“Be yourself. We won’t tell:” some thoughts on HBO’s Westworld and the curiosities of tourism to Mexico

By: Julia Hieske 


Fictional advertisement for a fictional themepark – via imdb.com

I recently watched the first season of HBO’s new blockbuster series Westworld and, I admit, it had me hooked right from episode one.[1] Westworld is about a Western-themed amusement park where rich visitors can do pretty much anything they want. Those visitors do not pay thousands of dollars just to go horse riding and drink whiskey in a makeshift saloon. No, while they certainly do not mind the whiskey, they are after the ‘real deal.’ Westworld, the park, is inhabited by androids so lifelike they scream and cry when you abuse them, bleed when you hurt them, and die when you kill them. Designed to cater to the customers’ every need, the show suggests those androids, women, men, and children, are not so far from human beings, after all. Without wanting to give away too much, then, it is safe to say that this show is about negotiating what it means to be human. It gives much food for thought about morality, the power of narrative, and, yes, about feminism. Yet, while I would love to talk to you about all those things over a pint or two, this article will look at another aspect of the show because, for me, Westworld is all about tourism.

While the corporation behind Westworld insists on calling them ‘guests,’ the visitors to the theme park are essentially tourists. These guests are offered a real cruise-ship-like package deal which includes their transport, equipment, and accommodation in the park as they are brought into Westworld by means of a steam-powered train which they board all suited up and armed for their personal cowboy adventure. Having seen it all, the affluent visitors are looking to experience something new. The novelty, for them, is connected to two things: authenticity, on the one hand, and nostalgia, on the other.

Tourism studies have long since agreed on the fact that the quest for authenticity is crucial to the tourism industry. It has been extremely difficult, though, to pinpoint how authenticity should be defined exactly. To be marketed as ‘authentic’ to prospective tourists, locations must strike a balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar. If the first prevailed, the place would be perceived as boring or mainstream. If the latter dominated, though, the destination would seem overwhelmingly foreign and travelling there too stressful to call it a vacation. Think of it as the difference between an all-inclusive resort vacation in Cancún and a zoological expedition in the jungle. While during the first, sheltered in a hotel district, you might even forget where you are – after all, beach resorts all over the world are not that different from each other – bug collecting in the rain forest will possibly not be something many people associate with a vacation. The solution to the dilemma, so to say, is to bring some jungle into the resort. Bits and pieces of nature – palm trees, cacti, exotic flowers, et cetera – or artefacts from indigenous cultures decorate the otherwise modern and often sterile environments of the tourist centres.


Actor in Mayan clothing in Cenote  – http://www.xcaret.com

Another strategy to provide tourists with the thrill of authenticity are performances of native or native-looking dancers and actors who are brought in to stage traditional dances and rituals. In the case of the Mexican Riviera, there are even theme parks that contain within their premises the whole package of what Mexico’s culture, history, and natural beauty have to offer, or so it seems. From cenotes (natural sinkholes or wells) and Mangroves to “Mayan walls,” a “Mexican cemetery” and “Prehispanic performances,” parks such as Xcaret and Xel-Há, sell a taste of Mexico to the tourists too cautious or lazy to venture out of both the tourist and their comfort zones. In many of the touristic centres which are exemplified by such “Disneyfied ecoparks,” – the Lonely Planet’s words, not mine – cultural heritage, as well as wild nature, become spectacles contained in restricted areas and adjusted to the current trends in the industry.[2] The same is true, dare I say, for the native inhabitants of those areas who become props positioned there to accommodate tourist imaginaries.

Sound familiar? In Westworld, the series, the corporation’s biggest selling point in the promotion of the park is the authenticity of experience. Of course, here, the concept is taken up a notch. After all, we are talking about the tourist who has seen it all. Resembling in its basic thought, perhaps, the ‘authentic experience’ of a trip to a township or the thrill of a bungee jump in the wilderness, Westworld, the park, promises a ride that is even more exciting. The ticket to this artificial world is supposed to have bought its holder the adventure of a lifetime. The trip promises to reconnect the guests with their primal instincts and the park offers plenty of adrenaline in its so-called narratives. The thrill of chasing bandits, playing cowboy, and paying the brothel a visit (‘what happens in Westworld stays in Westworld’) is balanced, though, by the fact that as guests, and in contrast to the humans used as props in the park, they cannot be harmed. On the one hand, this lets them go through a cathartic experience of sorts, on the other, however, some of them become unhinged by their powers of superiority.


Westworld: a different ride altogether! Rachel Evan Wood, James Marsden, and two horses- via http://www.threisonlyr.com

For me, it was hard not to be reminded of colonial or imperial travellers in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, here. Not only did many of them travel to those countries with an Orientalist perspective of assumed superiority over the natives, the excitement associated with a firsthand experience of the real or imagined dangers there, oftentimes, seemed like a welcome adventure. Take, for example, Fanny Calderón de la Barca, the Scottish wife of a Spanish diplomat, who moved to Mexico in the late 1830s. The vivid accounts of her travels deserve an entire article dedicated to nothing else but them but, for now, I want to highlight only one of her many anecdotes. A recurring theme in her letters spanning two years, as well as in plenty of travelogues from the same period, is her fear of bandits. Again and again, Fanny mentions rumours about robberies and several times she even expects to finally run into a bandit with such certainty, she is sure to have only escaped one by a hair’s breadth. Funnily enough, though, she would eventually leave Mexico without having ever had an encounter with a bandit whatsoever. Nevertheless, the topic seemed to have excited her so much, her writing makes the impression she must really have enjoyed telling her (almost) dangerous anecdotes.

Banditry, then, became some sort of a staple topic in Anglo-Saxon travel writing about Mexico. So much so, that it has become part of the imaginaries tourists have had about the country ever since. Regardless of the actual risk, what rather interests me here is the excitement of mystery and supposed danger, that could be enjoyed as long as one was safe. Their guaranteed safety, therefore, allows the guests in Westworld to live the ultimate tourist experience: all the adrenaline, the anecdotes, the souvenirs – in episode one, we see a couple getting their photo taken which also features the man’s first killed bandit – and none of the risk.


Rodrigo Santoro as the bandit soon to be taken care of by a guest – via imdb.com

However, there is yet another factor that links the experience of the guests in the series’ theme park to that of tourists now and then. Nostalgia, as we will see, plays a huge role in both Westworld and tourist fantasies from the nineteenth century to the present. In the show, one of the biggest selling points of the park is that it allows for its guests to step into a world that belongs to the past. Evoking the spirit of the American frontier, Westworld provides narratives of exploration and fights to the death which provoke exhilaration that, to such an extent, is hard to be found in their everyday lives. Fundamentally, however, the theme park offers a ride to a simpler existence, where good and evil are easily distinguished and primitive impulses are not constrained by a complex set of laws. When, in episode one, for example, a guest shoots two robbers, we can see how the expression on his and his wife’s faces changes from initial shock to elation and pride. And, while the series quickly develops an intricate web of storylines featuring guests who do not seem to stick to any moral code, the first episode makes an effort to show us Westworld, its opportunities for – erm – ‘character development,’ and the results of a trip to the imagined past from the perspective of ordinary, seemingly decent people like the couple I just mentioned.

Doing what I do, that is, working your way through a ton of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century travelogues and tourist guidebooks to Mexico, you cannot help but notice the similarities. Take Charles Macomb Flandrau, for example, a writer and temporary plantation owner who marvels about the supposed lawlessness of the Mexicans and notes that he has “grown to regard battle, murder and sudden death as conventional forms of relaxation.”[3] After the Mexican-American War (1846-48), the former Mexican states and new U.S. territories were seen by many of the U.S. settlers who moved there as some sort of new frontier. The same was true when U.S. Americans began to flock even further south during the government of President Porfirio Díaz. For many, the renewed spirit of exploration was inextricably linked to a sense of Manifest Destiny and the disregard of the indigenous population. Nevertheless, they were not only lured there by the promise of making a fortune in the mining, coffee, and rubber businesses or the railway companies, they were also smitten with the picturesqueness of the rural villages and their inhabitants. While early travellers and, later, entire tourist groups visited these places and raved about their simplicity and beauty in letters and travelogues, their admiration was generally restricted to the visual, almost voyeuristic pleasure of observation. Their wonderment at the otherness of the indigenous people, their culture, and dwellings, thus, did not keep them from appreciating their modern homes upon their return. On the contrary, and this is true for the contemporary tourist, too, visiting poorer areas, indigenous cultures, and rural communities often seems a welcome change from the busy lives of members of modern societies, who, then, return feeling something on the spectrum between appreciation of their privilege and confirmation of their entitlement.

The yearning for a simpler existence that is connected to the past drives tourist fantasies to this day and it is the motor behind all kinds of advertised experiences, from ‘digital detox’ and ‘back to nature’ retreats to voluntourism and tours to the hinterlands. Let’s not forget, though, that tourist destinations are always projections to some extent. Just like the fictional Westworld, Xel-Há, Xcaret, and the likes thereof are the culmination of an industry that represents concepts of authenticity, culture, and the past which accommodate often nostalgic and romanticised tourist imaginaries. It is through the commodification of such concepts, then, that tourism can offer both Westworld’s guests and real tourists the opportunity to grasp the intangible.


Actor re-enacting Mayan ballgame, a ritualistic event which concluded in a human sacrifice by decapitation and disembowelment – via www. xcaret.com

The series has a point when it provocatively suggests that the right amount of money can buy its owner virtually anything – even a free pass to act out one’s darkest fantasies – because it reminds us of the fact that tourism is always a matter of privilege. It also shows us that much of what we secretly might look for in visiting a place is linked to a yearning for authentic experience and nostalgia for a simpler life. Nevertheless, other than the bleak picture painted in HBO’s Westworld, I think travelling or tourism in real life still gives room for hope. Travel, in my opinion, has the potential to broaden our horizons and put things into perspective. It can be transformative, in a good way, if we let it. But let’s see what the second season of Westworld will have to say about all that when it comes out next year. I will be watching on the edge of my seat.



[1] Westworld. HBO. 2016. To avoid confusion, reference to the show will be made in italics, while references to the park itself will appear in standard font.

[2] Lonely Planet Yucatán. Lonely Planet Publications. 2003. p. 125.

[3] Charles Macomb Flandrau, Viva Mexico!. D. Appleton and Company. 1908, p. 115.


“From London to Afghanistan in a beat up minivan”: How travel guidebooks manage to gain our trust

By: Julia Hieske 

Whenever someone plans a trip nowadays there is a good chance they get a guidebook first. The Lonely Planet’s travel books, to name one of the genre’s most famous publishers, have guided generations of tourists across the world from destinations as well-travelled as Rome and Paris, to plenty of fairly remote places like Cape York in the North of Australia.


Guidebooks fulfill a number of functions: they prepare the soon-to-be travellers for their trip, giving valuable advice on when to go (for Cape York it is June to October as you will want to avoid the Wet), what to pack and how to dress. They help travellers to plan their trip and make decisions about the inclusion or exclusion of places from their itinerary. Other than that, they also function as culture brokers. Just like a personal guide on the spot, the editors of guidebooks have to know their audience’s culture as well as the culture of the destination. They have to “speak both fluently,” so to say, in order to translate and interpret the signs of a place to its visitors; think hand gestures, conventions of dress, haggling, the (in)famous siesta, to only name but a few.

So, without guidebooks – and their modern little siblings, travel blogs on the internet – we would basically all be lost, literally, in translation.

gWe would stumble about blindly in a foreign place not knowing we have just missed out on our probably only chance to see Mallorca’s best hidden beach or get a taste of Napoli’s best Pizza Margarita, by turning right instead of left. Without a guidebook in our pocket, we might not even realise we are guilty of a foolish faux pas in France or be peeved to find out we are the first, by far, to show up at a birthday bash in Mexico City. But in order to be guided by them, first, we have to trust them.

Clichés are never far away

It is a tricky business, this culture broking. As guides and guidebook writers look for ways to make a foreign culture intelligible to visitors, cultural stereotypes and clichés are never far away. Some of them are so sticky, they are repeated over and over again, all the while shaping the fantasies people have about a certain country or region and its people. After a while, though, these stereotypes are hardly questioned anymore but taken for facts or common knowledge. In Orientalism, Edward Said reminds us that the attempt of describing a culture in often heavily simplified terms from an outsider’s perspective is always a matter of power.[1] And so is travelling. That is why, just like in journalism, description and reporting in travel guides can never be entirely objective. It is interesting, then, that the prefaces or “about us” sections of guidebooks, from the very first examples to the present day, insist on telling things as they are. Yet, take one destination, see how it is described in a variety of guidebooks published in different countries and languages, and you will end up with stereotypes as different as chalk and cheese.[2]

“At Lonely Planet we tell it like it is”

Now, on the textual level, guidebooks count with a very specific narrative situation, which is most visible in the pioneering nineteenth-century ones published by John Murray or Karl Baedeker.


On the one hand, guidebook writers are keen to exude authority. The handbooks should appear to the readers as a mimetic description of the real world and so their authors vow to stick to the truth. Murray et al. saw themselves as mere “transcribers of facts,” who reported on every detail there was. So, contrary to personal travel accounts, their tone was supposed to sound scientific and objective.


Today we would say that there is no such thing as an objective representation. Yet, take a phrase like this one: “At Lonely Planet we tell it like it is.”

It is taken from their website only a couple of days ago.[3] As we can see, the nineteenth-century claim of objectivity is still around. Curiously, despite their all-encompassing pseudo-scientific style, guidebook writers needed – and still need – to achieve credibility. Whereas a guide hired on the spot could create trust using personal skills like empathy, individual explanations or nonverbal communication, guidebooks can do none of those things. Instead, they have to count on other strategies in order to make up for this deficiency.

Been there, done that

Prefaces – or “about the editors” sections on publishers’ websites – play an important role in the development of a reader-publisher relationship that is the basis for the creation of credibility and trust.[4]


There, the writers support their truth claim using a number of recurring techniques. For now, I call the first the been-there-done-that factor. The writers or publishers are presented as travellers, thus, creating a bond of shared experience between themselves and the readers. While the personal touch is deliberately missing from the main text, the paratextual means, that is the preface or self-describing information on a website, compensate for it by making the writers relatable human beings and the product of their journey an authentic one.

In the same vein, almost all guidebooks flaunt some sort of founding myth.

It has become a default move to describe the origin of the books in almost heroic terms, telling the story of a traveller who, facing the odds of his journey, was struck by the genius and benevolent idea of creating a guidebook. Compare, for example, the story of how Lonely Planet founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler, and I quote from the website, “drove from London to Afghanistan in a beat up minivan.”[5] This way, an emotional bond with a fellow traveller is fostered. In case that was not enough, though, publishers use yet another strategy that is supposed to convince the reader of the authenticity of the information at hand.

A necessary evil

Back then, as well as today, guidebooks had to be true to the latest developments. Say, if a hotel suddenly changed its owner and its standard went from first-class to mediocre, a responsible publisher would not want his readers to get disappointed and, then, blame the guidebook. So, naturally, the been-there-done-that factor is complemented by some sort of up-to-date factor.

Because in order to “tell things as they are” one not only has to have been there but to return frequently so as to check whether “things” still are as they were a year ago.

Regular revisions are a necessary evil if publishers want to keep their audience’s trust. The preface, then, is also the place where readers are assured the book in their hands is as up-to-date as possible. Publishers know, however, that complete accuracy of information is impossible to achieve. Therefore, deliberately stating their duty to revisions, they kill two birds with one – rhetorical – stone. Firstly, they admit to possible shortcomings, thus, anticipating criticism and mitigating the readers’ reaction to it. And secondly, they invite readers to participate by sending in comments and corrections, thereby strengthening the author-reader relationship of – supposedly – mutual trust. Whether these suggestions have ever been taken into account remains unclear but the publishers’ apparent openness to criticism certainly serves to enhance their credibility.

Not for Tourists

Last but not least, guidebooks frequently mention an issue that has been a staple of the tourism industry for a long time and which, for the sake of continuity, I will call the us-versus-them factor. To see what I mean, have a look at this photo I have taken myself on a vacation on the island of Mallorca. It shows a bus displaying the logo of a tourist agency that takes large groups of tourists to touristic spots in order to carry out touristic activities.3 Yet, their advertising slogan begs to differ. Or take the case of a series of guidebooks which is aptly called Not for Tourists.[6] The whole concept of alternative tourism, or backpacking, and its bible, the Lonely Planet, is based on the idea of its distinction from regular, or mass tourism. But the philosophy of travelling off the beaten track was not only born in the seventies with Tony and Maureen Wheeler. In fact, it was the us-versus-them factor that was responsible for the coming into being of commercial guidebooks altogether. In the mid-nineteenth century, Thomas Cook’s commercial tours had gained momentum and given more people access to travelling than ever before. Cook sold pre-planned and guided group trips that would take tourists to popular destinations all over the globe. The concept was such a success that Cook’s tours were soon associated with mass tourism that left little space for individuality. Guidebooks offered their readers a radically different travel experience. One to which only they could give them access. Equipped with a handbook, travellers were now able to explore places by themselves and independently from large groups and personal guides. Publishers like to highlight this distinguishing feature because, then and now, they hope to find a niche in the market by setting themselves apart.

Implicitly, though, the authors and publishers of guidebooks bought into a distinction whose development might as well be traced back to the relatively new phenomenon of mass tourism and the reactions to it: the traveller versus tourist binary, which is still present in popular discourse. If it was not, there would not be so many publications in print and online dedicated to real travel as opposed to practicing tourism. Yet, as James Buzard so accurately observes, it is hardly possible to escape tourism altogether.[7] Or how would you explain that all too often alternative routes or ways of travel soon become well-trodden paths and common practice?

Paradoxically, thus, those who do not want to be ‘tourists’, contribute to the formation of new areas developed for tourism, a phenomenon Buzard calls “anti-tourism.”

It is “anti-tourism,” then, that describes best the Lonely Planet’s ideology and their advice, for example, to visit the aforementioned Cape York, which, supposedly, is still unspoilt by tourists and one of the most remote places in Australia.

“Guide-books and their ubiquitous possessors”

Back in the nineteenth century, in a wonderfully ironic turn, Murray’s and Baedeker’s handbooks had become such a global success, that they, too, were seen as a symbol of mass tourism. This “anti-tourist” and travel writer, for example, was anything but enthused by the users of such guidebooks:


“When the journeying cyclist or motorist quits the tourist-infected route on which Singapore is the East Indian rest-house, and sails across the equator towards the rarely visited island of the Dutch Archipelago, new pleasures unadulterated by crimson-colored guide-books and their ubiquitous possessors await him at every turn.”

The quote is taken from an article about Java and was published in 1903.[8] It was written by a U.S. American who, only five years later, went on to write and publish a “crimson-colored guidebook” – not to Southeast Asia, that came later, but – to Mexico. His name was T. P. Terry, he was a traveller, a businessman, as well as a writer, and he is the subject of my current research. Fascinating stuff, but I will leave that for another time.

[1] Edward Said, Orientalism [1978] (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2003).

[2] Jennifer Bender, Bob Gidlow, David Fisher, “National Stereotypes in Tourist Guidebooks: an Analysis of Auto- and Heterostereotypes in Different Language Guidebooks about Switzerland,” Annals of Tourism Research 40 (2013).

[3] www.lonelyplanet.com/about, accessed 21/11/2016.

[4] Ana Alarcova, “Legitimacy, Self-Interpretation and Genre in Media Industries: a Paratextual Analysis of Travel Guidebook Publishing,” European Journal of Cultural Studies 18, no. 6 (2015).

[5] www.lonelyplanet.com/about, accessed 21/11/2016.

[6] www.notfortourists.com, accessed 21/11/2016.

[7] James Buzard, The Beaten Track: European Tourism, Literature, and the Ways to Culture, 1800-1918 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993).

[8] T. Philip Terry, “The Good Touring Roads of Java”, Outing 43 (1903), p. 45.