How an Upper‑Class Gaze in Travel Writing Invisibilizes Inequalities in Cities
On Sunday, the New York Times published a piece on South Delhi. Written by Finn Olaf-Jones, the piece looked at three specific localities — Hauz Khas, Mehrauli, and Lado Sarai. Olaf-Jones describes in vivid detail the spurt of artisanal bakeries and cafes, fine-dining restaurants and bars, and contemporary art galleries in the area, before going on to call Hauz Khas the SoHo (a gentrified Manhattan locality known for its art galleries and boutique shops) of Delhi, and Lado Sarai the corresponding East Village (a locality adjacent to SoHo once known for its artist and hippie population, before it also underwent gentrification).
Olaf-Jones’ vision of Delhi is occupied entirely by a class of young, aesthete, and high-net-worth Delhites who understand modern art, appreciate high fashion, and drive Bentleys and Range Rovers. It completely ignores the stark inequalities that dwell in the city itself. It makes no mention of the numerous slums in and around the same localities that he waxes eloquent about.
The workers and laborers who built South Delhi’s upmarket shops and houses, and the service class that ensure these establishments run smoothly, find no space in the New York Times‘ upper-class utopian vision — where everyone has wealth in the form of time and resources to indulge in high culture — of the area. And it is symptomatic of how travel and culture are conceptualized and written about around the world.
Leisure, culture, and tourism: these are all concepts that remain out of reach for people without resources. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization identifies individuals’ Right to Participate in Cultural Life as “a human rights imperative.” It recognizes that “the right to take part in cultural life guarantees the right of everyone to access, participate in and enjoy culture, cultural heritage, and cultural expressions.” By invisibilizing the working class’ cultural aspirations and engagement, then, the upper-class vision of tourism reinforces the idea that one must have access to a sufficient amount of resources before they can think about leisure or culture.
Blogs, websites, and television shows imagine and market travel and tourism as a glamorous activity. States envision tourism as a purely economic enterprise. This results in adventure rides, exotic locales, exquisite shopping districts, luxurious hotels, and majestic monuments — often removed from their history — being used to lure tourists to a place.
All these attractions cater to a specific class of people — people who can splurge — creating the idea of who deserves a vacation, which in turn leads to a fresh round of marketing of tourist attractions catering to this specific class. And the cycle continues, invisibilizing those without the resources from the process entirely.
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The invisibilization of those without resources from any conception of tourism, then, is also an exercise to further keep them away from their right to leisure or their right to know and interact with culture. Further, the gaze of travel writing — particularly that of the global north, redefines a city’s aspirations. Think of the times when roads, parks, and other public spaces were “cleared” of impoverished people so as to not “deter” tourists.
Even the way travel is envisioned changes entire landscapes. It is assumed to necessarily comprise luxury infrastructure, comfort-maximizing utilities, and an aesthetic of opulence that changes entire landscapes themselves. Last year in Lakshadweep, for instance, the administration floated tenders seeking proposals for developing “Maldives-like beaches”, water villas, and other ecotourism projects, despite pressing environmental concerns. The Swaddle noted last year that, “infrastructural activities like lack of proper sewage disposal, increased constructions, uncontrolled resource extraction, and unsustainable developmental activities, on the whole, will worsen the climate change impact.” Invariably, then, those who are likely to bear the brunt of these consequences are the poor who built the spaces in the first place.
In times when the working class is not entirely invisibilized from the tourism process, their living conditions are fetishized for slum tours and poverty porn. Far from recognizing their daily struggles and aspirations, these tours and photographs derive pleasure out of their agony. In her piece on slum tourism for The Swaddle, Devrupa Rakshit notes that “slum tourism…constructs a world where tourists look at slum-dwellers through the gaze of their privilege, never quite questioning or critiquing the power dynamic.” She further adds that through slum tourism, “the capitalistic system allows those with money to “otherize” the poor by condoning their moral quandary — making it an exercise in self-appeasement.”
Thus, even when their existence is acknowledged, the working class is not recognized as comprising humans worthy of dignity and respect. Who gets to travel, and who remains as mere props, or backdrops to others’ stories, remain political questions.
Travel is an integral part of many who make up the working class. As migrant workers, as seasonal labor, or even as daily commuters from one end of the city to another, travel is an essential part of their life. However, there is little focus on improving their modes of travel. When the Covid19 pandemic struck in 2020, while travel writing occupied itself with halted airplanes and empty hotels, workers were forced to travel the long distance from their work cities to hometowns on foot.
The latter is a different kind of traveling altogether, with life or death stakes — showing how travel writing minimizes questions about access, resources, and the means to physically move from one place to another. Further, it excludes questions about who gets to travel where. Space is political and fosters hierarchies; in treating it as a mere aesthetic, travel writing undermines the politics of the class of people who get to occupy space — which ones, and how much. The New York Times piece, then, shows that despite their ubiquitous presence on Indian streets, the working class remains invisible to the upper-class utopian image of the city space.