Exotic – what’s your definition?

Last weekend I was down in London at the Natural History Museum for the Veolia Environnment Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibit. Since I was 14 I would have a look at some of these images and feel in awe of the talent of the photographers, and the wonders in the images they have managed to capture. I always noticed one thing: most of the images were taken in far-away, exotic locations. But this year, much to my surprise, I noticed that there were several, even in the adult category, that had been taken in the UK. So this got me thinking about the term exotic, in relation to travelling and how much we yearn for a place that is described so. The dictionary describes the term as ‘originating in or characteristic of a distant foreign country’ (surprisingly enough each dictionary also included a definition relating to strippers). I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from yearning for travel, as I would be the biggest hypocrite out there. But it is worth considering what we Europeans do actually have on our doorstep in terms of travel and nature…

Far away

Unlike hundreds of years ago, we have more desire than ever to travel to places that are halfway across the world. Why is this?

Is it the culture? Sometimes those countries have a relatively similar culture, especially to that here of the UK (I say this lightly as I am very well aware of the slight differences).

Is it the landscape? Croatia has emerald blue water, so why travel out to the Seychelles? The Falkland Islands are very similar to the British countryside. There are more fjords in Sweden than in New Zealand. Indeed, most Japanese I know are fascinated by the UK just in the same way we are by them.

Is it remoteness then that we seek? Places that require long travel time? There are places in the north of Scotland that, to get to, require hours of driving and may see you on your own for a significant period of time.

New Zealand Mountains

Mountains in New Zealand. Looks like the Alps, perhaps?

Franz Josef New Zealand

Franz Josef glacier in New Zealand… or Iceland?

Bungee Jump New Zealand

Bungee jumping which originated in New Zealand. Don’t think Europe has one that’s 133m high yet!


Maybe it’s that we seek to be different. That we do not want to blend in with everyone else and we want to find people from a different culture, who speak a different language or who look different. The degrees to which many seek a different culture are not unanimous – going partying on Koh Phangan in Thailand or Bali in Indonesia means you are surrounded by mostly other Caucasians looking to get wasted at a cheaper price (and with less legal and social restrictions) than home.

Perhaps it’s in the weather? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone refer to the Mediterranean as exotic.

We might be seeking a different culture, and a different history, learning about things we’ve never had to study at school, flavours that we can’t even visually recognize and smells that are so fresh it overwhelms our nostrils. Expanding our horizons, both physically and mentally.

Padley Gorge

Padley Gorge, in the peak district, in Autumn

Scottish countryside

Scottish countryside

European sparrowhawk

Goshawk, commonly seen in the UK (taken at the International Centre for Birds of Prey)


Perhaps it is most of all an impression of remoteness and untouched by our Western capitalistic notions and exploitations. The rainforests of Madagascar, the vast Siberian wilderness, or the Pantanal of Brazil. Surely we do not refrain from using exotic for places not to connected to nature, such as Beijing, or Mexico City. And Europe has its fair share of remote places that can take your breath away, such as parts of Iceland or the Black Forest in Germany.
Though I don’t think anyone will doubt that the wildlife in places that we consider ‘exotic’ is definitely in a greater quantity and of a greater quality than what Europe can offer.

Tikal ruins

The ruins of Tikal, in the second largest area of protected rainforest in Guatemala

Howler Monkey

Even though Greece and Italy have the most famous of the ancient European ruins, walking amongst them won’t allow you to see the likes of howler monkeys


or the likes of this Coatmundi

So what about you? What criteria do you have to be able to call a place ‘exotic’?

4 thoughts on “Exotic – what’s your definition?

  1. I agree that we often overlook the beauty surrounding the place we call home. We should balance a desire for the exotic with a healthy appreciation for the domestic.

  2. Exoticism is relative. I grew up in Asia, left when I was 18 to study in Australia, and have lived in great cities like London and New York City. Many of the Asian food, cultures and norms I grew up with I take for granted – they are not “exotic” to me.

    Africa retains a sense of mystery and exoticism for me, because the people, language, culture, landscapes and history are so different from everywhere I have called home. It’s also not easy to get to, or around, which lends it even more exoticism.

    Maybe “exotic” = “different”, and the concept changes according to who uses it and at what stage of life they are in. Great post!

  3. Thanks for the comments, both of you! The post is a bit Europe-centric but I hope the sentiment comes across, and most importantly, gets people thinking!

  4. Ik heb de docu over Canvey Wick bekeken. Op zich heel interessant. Twee commentaren. – de maker had iemand anders moeten inhuren voor het commentaar en het niet zelf moeten doen met een half-fluisterende stem. Dat is zeer irritant. – het camerawerk is verre van perfect: schokkerige beelden ipv van vloeiende bewegingen. Dat kan een stuk beter.

    wat is jouw take?


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