Tuning Up - Spring 2023

The Lotus Position

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What does one of television’s biggest hits have to say about the nature of a certain kind of American tourism?

By Sharon Sochil Washington | March 1, 2023
Illustration by Eric Hanson
Illustration by Eric Hanson

At the beginning of 2022, I decided to travel the world and be a nomadic writer. I didn’t want an itinerary; I just wanted to be free. But the problem with that plan arose right away: I didn’t know where to start. A few years before, on a visit to Florence, I had fallen so deeply in love with that city that I almost stayed for four months to study painting. (I don’t paint.) I briefly contemplated a return to Florence before discovering that rental rates there had skyrocketed. Because of the pandemic, prices for all sorts of things had spiked around the world, but still, the cost of living in Florence seemed particularly high. Instead, I decided to start my journey in Málaga, in the Andalusian south of Spain.

It was the low season when I was there. Nevertheless, tourists escaping the northern cold continued to come in droves, taking advantage of what they perceived to be a low-cost vacation—and transforming the city before my eyes. Residents complained of being pushed out of the city center to make way for more Airbnbs, like the one where I stayed for three months. (In my experience, the longer the rental agreement, the lower the cost. A contract for anything less than a year cost significantly more than what Malagueños would pay but was still drastically cheaper than the going rate in most American cities.) Some residents who owned large apartments were moving entire families into a single small bedroom so that they could rent out the remaining two or three bedrooms to tourists. One day, a café was advertising a main course, dessert, and drinks for eight euros; the next day, the same meal was going for 18 euros. Gone were the café’s comfy couches, replaced by a long bar where tourists could plug in their laptops, with a maze of extension cords that couldn’t possibly have been legal. I knew that I was at least partly complicit in all of this, that the presence of tourists—particularly Americans and Northern Europeans—was changing the economy to such a degree that the local population was being priced out of housing and becoming displaced. In a couple of years, I realized, Málaga could turn into Florence.

It was at this time, and with these thoughts present in my mind, that I began watching season two of the HBO hit The White Lotus. The series, which has won a host of Emmy and Golden Globe awards and was picked up for a third season, takes place at outposts of a fictional resort chain (the White Lotus). The first season is set in Hawaii, the second in Sicily, and the show’s creator, Mike White, has hinted that the third may be located somewhere in Asia. These locations are opulent places where the rich can luxuriate and behave badly, and they are meant to inspire the rest of us to daydream—even as we witness the various psychosocial dysfunctions that affect both employees and guests.

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