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Landmarks Are Just Brands with Souvenirs

The Idea of Things

One of the last things my ex-girlfriend and I did before we had our Breakup Party and left LA was take a trip to the Grand Canyon.

We were talking the day before and both thought it would be good to go see something epic and breathtaking before taking off on our own paths, and it absolutely was.

For the first 5 minutes or so.

After those first 5 minutes we stared politely a bit longer, exclaimed for the third time that it looked fake, and then decided to hike a bit down into the canyon, both feeling that we really should. I mean, we came all that way.

Not only that, but everyone else seemed so awestruck that it would have ruined the mood to just hop out of the car, stare for a few moments and then make our way back to the skyscrapers, food trucks and honking horns of Los Angeles.

Great Expectations

There are landmarks one is supposed to see.

No, that’s not quite accurate. It’s more like there are certain landmarks that one is supposed to want to see.

The Eiffel Tower. The Hollywood sign. Big Ben. The Sistine Chapel. Angkor Wat. The Grand Canyon. The Statue of Liberty.

And you know what? All of them are absolutely impressive in a way, but not as impressive as you’ve been told, and not as impressive as you’d like to believe, especially after making a long journey to see them.

An Epic Brand

The long and the short of it is that these locations and spectacles all have really great branding.

They’ve got an impressive story that’s been stretched and fluffed and decorated and perpetuated by the people who stand to gain and the people who have seen it (who also have something to gain: the prestige of having seen something great).

The idea of these landmarks are a thousand times more impressive than the landmarks themselves, and this is what continues to bring people back day after day, year after year, to kiss the Blarney Stone or to take their picture holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Yay, Brands!

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The placebo effect can work wonders with expensive wines, resulting in a legitimately better experience for the person consuming it over a cheaper bottle.

Further, landmarks like The Great Wall of China and the Colosseum can actually help inspire a sense of pride in one’s culture, and so long as this is used to move people forward rather than holds others back, this can be very beneficial.

Boo, Brands!

Then again, sometimes it is a bad thing.

When travelers go to a landmark expecting to get a real, genuine cultural experience, sometimes they’ll be disappointed with what they find. Even worse, they may think that what they saw and experienced at the tourist trap is a good representation of the country and people who live there.

This is misrepresentation and it breeds distorted perceptions between nations. I’ve heard all about what people in Argentina think of people from the United States (based purely on the TV shows and movies that make it here, and sometimes a quick jaunt up to LA or Miami), and the opinions are laughably incorrect and a little offensive.

On the other hand, I had never left the US before this excursion, so despite being ignorant about Argentinians, I also had few or no preconceived notions about them. I was a blank slate, ready to be filled with information.

Is It Okay?

There is an ongoing debate over what kind of travel method is better (touristy travel or more culturally involved travel) and I don’t want to address that here. The point that I really want to get across is that we should all be aware that landmarks serve a purpose: they are entertaining and can teach a bit about history (though not always totally accurate history) and can be amazing to look at/explore for a bit.

But we should not worship them as a be all, end all, and certainly not as the high-point of a culture’s contributions to the world.

If you really dig them, go see them! See them all and take more photos so that those of us who aren’t quite as psyched about making the long trip to see them can look at your photos and feel like we made it there too, because honestly, even though I know I prefer slow, non-landmark travel, their branding is solid, and I’m kind of curious what they look like.

Update: November 26, 2016

I’ve visited a lot of landmarks since I wrote this post, and I’d add a few things.

1. I still believe we generally put too much stock in landmarks, over the broader culture.

2. That said, it’s gotten way better. With services like Airbnb and Uber, we’re far more capable of being mobile and staying in non-touristy areas of a new city. We’re enabled by the technology and systems that exist today, and which didn’t exist when I wrote this post back in 2010.

3. I would add, too, that I’ve found new value in tourist attractions since then: they’re fun to breathe in for a moment, and now, because of ubiquitous, high-quality camera tech built right into our phones, it’s possible to take some stunning photos and videos from the precipice of the Grand Canyon, or the top of the Empire State Building. I’m not saying this is the same as travel, but it does allow far more people to get an idea of what it looks like that before. And the ability to share them casually via high-speed mobile internet networks, on social networks like Instagram, means they’ll hit more eyeballs than would have been likely back in 2010.