From the theme resorts of Dubai to the jungles of Papua New Guinea, a disturbing but hilarious tour of the exotic east—and of the tour itself
Sick of producing the bromides of the professional travel writer, Lawrence Osborne decided to explore the psychological underpinnings of tourism itself. He took a six-month journey across the so-called Asian Highway—a swathe of Southeast Asia that, since the Victorian era, has seduced generations of tourists with its manufactured dreams of the exotic Orient. And like many a lost soul on this same route, he ended up in the harrowing forests of Papua, searching for a people who have never seen a tourist.
What, Osborne asks, are millions of affluent itinerants looking for in these endless resorts, hotels, cosmetic-surgery packages, spas, spiritual retreats, sex clubs, and "back to nature" trips? What does tourism, the world's single largest business, have to sell? A travelogue into that heart of darkness known as the Western
mind, The Naked Tourist is the most mordant and ambitious work to date from the author of The Accidental Connoisseur, praised by The New York Times Book Review as "smart, generous, perceptive, funny, sensible."
When a neighborhood is described as 'seedy' by some Lonely Planet prude," Osborne (The Accidental Connoisseur) declares, "I immediately head there." But even the boldest of travel writers can become jaded by visiting locales that have recreated themselves in romanticized "exotic" images, making one feel one is merely playing the role of a tourist rather than seeing anything new. So Osborne sets out to visit a tribe in Papua New Guinea that's had barely any contact with Westerners. Instead of heading straight for the jungle, however, he embarks on a lengthy trek along "the Asian Highway," clusters of tourist attractions that lead him through Dubai on to Calcutta and Bangkok. The story is strongest when Osborne drops the world-weary tone and simply engages with his surroundings: a hellish drive through Indian jungles, for example, or a whirlwind tour of Thailand's inexpensive medical centers. Once he fully abandons his comfort zone and plunges into the remote swamps of Papua, his encounter with the Kombai tribe is anticlimactic. Although he writes of the "shimmering hysteria" that came with stripping away nearly all vestiges of modern civilization, Osborne's account never fully embraces that vertigo, remaining just another well-crafted travel story.