by Greg Dickinson, The Telegraph, February 20, 2018
If you were to time travel back to 2007 and say the phrases “selfie” or “Instagrammer” you would be greeted with a blank face. Likewise “bucket list”. If you Asked Jeeves about his bucket list he would have doffed his algorithmic top hat and slowly directed you to Halfords.
For the phrase is only 11 years old. It first entered the Oxford English Dictionary after the release of the 2007 film The Bucket List, starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson as two terminally ill men racing against the clock to complete a list of things to do before they die – or “kick the bucket”.
Despite its stellar cast and palatable buddy caper concept, the film was critically panned. One Telegraph reviewer described it as: “A film so dire, so soulless, so sappy and at the same time so bullyingly manipulative, that it leaves you wishing to compile another list: one that details the many and intricate ways in which you might do harm to everyone involved in the making of this quite astoundingly horrendous drek.”
The idea of an existential to-do list isn’t new. Back in 1940, a young American named John Goddard wrote down his “life list” – the 127 things he wanted to do before he died, including climbing the world’s major mountains, exploring rivers from source to mouth and running a mile in five minutes. Some of his near-death experiences are chronicled in his book The Survivor, the front cover of which accredits Goddard as both “The Real Life Indiana Jones” and the “World’s Greatest Goal Achiever”.
But the phrase “bucket list” tidily summed up the notion of doing things before you die in a Googlable package.
So, like Goddard, many people swiftly filled their bucket lists with dreams of travel and derring do. The Google Trends chart showing searches for the phrase “travel bucket list” since 2006 looks a bit like an elevation profile from the Bay of Bengal to Everest Base Camp (incidentally, one of the many places where Freeman and Nicholson exchange whimsies in said panned film).
There are now millions of search results for “travel bucket list” – of which, ahem, Telegraph Travel’s article ranks near the top. Instagrammers are at it as well. Over five million posts have contained #bucketlist, more often than not accompanied with a selfie at a beautiful holiday destination.
So why am I calling for the bucket list to be the travel trend to avoid before you die?
Supercharged internet hype like this has a real-world impact. The birth of the bucket list has correlated with a sharp increase in the number of foreign visitors at some of the world’s most fragile historic destinations, like Machu Picchu and Venice, that weren’t built to withstand thousands of footsteps every day.
Then there are the attractions where the peril itself is part of the pull – a shift from “Things to See Before You Die” to “Things to See Before They Disappear”. A kind of apocalypse porn, deathbed wanderlust, or what academics less alarmistly call “last chance tourism”. You will find the likes of the Glacier National Park, the Great Barrier Reef and the Polar regions on these lists, with the irony being that the bucketloads of carbon it takes to travel to these sights is perpetuating the very climate change that is causing their demise.
Obviously the bucket list can’t shoulder the entire blame for the challenges faced by the world’s must-see sights. The last decade has seen the dawning of cheaper long-haul flights and more widespread affordable accommodation options through sites like Airbnb. And, of course, the destinations we’re talking about here were welcoming plenty of tourists long before The Bucket List was released.
But the bucket list represents a reckless contribution, rather than sustainable solution, to the impacts of overtourism (another new word to have entered common parlance in the last few years).
An equally bleak impact of the #bucketlist is the way it has altered the way some people approach travel. Photographing the sunrise at Bagan, holding your friends in the palm of your hand at the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, leaping in the air on top of Mount Kinabalu (with the compulsory arse out, if you’re that way inclined) have all become commodities – pieces of sharable digital currency to exchange with friends publicly on social media or privately on Whatsapp.
And this commodification of travel experiences, and the notion of “ticking off sights”, shifts the focus away from the more nuanced delights of travel that you can’t enhance with a perpetua filter.
Like winding down in a quiet village, chatting with locals who aren’t trying to sell you something, discovering somewhere that isn’t in the guidebook, spending valuable time with loved ones, losing inhibitions, just getting away from your phone for a while. I’d wager that these are the moments most people will remember when they pop their clogs, not that llama who wouldn’t stand still at Machu Picchu.
If we don’t kill the bucket list now we’re at risk of becoming a generation of “Real-life Indiana Jones’s” and “Greatest Goal Achievers”, and that notion is more dire and horrendous than any buddy movie could ever be.