Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Travel boom has not made world smaller, says renowned writer Iyer




Travel boom has not made world smaller, says renowned writer Iyer

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
The sun rises over the central stupa of Angkor Wat temple in Siem Reap in March last year. KAZUHIRO NOGI/POOL/AFP

Travel boom has not made world smaller, says renowned writer Iyer

From crowded temples at Angkor Wat to queues to scale Everest, there’s no escaping the downsides to mass tourism, but renowned writer Pico Iyer says the boom in world travel has brought positive changes.

Speaking to reporters ahead of his headline appearance at next month’s Hong Kong International Literary Festival, the author argues that people are sometimes “so aware of the bad things tourism brings, we forget the good things”.

“In many cases, in Rajasthan in India or Bali, the advent of tourists has woken people up to native customs and traditions that might have been falling away, and moved them to take care of their heritage and even expand it,” he says.

And while he has noticed a huge increase in visitors to Japan, his home for three decades, the 62-year-old doesn’t think people should stay away.

In Kyoto, where the serenity of the city’s ancient shrines and temples draws less-than-peaceful daily crowds, he says it is still possible for travellers to walk their own path.

“There are times in November, peak season, when I’m walking down the central street in Kyoto and you can barely move for all the visitors. But one street over it’s just as deserted and evocative as it ever was,” he explains.

“Kyoto has been around for 1,300 years and I think it’s wise about knowing how to take in the whole world without being completely changed, or spoiled,” he adds.

Iyer has written on topics from globalisation and jet-lag to spirituality and rootedness. His work reflects on his journeys to more than 80 countries, as well as literature and his long friendship with the Dalai Lama.

Born in Britain to Indian parents, Iyer grew up between California, where his family moved when he was small, and boarding school in the UK.

He began his career as a writer on international affairs for Time magazine, but at 29 swapped fast-paced Manhattan for Kyoto, planning to spend a year in a Buddhist temple.

While there, he met a Japanese woman called Hiroko and fell in love. She left her husband and the couple moved into a small suburban flat in Nara, an hour from Kyoto, known for its giant bronze Buddha and sacred deer park.

As well as seeking pleasure and new experiences, tourists should ask themselves what they are going to give to a place, “not just materially, but in the form of human contact or friendship”, or attention to problems faced by people there, Iyer says.

The “urgent” issue of climate change also means travellers must be able to justify long trips, he adds.

Tourism boom

Last year a record 31.2 million tourists visited Japan, according to government figures – a massive surge from 2.8 million in 1989, when Iyer had just moved there.

Behind the stats is a worldwide travel boom fuelled by cheaper flights, eased visa restrictions, and a growing middle class in China and increasingly India. Successful Japanese tourism campaigns and international events like the Rugby World Cup have also contributed to the influx.

Even though more people than ever are on the move, this doesn’t mean they have more in common, according to Iyer.

“The world isn’t small, and in some ways, the distances and differences between us are greater than ever before, partly because of the illusion of shared culture,” he says.

In Iran, he visited a packed restaurant called Kansas Fried Chicken – “the closest they could get to KFC” – where Steve Jobs’s autobiography was on display. However, he points out, its popularity “doesn’t make Iran politically or economically any closer” to the US.

Similarly, Japan may have embraced baseball, but it has turned the American sport into “something deeply Japanese”. And in India, “there’s a bombardment of stuff from everywhere else, and yet unmistakably at every second, you’re in India, for better or worse”.

In Hong Kong, Iyer is due to give two talks: on his new books Autumn Light and A Beginner’s Guide to Japan, and about the search for stillness in the hectic modern world.

“For me, travel is a way of gathering lots of experiences and prompts and emotions, and stillness is how I make sense of them,” he says.

Iyer spends several months each year with his elderly mother in California, but says when he’s in Japan, unlike anywhere else, “every day lasts for about a thousand hours” as he avoids using technology as much as possible, instead taking breaks to read on the terrace or play ping-pong at his local health club.

Given the angst over mass tourism, and the need for stillness, should everyone slow down and explore closer to home? Perhaps, Iyer says.

“There’s a famous rock garden in Kyoto with 15 stones . . . people always pay homage to that place, but just around the corner is a little stone wash basin with one Japanese character on each of its four sides. They say: ‘what you have is all you need’.”

Sometimes, you have everything you need right there, he says. “You don’t have to go across the world to find it”.

MOST VIEWED

  • Without shoes or a helmet, a young cyclist steals the show

    Pech Theara gripped the curved handlebars of his rusty old bike, planted his bare feet on its pedals and stormed as fast as he could towards the finish line. The odds were against him as the 13-year-old faced off against kids with nicer bikes at

  • Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville expressway on schedule

    The construction of the more than $1.9 billion Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville Expressway has not been delayed despite the Covid-19 pandemic, with more than 26 per cent of the project completed and expected to finish in about two years, according to Ministry of Public Works and Transport secretary of

  • Singapore group seeks $14M in damages from PPSP over ‘breach of contract’

    Singapore-based Asiatic Group (Holdings) Ltd is seeking a minimum of $14.4 million relief from Cambodia Securities Exchange (CSX)-listed Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone Plc (PPSP) for allegedly breaching a power plant joint venture (JV) agreement. Asiatic Group’s wholly-owned Colben System Pte Ltd and 95 per

  • Over 110 garment factories close

    A government official said on November 22 that at least 110 garment factories had closed in the first nine months of the year and left more than 55,000 workers without jobs – but union leaders worry those numbers could be much higher. Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training undersecretary

  • Cambodia lauded for fight against Covid-19

    Cambodia has drawn global accolades for its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, with a new report finding that the Kingdom has controlled the pandemic better than any other country in Asia. Dr Takeshi Kasai, director of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Western Pacific region,

  • More than 540 deported in first nine months

    The Ministry of Interior’s General Department of Immigration (GDI) deported 542 foreigners in the first nine months of this year for various offences. GDI spokesman Keo Vanthan said the deportees were a mix of 40 nationalities, most of them Chinese. Since 2014, he said the GDI had