Preserving Tourism Imaginaries: Vacationers Urged to Visit Online Now, Travel IRL Later
Maria Skouras / University of Texas at Austin

Decline in Tourist Arrivals WTSO
Dramatic Decline in Global Tourism in April 2020 (UNWTO)

National tourism boards, hotels, airlines, travel companies, and other related businesses are struggling to survive as global tourism came to a halt during spring 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This downturn has considerable implications for the global economy; according to the World Economic Forum, the travel and tourism industry produced 10.4% of the world’s GDP and a similar percentage of jobs in 2018.[ (( Calderwood, L.U. & Soshkin, M. World Economic Forum. The Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report. (2019)., 3. ))] While travel restrictions are beginning to ease in Europe and elsewhere, widespread lockdowns and quarantines have already caused drastic financial damage. The United Nations World Tourism Organization reported that international tourist arrivals declined 97% globally during April causing a loss of $195 billion in travel-related revenue when compared to the same period during 2019.[ (( United Nations World Tourism Organization [UNWTO]. (June 2020). World Tourism Barometer. Volume 18. Issue 3. ))]

In addition to enhancing a nation’s ability to be competitive in the global economy, the character of a country’s tourism sector is essential to the nation’s overall brand. Whether a country’s landscape features the rainforest, mountains, beaches, glaciers, or deserts, the commodification of the terrain into possibilities for tourism shapes perceptions of the place.[ (( Dinnie, K. (2016) Nation Branding: Concepts, Issues, Practice. Routledge, 115. ))] Likewise, the nation’s history, attractions, music, food, and culture contribute to the creation of such fantasies and “tourism imaginaries”.[ (( Salazar, N.B. (2011) Tourism Imaginaries: A Conceptual Approach. Annals of Tourism Research. doi:10/1016/j.annals.2011.10.004.))] As such, tourism marketing campaigns employ imagery that develop or reinforce positive mythologies to appeal to foreign visitors. To authenticate the narratives being constructed, local citizens are often instrumentalized to provide personal testimonials about the nation’s ability to provide extraordinary experiences.

#DreamNowTravelLater images
As of 7/18/2020, 61K Instagram Images Used the #DreamNowTravelLater Hashtag

In response to global shelter-in-place orders, tourism boards have been presented with an unusual challenge. They need to artfully acknowledge the unprecedented situation we are living in and deter visitors for an unknown amount of time while still enticing privileged individuals with expendable income to consider future travel. Many have risen to the occasion by developing creative messaging, catchy hashtags, and participatory campaigns. For example, Switzerland’s tourism board has advised travelers to “Stay safe-stay home” and is credited with popularizing the #DreamNowTravelLater hashtag on social media platforms.

A message from Switzerland's Tourism Board to Tourists:
A message from Switzerland’s Tourism Board to Tourists: “Stay safe-stay home”

On March 31st, the MySwitzerland
official Youtube account posted the video, “Dream now – travel later,”
in which would-be tourists are encouraged to use this time to plan for a
forthcoming trip to Switzerland while being inspired by aerial views of
the country that are fit for a postcard. As a soft acoustic guitar tune
plays in the background, the words “Dream now- travel later” arise over
a quintessential vision of Switzerland, a glowing town nestled amongst
the snow-covered Swiss Alps at sunset. Other images showcase
Switzerland’s versatility: awe-inspiring lake views fit for kayaking,
green hills perfect for a challenging run, and winding train rides that
conclude with warm embraces from friends all await visitors.

Switzerland’s “Dream Now – Travel Later” Video Ad from 3/31/2020

Greece’s tourism industry has taken a comparable, if not more abstract, approach. On June 5th, the Tourism Ministry and Marketing Greece released a video that proposed “Greek summer is a state of mind.” Acknowledging that travel is not advised or possible for all at this time, the video claims summer in Greece is more than an experience; it is a concept within itself. The narrator in the video philosophizes that as long as one is with loved ones, enjoying nature, and “feeling free,” they can achieve the essence of a Greek summer from wherever they are. However, the clear blue sea and empty, idyllic beach depicted is an invitation for viewers to picture themselves there in the future. Having welcomed a record-breaking number of tourists during 2018, summer tourism is a pillar of the Greek economy and thrives off its imaginary as a summer paradise.

“The Greek Summer State of Mind” Video Ad from 6/4/2020

Two months earlier in April 2020, the Greek National Tourism Organization launched the #GreeceFromHome digital campaign, which invites viewers into the homes of nationally-known Greek citizens as they perform everyday activities from cooking traditional recipes like moussaka, a comfort food often likened to lasagna, to reciting monologues from Greek tragedies. Although international viewers may not be familiar with these personalities, they will learn more about the nation’s culture and talented people. At the same time, Greeks who are quarantining at home will enjoy the unique opportunity to hear from their favorite chefs, journalists, actors, and musicians in a more casual, unfiltered way. The simple, no-frills approach to filming and sharing personal stories in #GreeceFromHome furthers the revival of Greece’s narrative as a vibrant nation with friendly people, delicious food, picture-perfect islands, and a rich history, rather than one embroiled in financial and refugee crises.

Prior to the pandemic, in June of 2019, Tourism New Zealand launched a similar people-to-people campaign called #GoodMorningWorldNZ. As the first country to experience the daily sunrise, a different New Zealander wishes the world a good morning from a scenic location each day for a year, oftentimes incorporating words and sayings in the Māori language. Serving as national brand ambassadors and local guides, ordinary citizens describe their hobbies and active endeavors in a diversity of terrains, from mountain vistas to colorful urban landscapes. The #GoodMorningWorldNZ website provides directions for how any resident can film their own video by “selecting an epic spot” from which to say good morning, sharing what they are up to, and wishing the world a good day before uploading to a social media platform.

New Zealand’s “Good Morning World” Day 366 Video Ad with Lola from 6/15/2020

Although New Zealand detected and contained the virus early on, several of the campaign videos posted in the spring of 2020 reflect the changes precipitated by the pandemic while still presenting the natural beauty of the country. Brooke, a doctor sharing her greeting in front of the stunning Bay of Plenty, thanks nurses around the world for their care at a time when it might not be possible for individuals to be with their loved ones. Reporting from the lush, tree-lined river at the Whanganui National Park, Baldy and Tom explain the spiritual and life-sustaining significance of the river and encourage visitors to “come back” while assuring them “we will still be here.” The final video concludes with Lola, a young citizen reporting from the sea in Auckland. She relays that while it is not possible for the country to currently welcome visitors in its traditional way, “as whānau – or family,” they look forward to seeing everyone soon.

“Can’t Skip Hope,” a powerful video released by Portugal’s official tourism board in March, echoes the sentiment that this is a time to stop, dream, and plan for future travel. It begins with two caveats which explain that the footage was captured when “we could spend time outside” and that narration was recorded safely from home on a smartphone. Then it launches into a myriad of snapshots:  wild horses running in reverse, a passionate kiss, the release of a massive lantern in the night, a festive group dinner, and beach scenes amongst others. Like rewinding through fragmented memories or experiencing a dream-sequence, the video is equal parts reality and fantasy. For those who lack an image of what travel to Portugal might be like, the video shows a dynamic country full of life as well as contemplative moments. The voiceover stresses the importance of being apart so that we can be together again. It ends with the Visit Portugal logo and a series of hashtags including #cantskipyesterday, #cantskiptomorrow, and #cantskiphope.

Portugal’s “Can’t Skip Hope” Video Ad from 3/20/2020

Taking a more humorous approach, Iceland is using the hashtag #LetItOutIceland and encouraging bored, frustrated, and listless individuals to record a scream and select one of seven incredible outdoor locations to have it played from a loud-speaker. For those who are fortunate enough to be safe at home rather than on the frontlines of the pandemic, the video shows familiar situations: the monotony of doing another puzzle, a self-haircut gone wrong, the disappointment and loneliness of a quarantine birthday, and the near impossibility of simultaneously working and parenting. For citizens of countries who are being ravaged by COVID-19 and won’t be able to take advantage of borders starting to reopen for limited tourism, releasing a scream is a welcome opportunity. And if scream therapy is not your thing, online tourism campaigns featuring friendly faces and picturesque imagery can provide a little inspiration to #DreamNowTravelLater.

Iceland’s “Let It Out!” Video from 7/15/2020

Image Credits:

  1. Dramatic Decline in Global Tourism in April 2020 (UNWTO). Author’s screen grab from the UNWTO World Tourism Barometer, Volume 18, Issue 3, Update June 2020.
  2. As of 7/18/2020, 61K Instagram Images Used the #DreamNowTravelLater Hashtag. Author’s screen grab.
  3. A message from Switzerland’s Tourism Board to Tourists: “Stay safe-stay home.” Author’s screen grab.
  4. Switzerland’s “Dream Now – Travel Later” Video Ad from 3/31/2020
  5. “The Greek Summer State of Mind” Video Ad from 6/4/2020
  6. New Zealand’s “Good Morning World” Day 366 Video Ad with Lola from 6/15/2020
  7. Portugal’s “Can’t Skip Hope” Video Ad from 3/20/2020
  8. Iceland’s “Let It Out” Video Ad from 7/15/2020


Postmodern Pastoralisms:
Artists Reveal the Invisible Infrastructures of “The Cloud”

Maria Skouras / University of Texas at Austin

Artistic images of infrastructure

Screenshot of artistic images of infrastructure from Google’s data center website

Since the emergence of mechanization, technology has been framed in opposition to nature as well as inextricably linked to it. Now that technology is commonplace in our everyday lives, the natural world is frequently employed as a metaphor to symbolize complex processes and market new products and services to consumers by applying familiar, illustrative, and benign terms. This practice influences how technology is perceived, ignores threatening power dynamics, dismisses the significance of social and political factors in shaping technology, and further alienates users from critically thinking about issues surrounding the Internet and data. With much at stake due to technological ignorance, more proficient understanding of these topics is an imperative to maintain access to information, privacy, and security. In pursuit of demystifying these topics, artists are working to reveal the physical infrastructures and networks that support the Internet and help debunk their long-held association with natural occurrences.

Dating back to the 19th century, American authors like Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville portrayed industrialization as an aggressive or disruptive force bound to estrange citizens from a simpler, more peaceful existence. This negative narrative began to shift as powerful individuals touted the advantages of using machines to complete mundane manufacturing tasks and facilitate national development during the Industrial Revolution. American politicians celebrated the positive changes mechanization and factories were destined to bring for society, turning technology into an abstract metaphor for progress. [ (( Smith, M.R. (1994) Technological Determinism in American Culture. In M. R. Smith & L. Marx (Eds.) Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism (pp.1-36.) Cambridge: MIT Press.))]

The Lakawanna Valley

A painting titled “The Lakawanna Valley” by George Inness (1856) showing technology coexisting with or intruding upon nature

Machines were praised as being able to do the hard, time consuming work that would in turn free individuals to pursue more spiritual ambitions that would bring them closer to nature. [ ((Marx, L. (2000) The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. (35th Anniv) (p.169.) New York, NY: Oxford University Press.))] Otherworldly abilities were cast upon technology and it was imbued with mysterious God-like powers. Both fascinating and bewildering, the magic of technology came to embody national aspirations towards reaching the highest echelons of innovation and achieving greatness. Culture and technology professor Leo Marx used the term “technological sublime” to explain the state of transcendence that technology was seen capable of while combining the best parts of the rural (purity) and urban (knowledge) divide. [ ((Marx, p.195.))]

Today, the language we use to describe fundamental aspects of the Internet perpetuates the connection between technology and the natural world and seeks to obscure its complex, and oftentimes problematic, inner workings. For instance, the infrastructure that stores high volumes of user data on the Internet and makes it accessible on any device from remote locations is widely referred to as “the cloud.” This term was first employed as a way to describe a network of nodes and the unknown networks they were linked to forming an amorphous, cloud-like shape.

The use of cloud services for personal and corporate purposes are numerous, but to illustrate just a handful, if you store photographs on Amazon Prime, have an email account with Microsoft Office 365, work on projects with colleagues using Google Docs and Dropbox, watch streaming services like Hulu or Netflix, ask Siri or Alexa to answer questions, post on Facebook, update your resume on LinkedIn, or Skype with friends near and far, then you are using cloud technology. Even though the number of global internet users and companies that utilize cloud-based services is growing, as of 2014 the majority of Americans did not know what the cloud is or how it works or even that they were already using it themselves. Further, many believed that bad weather impacts cloud computing. With the ubiquity of cloud-based services in 2019, it is likely that more internet users are at least aware of the cloud even though the name obfuscates its physicality and deters a base understanding of how it functions.

“The cloud” conjures images of puffy white clouds floating across a serene blue sky, while the reality is that cloud-based data is stored on a multitude of servers in warehouse-like data centers. The location of data centers is most often out of sight in remote areas. Media scholars Jennifer Holt and Patrick Vonderau elaborate on the contradiction of the indispensability of data centers to digital media infrastructures and their invisibility, which obscures their role in processing and storing information [ (( Holt, J., & Vonderau, P. (2015). “Where the Internet Lives”: Data Centers as Cloud Infrastructure. In Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructure (pp. 71–93). University of Illinois Press.))]. Beyond that, this invisibility cloaks security concerns over the protection of personal data and the environmental impact of data centers, which has serious implications for energy consumption and climate change.

Unsurprisingly, companies like Google and Apple might open their doors to the public once a year for a closer look at the inside of a data center yet sparingly share details on the mechanics of it. More widely accessible, Google’s Data Centers website features video tours and photographs of these restricted spaces “where the Internet lives.” The “Inside a Google data center” video is of a location in South Carolina and features wide angle shots of the center surrounded by a green landscape and river with clouds passing overhead. It is reminiscent of the hopeful spirit of the Industrial Revolution that machines were assured to bring humans closer to nature.

“Inside a Google data center”

The bright primary colors of the Google employee workstations and bikes outside contrast with the monotonous rows of silver servers lining the warehouse. Google employees introduce themselves and are shown bringing their pets to work and taking breaks to play foosball, putting a human face to the impersonal machinery. Strategically produced, the video provides a curated glimpse into the data center. As argued by Holt and Vonderau, the hypervisibility of some aspects of the data centers is as intentional of a choice as the invisibility of others. [ (( Holt & Vonderau, p.81.))].

The secrecy surrounding the cloud has inspired artists to create works that expose aspects of how it operates or at least allow viewers to have a closer look at these essential yet hidden media infrastructures. As reported by Vice, artist and filmmaker Matt Parker teamed up with cinematographers Michael James Lewis and Sebastien Dehesdin to create a video series called The People’s Cloud. Together they traveled to critical data centers in Europe and interviewed engineers, marketing experts, economists, and other integral employees while touring the facilities and capturing footage of the semiconductors, fiber optic cables, magnetic storage units, and numerous other internal aspects of these technical systems. Combining investigative journalism with creative expression, they developed 5 short documentaries, additional videos, audio works, and installations that uncover the material, social, and abstract layers of cloud infrastructures. Each video is accompanied by a detailed essay, all of which can be accessed for free online.

The People’s Cloud Episode One
What is the Cloud vs. What Existed Before?

Taking a different approach after his request to access and photograph Google’s data center in Oklahoma was denied in 2014, artist John Gerrard utilized a helicopter to capture aerial images for his photography series titled Farm. His images were then used to create a 360-degree animation and projection of the site to expose the infrastructure behind the internet. He saw the photographs as a continuation of his project Grow Finish Unit, in which he photographed industrialized pork production sites in rural locations. In linking the two projects he said, “Oddly it is visually similar to the architecture of the Google data farm. It is sort of like a postmodern pastoral.”

Google's Data Farm at Pryor Creek

Image of Google’s Data Farm at Pryor Creek Oklahoma
from John Gerrard’s website — photographed by Blake Gowriluk

Artist and geographer Trevor Paglen is also known for photographing data centers, particularly those related to the U.S. intelligence agency. Drawing attention to the tension between idyllic locations and the presence of stark data centers used for clandestine activities, he highlights these powerful yet oft-overlooked structures. He explains his work by saying, “My intention is to expand the visual vocabulary we use to ‘see’ the U.S. intelligence community. Although the organizing logic of our nation’s surveillance apparatus is invisibility and secrecy, its operations occupy the physical world. Digital surveillance programs require concrete data centers; intelligence agencies are based in real buildings; surveillance systems ultimately consist of technologies, people, and the vast network of material resources that supports them.”

Photo of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

Photograph of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) by Trevor Paglen from American Suburbx

Although the remote, rural locations of data centers have financial, environmental, and security motivations, they further shroud the centers in mystery and suggest a new iteration of the technological sublime which inhibits users from contemplating and understanding the systems they regularly use. The creative, investigative work of artists is essential to grounding the cloud and encouraging individuals to question and critique physical infrastructures and the sociotechnical systems that create and sustain them.

Image Credits:

1. Screenshot of artistic images of infrastructure from Google’s data center website
2. A painting titled “The Lakawanna Valley” by George Inness (1856) showing technology coexisting with or intruding upon nature
3. “Inside a Google data center” from Google’s G Suite YouTube Channel
4. The People’s Cloud Episode One from Matt Parker’s Vimeo page
5. Image of Google’s Data Farm at Pryor Creek Oklahoma
6. Photograph of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) by Trevor Paglen

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