Promised Lands

What do we lose when the promotion of places tampers with reality?

We'll be traveling to Vermont soon, and as with every trip we take, I have certain expectations. The guesthouse we're renting will be charming. Food will be fresh, artful, and preferably organic. Mornings will start on a scenic bike path or a winding mountain trail. We'll log time on farm and factory tours showcasing the state's finest: cheese, beer, maple syrup, and of course, ice cream. We'll listen to great music, meet some antiwar activists, recycle a few things. We'll probably see some cows.

I know this will be true because the brochures and travel articles have told me so. Like most people, I believe what I read. Or I want to believe. The pull of authenticity is so seductive that I willingly swallow promises that Vermont is "a place of a lifetime" and Burlington, where we'll stay, is one of the "hippest arts towns in America." Then, because I really don't trust everything I read, a few clicks of the mouse confirm all of this. Recent visitors blog about their experiences. They write reviews. They tell me it really is that great.

Vermont may be one of those rare places where image and reality align, perhaps because the state knows that authenticity is its biggest selling point. It doesn't need to exaggerate or do a makeover to attract tourists or new residents. Consider what has happened to New Orleans. The city's celebrated gentility, always an odd yet alluring bedfellow with its legendary debauchery, turns out to be nearly a Potemkin front. The wealth, the refinement, the enchanting architecture—they're all there. But in some ways it's a thin veneer, masking the impoverished communities so publicly and devastatingly affected by Hurricane Katrina.

Fantasy can be effective. No one believes that Colonial Williamsburg (even with its bona fide old and reconstructed buildings) or Disneyland (more obviously whimsical) are real places. But there's history to be learned and fun to be had, so we all go with it. And certain destinations—think Venice, Italy—lend themselves to the lure of invention by image makers because so few people seem to call those places home. Then there are places like Las Vegas, where plenty of people live but the strip is the reason outsiders visit. Remember "Las Vegas Is for Families?" If you don't, that might be because Las Vegas isn't. But that didn't stop the city from trying. It wasn't until Vegas acknowledged its wickedness that tourism started to climb like never before. Its latest slogan, "What Happens Here, Stays Here," lets potential visitors fill in their own blanks, and although such a provocative image might hurt other towns, for Vegas it's an illusion grounded in reality.

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