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There’s an episode in the 10th season of the late Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown where he was having lunch in a restaurant in southern Italy but refused to give up the name of the spot — a rarity for a show known for driving awareness to different cultures around the world and the small businesses populating each.
Bourdain, breaking the fourth wall, acknowledged he didn’t want to ruin the vibe of the restaurant by blasting its whereabouts to the universe via the airwaves of CNN.
His posthumous travel guide released late last month — World Travel: An Irreverent Guide — has a similar message that can just as easily translate to how the world should plan its return to travel following the devastation from coronavirus.
This being Bourdain, he and cowriter/longtime assistant Laurie Woolever cynically recognize there are only so many spots around the world than can be saved from the grips of Instagram and TikTok influencers. But that doesn’t mean travel has to live by the rules of audience engagement in its return from the pandemic.
“In some cases, a business has succumbed to the ‘Bourdain effect,’ which is to say, once a low-key restaurant or bar or sausage kiosk was featured on the show, its number of customers often skyrocketed, with Bourdain-inspired pilgrims showing up in droves to try the thing that Tony had on camera,” Woolever writes in the introduction. “In theory, this was a good thing, a coveted thing for businesses, but it could also utterly disrupt a beloved local institution, turning it into a sideshow or, depending on how the business handled it, a shitshow.”
Bourdain took his own life while visiting France in 2018 before he could fully develop the manuscript for World Travel. But there is still an unmistakable lesson in the finished pages to be had here for travel’s recovery: Don’t just fall back to the Skift-coined “overtourism” of pre-pandemic life.
That may seem like an already bypassed opportunity for this summer, when domestic vacation destinations in countries around the world expect to handle record crowds. Plus, so many of these small businesses have suffered with capacity restrictions and forced shutdowns at various points over the last year — are we really supposed to lie low when things are opening back up?
You don’t have to stay away, but at least aim for more thoughtful travel this summer. Those eased capacity restrictions? Those may be lifting, but travel businesses are now dealing with a labor shortage crisis that would have seen unfathomable weeks ago. Don’t take it personally if service is slow or if your coveted hotel room takes longer to open up — one person is doing the work of five this summer just to accommodate your vacation.
It’s much easier to go with the flow and let those things slide when you go in with an open mind and having done your homework. Understand and appreciate where you’re traveling rather than arrive with a “This is how I travel — or else” mentality.
Readers get a sense of Bourdain’s approach to that throughout the entire book, as well as some of even his shortcomings.
A trip to Croatia entailed reading a two-volume book written by Rebecca West on her 1937 trip through the Balkan states. The remainder of his research came from “cable news [about] a war that took place nearly two decades ago,” Woolever pulled in from Bourdain’s voiceover in the 2012 Croatia episode of No Reservations while discussing the Balkan and Yugoslav wars.
But the open mind and research, as limited as it may have been in some destinations, often led to epiphanies like the one had in Croatia.
“I’ll tell you honestly: if you like food and you haven’t come here to eat, you’re really missing the f—ing boat. This is world-class food; this is world-class wine; this is world-class cheese,” Bourdain said on No Reservations. “The next big thing is Croatia. If you haven’t been here, you’re a f—ing idiot. I’m an idiot.”
Nine years later, the world has clearly caught on. Croatia was one of the few international destinations to accept American travelers last summer in the pandemic, and demand there is up heading into what is shaping up to be a summer boomtown of travel. Delta and United both announced new service to Dubrovnik this summer from the U.S.
No Tourist Traps
This brings us back to the idea of thoughtful travel and why it’s so important: The major travel industry players aren’t going to incorporate concerns of overtourism into their near-term recovery as long as there is still such limited revenue on the table and everyone has to fight for leisure travelers.
This article comes to you from Provincetown, Massachusetts, where Bourdain got his start in the restaurant industry as a dishwasher at the now-closed Flagship Restaurant.
“Provincetown, a wonderland of tolerance, longtime tradition of accepting artists, writers, the badly behaved, the gay, the different,” Bourdain said of the town in 2014.
But even Bourdain’s bohemian P-town of the 1970s can’t escape looming overtourism of 2021. Instead of morning walks being filled with the usual soundtrack of Outer Cape wind, waves, and the dissonance of seagulls, lately it’s the bellowing of an entitled party of four demanding to be seated immediately at a nearby café because they have to be back in Boston in four hours.
Some of that is inevitable, as people have been cooped up for a year or more. But as things open up this summer and return to whatever normal is, travelers and travel companies can at least be a little more thoughtful in how they return.
Bourdain’s approach in a different P-town, ok, a P-city (Paris) encapsulates what people need to think about once the shock and awe of being able to travel again dissipates.
“The absolute worst thing to do when you come to Paris is plan too much,” Bourdain said in a 2012 episode of The Layover. “Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame, Arc de Triomphe, stand in line for hours to experience what everybody says you have to. Me? I like to take it easy in Paris, especially if I’m only in town for a few days.”
A Lesson to Future Guidebooks
Woolever and Bourdain met once about the book in 2018 before his death the same year. The guide was originally pitched as a travel book that would feature 43 different countries and a dozen Bourdain essays. But the finished product reads more like a compilation of greatest hits from his writings and television programs over the span of his shortened life as well as essays from friends, family, and guests on the show.
While the book isn’t some secret manuscript discovered tucked away in Bourdain’s office, it should be a lesson for future travel guidebooks to not be so sterile.
Woolever is frank in that things change, especially in some of the more geopolitical hotspots, so this is almost more of a guide on travel vibes rather than finding the trendiest restaurant or hotel in Morocco or Macau. Though, they still include plenty of those, too.
It’s easy to get wistful for what this book could have been (“Let’s do as much as we can there,” Bourdain said of Oman in the one book planning meeting held with Woolever. “I really love that place. I want to encourage people to go there.”). But there are also shadows of Bourdain found in the essays that made it into the book.
His brother, Christopher, praised a roadside hamburger and hot dog joint (Hiram’s Roadstand) in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the two visited on a trip to an unfortunately gentrifying Jersey Shore in 2015.
Hiram’s was largely unchanged apart from a modern bathroom — and even that was too much for the Bourdain brothers: “That scary gas station-style rest room, which is to say, outside, around the back. Why mess up a little piece of 1930s perfection?”
Progress is fine, but don’t mess with the classics.