HBO’s ‘White Lotus’ punctures tourism and the travel industry

If you were asked to encapsulate the travel industry in a single scene, the opening moments of HBO vacation drama The White Lotus would do for you. Employees at a luxury resort stand on a Hawaiian dock, smiling brightly on their faces, waiting for a boatload of wealthy guests. “Wave like you mean business,” urges resort director Armond (the fantastic Murray Bartlett).

Minutes later, he’s advising a new employee named Lani on how to behave around the hotel’s VIP clientele. “You don’t want to be too specific as a presence, as an identity — you want to be more general,” he tells her. “We are asked to disappear behind our masks as pleasant, interchangeable helpers.”

It’s a scene repeated to some degree in the opening of the show’s second season, in which Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore), the tenacious director of the fictional resort chain’s Sicilian branch, gathers her staff to host a yachtload of guests welcome at the dock. “Greet them together,” she commands, “with the same right hand.”

On Sunday, the second season of “The White Lotus” came to its grotesque, gladiatoric conclusion. (You won’t get spoilers from me.) Because of its sumptuous settings, untimely deaths, melodramatic plot twists, and haunting soundtrack, the show has grown into a full-blown cultural phenomenon that’s hung on TikTok as a catchy tune. It also offers the sight of inscrutably rich people unhappy on vacation. As Alex Abad-Santos wrote on, it’s the glee that makes it look so obsessively.

All the excitement has sparked a lot of interest in the show’s IRL locations. A representative of the Four Seasons San Domenico Palace, where this season was filmed, told the Guardian in October that the hotel was already booked through April.

I’m a latecomer to The White Lotus. I didn’t get to the first season until the second was about to land. But I was intrigued by the way it portrayed tourism – particularly the high-end part of the business.

At this level, travel is less about getting to know a place and more about finding an outfitter willing to bend down to satisfy your preconceived notions of what that place might be. Is your fantasy of Italy dressing up like Italian actress Monica Vitti and romping around on a Vespa like the insecure Tanya (played to the max by Jennifer Coolidge)? Just speak to the concierge.

Two women with shopping bags stand on the steps of a church "The White Lotus."

Daphne (Meghann Fahy, left) and Harper (Aubrey Plaza) enjoy the scenery in the second season of The White Lotus.

(Fabio Lovino / HBO)

Before getting into art and design, I worked as a low-profile travel writer for several years, producing several travel guides for Lonely Planet and short reports for outlets such as Travel + Leisure and Budget Travel. It was a job I was terribly unfit for. (“Travel writing” is a misnomer. It should be “hotel writing,” because what the industry generally wants is an amanuensis who can produce seductive writing about high-thread-count sheets and Italian bathroom fixtures.)

What my years in the field have gotten me, though — along with a colorful story about driving a cow truck across Costa Rica’s so-called Mountain of Death — is a front-row seat in the holiday travel theater. And what The White Lotus gets right is that tourism is theatre, the ultimate immersive experience where everyone and everything has a part to play.

The stage is the setting – which the travel industry transforms into a hyper-quaint version of itself for the purpose of tourist attraction. Hawaii is smiling hula dancers and outrigger canoes. Italy is a paradise of Roman ruins, scenic hills and squirts of Aperol. Luxury resorts, with their enviable properties and tasteful symphonies of muted tones, offer a safe space of predictability from which to dip a toe into the local. Whale Watching is at 12pm, the Sunset Cruise is at 6am.

Cultural critic Lucy Lippard describes the phenomenon in her 1999 book On the Beaten Track: Tourism, Art and Place, in which she examines how popular places are represented. “Across the United States, cities devastated by capital flight, technological change, or anti-union action make a spectacle of themselves, desperately reshaping and reinventing their history to make the image appealing to those who might enjoy a hamburger , a t-shirt, sunscreen or an Indian buy jewelry, a plastic seagull, a shell ashtray or a boat trip.”

If you’re one of The White Lotus’ extravagant guests, instead of an ashtray, you can spend a night in the 16th-century neoclassical palazzo where Wagner composed part of Parsifal.

A woman sits on an ornate wooden bench "The White Lotus."

Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) in her Sicilian reverie in The White Lotus.

(Fabio Lovino / HBO)

This hyperbolic production of places can manifest itself in absurd ways. I once reported on an Orlando hotel whose design featured miniature versions of famous Florida landmarks on the premises, including a man-made Everglades swamp stocked with real alligators.

However, exaggerations can overwrite reality. In Costa Rica, where I have reported a lot, what is on offer is tropical nature and nature pure vida vibrations. The country is regularly named as one of the happiest places on earth based on studies that purport to rate national happiness. It’s touted everywhere in travel brochures, on adventure company websites, and on a giant banner I once saw hanging over the courtyard of a San Jose hostel—as if happiness were a convenience as attainable as a hot breakfast. It’s a narrative so entrenched in lore that New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof once wrote an entire article about how happy Costa Ricans are after hiking through the rainforest and seeing a sloth have seen.

All of this enforces the trope of the lucky native. It also ignores the fact that the travel industry has helped make Costa Rica an international hub for sex tourism, with its attendant side effects such as human trafficking. A US expat once summed up the attraction of the country to me over a beer and a filled ashtray: “It’s all about fishing and f—ing.”

Tourism as a force of destruction is an integral part of the first season of “The White Lotus”. The resort isn’t just an unassuming window into a balmy paradise. It also occupies homeland.

It is on these stages that the actors step – both the travelers and the workers charged with looking after them.

As my colleague Lorraine Ali pointed out in her review of the show, The White Lotus does a far better job of managing storylines around the resort’s guests than the staff who have to serve them. In both seasons, resort staffers appear and disappear, their lives reduced to crude archetypes unworthy of true resolution. And season two squanders Impacciatore’s talents as the tough Valentina, a sexually frustrated woman who vents her anger on everyone around her – until she reconciles her lesbian desires in the arms of a friendly prostitute. (It’s every Hollywood trope about women rolled into a single cringe subplot.)

But if there’s anything that’s gone right about The White Lotus — especially in its first season — it’s the way the staff are expected to perform for their guests. That could mean a literal performance, like when Kai, season 1’s Hawaiian employee, has to dance for guests on land that was once his family’s. Or it could mean, as Armond put it at the outset, acting like a pleasantly generic extra.

A smiling woman and man in pink uniforms greet the guests "The White Lotus"

Lani (played by Jolene Purdy) and Armond (Murray Bartlett) did a guest show on the first season of The White Lotus.

(Mario Perez / HBO)

In search of the extraordinary or “authentic,” the travel industry invents all sorts of ways to objectify the locals in favor of the tourists. In Belize I once wrote about a hotel on a private island where I was greeted at a boat dock by smiling staff all decked out in matching pith helmets – so colonial! On an assignment in Peru, I once visited a high-end textile boutique catering to tourists, the centerpiece of which was an indigenous woman in traditional dress weaving on a belt loom. It felt like the worst kind of museum exhibit of the 19th century.

A friend who ran a horse-packing business in Colorado, where he ran trips to the Rocky Mountains, used to get outfitted in cowboy gear to provide his customers with postcard paint. His normal pairing of jeans and baseball cap didn’t look “authentic” – even if he wore it when he drove alone.

“We see travel as escaping, as escape, as going back and forth,” writes Lippard, “often inhabited by ‘others’ whose differences are exaggerated and exoticized.”

The protagonist in this play is of course the traveller. “The White Lotus” handles its dramas: the spoiled rich kid who threatens to call the manager (Shane in season 1) or the fussy woman who turns every trip into a quest for happiness (Tanya in both seasons).

In my time at the travel mill, I’ve watched an angry American demand a hairdryer in a remote, powerless rainforest lodge and a Canadian fret over the meager menu on the floating islands of Lake Titicaca. (It’s not just Americans who are ugly abroad.)

The thing about travel is that many people see it as something that will offer transformation. As Lippard writes in the opening chapter of her book, “The structure of tourism is similar to all ritual behavior—a beginning, a change, and a return to normal.”

This can happen, but is not guaranteed. And it depends as much on the open-mindedness of the traveler as it does on the magic inherent in a particular place. One of the unspoken rules of tourism history – captured so perfectly by The White Lotus – is that you can’t escape yourself. Wherever you go, there you are. HBO’s ‘White Lotus’ punctures tourism and the travel industry

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