The year is 1997.  You visit a lovely rural town in North Dakota.  Population: 3000.  You take a bunch of pictures with your analog camera to treasure the sweet memories.

Twenty years later, you return.  The lovely rural town is now a regional fracking center.  Population: 100,000.  The charm has vanished beneath a tidal wave of new construction – residential, commercial, and industrial.  You take one picture with your smart phone where you shed a tear of sorrow with New Frack City in the background.  Your caption: “Progress?”

From a tourist’s point of view, you’re clearly right.  Lovely rural towns are much nicer to visit than regional fracking centers.  Almost anyone who saw Before-and-After pictures would agree with you: the town’s gotten far worse.

But what’s so great about the tourist’s point of view anyway?  Tourism is just one tiny industry in a vast economy.  If a billion-dollar fracking industry replaces a ten-million-dollar sight-seeing industry, that’s a $990M gain for mankind, not a “tragedy.”  The transformation is clearly good for the 97,000 new residents of the town.  It’s good for everyone who consumes the new petroleum products.  And while the original inhabitants will probably gripe about all they’ve lost, they’re free to sell at inflated prices and move to one of the many remaining lovely rural towns. 

Why then is the tourist’s perspective so compelling?  Let me count the ways.

First: As Bastiat would say, touristic charm is “seen,” while industrial output is “unseen.”  You pass through a lovely location; you immediately sigh, “Aah.”  You pass by a fracking field; you immediately grimace, “Yuck.”  To appreciate the wonder of fracking, you have to set aside your gut reaction and visualize the massive and manifold global benefits of cheaper energy.

Second: Tourists hastily impute their initial disgust to locals: “If looking at fracking once makes me feel bad, it must be hell to actually live here.”  But this impulsive reaction ignores everything we know about hedonic adaptation.  Once I got a flat tire outside of Sigmaringen, Germany.  When I complimented the guy at the repair shop on his idyllic town, he furrowed his brow and reflected, “Oh, I guess.  We don’t really think about it.”  The broader lesson: If you live with beauty every day, you largely take it for granted – and the same goes for ugliness.  That’s why most people happily live in places most people wouldn’t like to visit.

Third: Tourism has high status in our society.  Elites travel widely, and look down on provincial folk who don’t.  As a result, many of us tacitly treat touristic beauty as a merit good – and many more pretend to concur in order to bolster our own status.  Could elites be right?  My default is to say, “Yes,” but as merit goods go, tourism seems like a pretty arbitrary selection.

This summer, I’m spending a month in France.  It’s a lovely country; I’d happily spend a year there, just nosing around.  But that doesn’t mean that France is an especially wonderful country overall.  If France had ten times the population with half of France’s current per-capita income and none of its famous attractions, I probably wouldn’t want to visit it.  But all things considered, why wouldn’t that be a huge improvement?