We're in the peak weeks of summer travel, and I'm on the road with my family. Part one of our vacation was spent in Death Valley, and as I write this, we're flying to Bali for part two. I doubt many others are enjoying this exact pairing of destinations in the summer of '18, but I'm quite certain others are also seeking ways to combine nature, culture, the beach and relaxation.
When on vacation, I'm frequently struck by the dichotomy between what's natural and what's the product of human intervention. The travel industry, I've concluded, is in the business not only of enhancing people's enjoyment of the world but of creating worlds.
A few weeks ago, we stayed at Xanterra Parks and Resorts' Inn at the Oasis at Death Valley, which is putting the finishing touches on a $50 million renovation that salvaged little more than its original footprint. The property was, in essence, re-created afresh, with new carpeting, fixtures, furniture and art that one could believe had been installed when the inn opened in 1927 and then maintained with extraordinary care. "Re-created authenticity" may be an oxymoron, but it fit perfectly.
The inn's physical presence, atmosphere and character complement its setting. It's a good example of a travel industry presence that's in harmony with its locale.
But the industry is also quite good at creating worlds from scratch.
Designers of cruise ships, resorts and theme parks often come up with a wholly original "sense of place." Although their creations are artifice, they're nonetheless reflective of human nature. They may be created for profit, but they won't succeed unless a team's vision taps into previously unidentified human longings or aspirations.
Of course, even the best Disney imagineer can't compete with the complexities of an ancient kingdom or the unspoiled natural world. Entire civilizations -- lost civilizations -- are accessible to tourists at sites such as Giza, Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat. Those man-made wonders of the world get me wondering: What in modern times will hold appeal to tourists of the future? And what role, if any, is today's travel industry playing in shaping the way tomorrow's tourists view our society?
Everything reflects the time and place where it came into existence, but not everything is equally interesting or representative. We're especially drawn to historical sites that encompass lost eras in their fullness -- their technology, social order, architecture and design.
Disney's Magic Kingdom was never intended to provide a comprehensive picture of American civilization in the 20th and 21st centuries, but its existence could ultimately make the ruins of Orlando a more compelling 41st century tourist destination than, say, Miami (assuming Miami is still above sea level).
What's most impressive about those who create vacation attractions out of whole cloth -- Las Vegas! -- is the vast amount of creativity, thought and hard work that goes into their birth.
In college, I studied creative writing and was often transported by a writer's ability to create worlds with words. But it's quite a different matter to bring a creative vision to life in three dimensions and sustain it for decades, or even centuries, as the industry does.
Still, one thing that writers and industry developers have in common is an understanding of the guiding principle of good fiction: Character is plot. In other words, stories are shaped by the people who inhabit them.
The best industry experiences involve storytelling peopled by characters large and small. Costumed figures walk through Disney World, but the character who matters most is not Mickey Mouse. It's Walt Disney. His character provides the guiding ethos for decision-making.
Walt Disney's character may drive the "plot" of Disney as a corporation, but the characters who define the plot of the stories that guests experience are the employees. And I suspect my family's most enduring memory of Death Valley will not be Badwater Basin or the Devil's Golf Course or Dante's View. It will involve circumstances revolving around a bartender named Javier Villela.
One day, we had returned from sightseeing too late for lunch, but Villela persuaded the kitchen to turn on the grill for us. As our lunch was being prepared, he asked if he could do something he hadn't done in public before: He wanted to rap for us.
His rap was original, funny and knowing. When he finished, I asked him if he'd mind doing it again so I could record and post it on TravelWeekly.com.
Drinks with a side order of rap
Though it was clear Xanterra gave a lot of thought to the type of people it wants to hire, and it has trained them well, I'm fairly certain that Villela's rap was not part of the master plan to renovate the inn.
Which leads us to the final piece of travel industry cosmology: Worlds created by the industry can change the lives of individual travelers. This summer, during the peak weeks of travel, the industry will be affecting the worlds of those it serves with as great an impact as the meteors that give texture to the moon.
But that metaphor's not perfect. Meteors only affect the surface. Travel's impact goes much deeper.