The Dark Side of Tourism

Vacations are often depicted as escapes in which one leaves the stresses of home and travels to a blissful paradise, unburdened by worry. Yet, as the best literature about tourism makes clear, there’s a cost to believing that any destination could be uncomplicated.

Sarah Stodola’s The Last Resort, which traces the ocean-side hotel over time, easily exposes the dark side of this fantasy. In a history that starts with the murder of a Roman emperor’s mother and extends to the modern-day erosion of Hawaii’s beaches, she shows the clear human and ecological damage these complexes wreak. Barry Lopez’s hybrid travelogue-memoir Horizon demonstrates how these concerns extend to virtually all trips. Though his descriptions of far-off places are breathtaking, his writing is shot through with climate-induced existential dread and an acute awareness of the locals whose needs too often come second to the demands of tourists.

This dark outlook infuses fictional works, too. Take the introductory montage of HBO’s The White Lotus. In it, the camera zooms in on the tacky wallpaper of the show’s titular resort, showing rows of illustrated tropical plants and animals, which then slowly start to bleed. Yun Ko-Eun’s satire The Disaster Tourist, which centers on a company that guides its customers through places struck by catastrophe, is even more literal in its violence. To entice more visitors to a less successful destination, several people associated with the company work together to manufacture a disaster, matter-of-factly accepting that, in the process, locals will die.

In Here Comes the Sun, Nicole Dennis-Benn takes a realist approach, directing her focus to the lives of the Jamaican hospitality workers whose labor obscures the island’s poverty from its visitors. Her deep care and attention underscores the dull, psychic toll of constantly being exoticized.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

illustration of a person wearing a Hawaiian shirt

María Jesús Contreras

Beware the luxury beach resort

“For catastrophists like me, the luxury beach resort raises a whole new set of psychological torments on top of those provided by more ordinary beaches. The entire time that we’re in our ostensible paradise, I’m busy obsessing over the unintended consequences of our stay, such as the environmental degradation caused by bringing wasteful tourists to delicate ecosystems and the racist and classist issues of displacement.”


a photo taken underwater of hands reaching towards a shark

Pablo Cozzaglio / AFP / Getty

How climate change has influenced travel writing

“[Barry] Lopez is gripped by an urgency to tell ‘a coherent and meaningful story’ about the threat of humanity’s extinction as a result of climate change and societal declension, and the ways he believes it can be prevented.”


vacationers at The White Lotus

Mario Perez / HBO

The leisure class always wins

“The guests of the White Lotus assume that the world revolves around them. The resort’s decor, gaudy and grim, proves them right.”

🎥 The White Lotus, on HBO Max


a dining room table in front of a painting of an ocean scene with palm trees and seagulls

Peter Marlow / Magnum

This is what happens when society ‘has to function’

“Yun [Ko-Eun’s] late-capitalist satire makes the case that the identity we find through work is almost always shaped by how we have been exploited—or how we have exploited others.”


collage featuring a photo of Nicole Dennis-Benn

Frances F. Denny / The New York Times / Redux / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

A novel that weighs the costs of love and motherhood

“Women—especially mothers—make cruel choices in Nicole Dennis-Benn’s novels.”


About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading next is My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante.

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