Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A place that makes sense to me

Monday afternoon, America watched with horror as Boston, Massachusetts became the most recent city within our borders to experience a terrorist attack. The identity Boston held in many people's minds and hearts swiftly changed. To some, a city typically regarded as the enemy, was viewed compassionately as a brother. To others, an exciting vacation spot became a nightmarish hell--one they may never muster up the courage to visit again. And to many more, the love they had for this city only grew stronger with heartbreak.

Inspiring display outside The Brooklyn Academy of
Music after the Boston Marathon explosions
The geographic term "sense of place" describes the way in which places are experienced subjectively. Whether through personal experience, or from outside learned knowledge, most people tend to view most locations through a specific, individualized lens.

Take the city of Hartford, for example; the not-quite-metropolitan capitol of my home state, Connecticut. I love Hartford. Sure, there isn't always a lot to do, and the skyline is rather ugly, but it's my city. It's where I was born, where I went to high school, and where I'll probably get married one day. It's the place I've most explored (and gotten most lost in); the place I've seen plays and concerts, and been to museums and nightclubs; the place I crashed my car and tried my first cigarette; the place I made lifelong friends and decided upon my future career; the place I grew up. 

Not everyone sees Hartford the same way as I do. It is consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous cities in the country, and I wouldn't argue the fact. Some people think of the urban hub as being quite well-off (whether because certain television shows portray it as such, or because of the general assumption about Connecticut's wealth), while others will say it must be one of the poorest in the area. Many will never bother to consider Hartford as anything besides a cause of traffic between the greater cities of New York and Boston. 

Everyone is correct. There are mansions, and there are gunshots, and there is certainly bad traffic, but no matter how one chooses to see Hartford, theirs is only one view out of an indefinite amount. This is true of any and every location. Thanks to globalization, we are now able to visit and learn about more locations than what was even imaginable in the past. With this increase, the idea of "sense of place" is more prominent than ever, especially in the travel industry.

Everywhere, from tiny towns to major countries, is constantly working to maintain and improve their image. Tourism brings in a lot of money, and also a better reputation. Even New York City, a place that tends to sneer at tourists, is completely reliant on them. Mayor Bloomberg confirmed in 2011“The strength of our tourism industry is one of the reasons New York City was less impacted by the national recession than other cities, and it continues to be one of the reasons we’re growing faster than other cities today.”

Posing with friends at the Dead Sea in Israel
I had the opportunity last week to meet Michael Tuchfeld, a leading journalist in Israel. One of the points he made over and over again is that the media focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict far more than it ought to. "The conflict does not define the country," he said. When I asked him what he thought should define the country instead, he suggested the many advancements in medicine and technology Israel is responsible for, their superb educational system and stable economy, and the fact that Israel makes a wonderful vacation spot.

Having been to Israel, I can attest to that. It is an absolutely gorgeous, culturally enriching, and fun country to visit. I find it bewildering that Cyprus, the super small island next door, currently has nearly 3x the amount of annual tourists that Israel does, according to Tuchfeld. The reason for this, as I'm sure you can assume, is because of the conflict with Palestine. When the only thing you hear about a country is that it's "at war," you're not often rushing out to buy a plane ticket there. Even after I came home from my trip, completely safe and with great stories, the only reaction I got from some people was a stuffy, "I'm glad you didn't get blown up."

Similarly, I recently realized, must be the case of Korea. Aside from the success of "Gangnam Style" singer, PSY, Korea seems to only be in the news for Northern leader Kim Jong-un's alleged threats of war and destruction. I am sure the negative publicity is stressful for the citizens of his regime, but probably even more so for the folks in the South. Though separate countries, both parts of Korea are being thought of as warzones in the minds of many ill-informed people.

When leaving the Condé Nast Building the other day, I noticed a rather large billboard in Times Square. On it was a lovely sailboat and ocean scene, with text reading: 
"VISIT KOREA: 9000 miles of unspoiled coastline. 3000 islands of rare beauty. Discover the unexpected charm of Korea."
Billboard advertisement in Times Square, NYC
My initial reaction was confusion. I had prided myself in being open-minded enough to see Korea as more than just Jong-un's playground, but had never considered vacationing there--especially not for their beaches. To be honest, it didn't occur to me before seeing this advertisement that Korea even had beaches (silly, I know). I took note of the wording: unexpected charm. 

It was true; Korea probably isn't the first location that pops into the mind of even the most sophisticated traveler when thinking of island beauty, but that doesn't mean it's without. By acknowledging that it is a more under-the-radar travel destination, Korea is validating the audience's individual perception of the country, while gently letting them know that there's more than what meets the eye. The viewer is being informed of the truth, while maintaining their personal sense of place.

Though I am grimacing slightly at the thought of this billboard's price tag, I think it was a smart decision to have it posted. People who have established their Korean sense of place through what they've seen in the media (feeling uncomfortable or possibly scared at the thought of going), are likely to only allow the media to change their minds. Korea reiterates on its tourism website that it has "maintained its longstanding reputation as a safe tourist destination" and that it is working to further increase the number of tourists; doing so, in many ways, by appealing to the individual's sense of place.

Regardless of a person's travel expertise, they often times know where they want to go, and why. People do like to learn, but they do not like to be told that they're wrong. In order to get the highest number of visitors each year, towns and nations need to act as travel agents with only one destination. Listen to the customer, and work with them to give them the best vacation possible... within your borders.

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