistas,” “Ai Weiwei,” “Anish Kapoor,” “nuanced perspectives,” “famous people seeking quiet lives,” “third-wave coffeehouses,” “gentle whale sharks,” “original beachfront boutique hotels,” “tranquil, unpretentious hideaways,” “wine-minded outdoor types,” “rare plants and endangered lizards,” “private castles-turned five-star hotels,” “Korean, Chinese and Japanese restaurants, as well as pizza and burger joints,” places “abloom with developments,” “a bit of crystal encrusted luxury,” “glassy four-story playtowers,” “suspended cumulous-shaped nets studded with 800,000 crystals,” “subterranean retail spaces,” “three-year, 44 million-euro renovations,” “five-day tourist passes,” “thriving arts scenes,” “vibrant culinary cultures,” “mixed-use developments,” “extraordinary beach holidays,” Gaudí, and “bearded liberalness.” It feels ambivalent about slavery, which it calls a “complicated legacy.” It dislikes “unfriendly encounters between rebels and tourists,” the criminalization of homosexuality, places without airports, and places that seem obvious: “Who needs the French riviera?”

A Venn diagram of Barthes’ preferences and the travel section’s collective sensibility would both circle around “loosely held political convictions,” and kept firmly on the sides would be Brecht and every preference offered by the travel section, whose goal, seemingly, is to reflect weekend liberalism’s emptiest and least polarizing likes.

Reading the list is worthwhile, however, if you’re curious about what contemporary city and regional governments are thinking — why they’re skimping on social programs and littering their skylines with gherkins and sinuous curving mounds and mirrored, tin man variations on Disney Hall. Architecture is everywhere on the list. Visit Abu Dhabi to see Gehry’s Guggenheim, Zaha Hadid’s Performing Arts Center, and Norman Foster’s Zayed National Museum. Go to Malta to bask in Renzo Piano’s renovations. In Uruguay, Rafael Viñoly designed “a gateway to the rustic countryside,” bridging the city and wine country, and it’s this last detail that’s the most telling. Viñoly got his start designing social housing, but now that neoliberal regimes have cut social spending, architecture has lost its public function. The job of today’s architect is to stuff the city with icons in a global bid for symbolic visibility, and it’s the job of the New York Times travel section to stare into junkspace and froth at the mouth, so tourists will too.

Knowing the list’s inevitability, the way it always swings back around and cycles through the world, cheerleading the rise of some new glitzy ephemera, some new contribution to climate change, some further confluence between culture and luxury, rampaging across the globe on the lookout for relevance, flashing its ad-speak, its absence of self-awareness, its culmination of the travel section’s year long championing of junkspace, it’s a little sad. And yet there’s something exaggerated about taking down the New York Times travel section. The travel section’s a more or less innocuous symptom: You can’t blame it for spectacle society, or the way high-stakes financial trading transforms space, or the colonial logic of modern tourism. But — to channel art critic Hal Foster — does it have to endorse these things so loudly? Does it have to reflect these values so thoroughly, with each changing year?

Perhaps it does, for I can’t imagine the list becoming anything else. Still, over the years it’s made adjustments. For each of the past three years, the list has suggested fifty-two places to go. But it wasn’t always this way. After starting with a bang in 2008, with fifty-three places, in 2009, there were just forty-four, and in 2010 the list bottomed out, when they were only thirty-one places to go. In 2011, the rebound began: forty-one places, then forty-five in 2012, followed by forty-six in 2013.

Over the last five years the proportions of the list haven’t changed much: pristine nature on the verge of extinction; cities festooned by the culture industry; places previously off-limits due to war or authoritarian travel restrictions; an influx of ambitious luxury developments, all receive their fair share of coverage. The writing’s cynicism, too, has remained constant. From 2012: “Tensions have cooled since violence erupted at the recent Occupy Oakland protests, but the city’s revitalized night-life scene has continued to smolder.” Or from 2015: “Security fears in neighboring Kenya have inadvertently worked in Tanzania’s favor, as far as tourism goes: Its luxurious new lodges are enticing diverted visitors.”

As the number of destinations increase, the more the list becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, tracing the outlines of a diminishing world map. In 2013, Hvar, an island off Croatia, was number fourteen; now, in 2016, Hvar has been thoroughly commercialized — Beyoncé and Jay Z took a trip — and Korcula, a nearby island offering “authentic life,” is number seventeen. We’ve reached peak destination, and each of the fifty-two places seems shadowed by its own future, the theaters of luxury and spectacle descending on it. The list’s tagline is: “It’s a big world out there, so we’ve narrowed it down for you.” How very narrow they’ve made it.

Previously: The True Nature of The 52 Places to Go in 2015

Photo by Stuart Price / Make It Kenya