Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 July 2019
Travel writers, and travel writing critics, have been proclaiming the end-of-travel for at least a century and a half. Gustave Flaubert (1996, 54), travelling to Egypt in 1849, was ‘irritated by the number of imbeciles’ names written everywhere’. Finding that even the top of the Great Pyramid had been despoiled by graffiti, Flaubert's mood quickly deflated as he realized that thousands of tourists had performed the same journey before him. A century later, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1984 , 87) would go on to complain in Tristes Tropiques that even the most inaccessible of the planet's wildernesses were at the time of writing ‘out of date’. Flaubert and Lévi-Strauss can thus both be said to suffer from the symptoms of the ‘belated traveller’ (Behdad 1994). Yearning to go back to a time in which ‘there were many blank spaces on the earth’ (Conrad 1988, 11), the belated traveller hankers for the day in which ‘travel’ was a term closely aligned with ‘exploration’, only to have it confirmed again and again that ‘travel is now impossible and that tourism is all we have left’ (Fussell 1980, 41).
To speak of the end-of-travel is inadvertently also to speak of modernity. For if the prerequisite for an activity to be defined as ‘travel’ is dependent on the amount of labour (travail) expended on it, then the introduction of a range of modern technologies would forever change the manner in which travellers view the world.
First, revolutionary inventions in transportation would over time eliminate not just the effort and the time involved in journeying from one location to another, but also the dangers and discomforts that travel to faraway places once entailed. Due to a range of radical advances in construction and engineering, like the opening of the Suez Canal (1869) and the Panama Canal (1914), travel times around the globe were cut drastically. With the invention of the steamboat and the railway, the motor car and the aeroplane, formerly remote and inaccessible parts of the planet were made much easier to access.
Second, the technological revolutions we have seen in communication industries would signal a very different yet equally lethal blow to travel and travel writing. The introduction of the telegraph is one early example.