Why do we go on holiday? To relax, to indulge, perhaps to escape the boring routine of our daily lives. For some, there is a much more curious reason to travel the world. There is a sizeable group of people who go in search of beasts that – so far as scientific evidence is concerned – do not exist.
While the existence of these mythical animals can be refuted, the rise of so-called ‘cryptotourism’ is nothing to be sniffed at. The International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine has estimated that the search for mythical beasts generates over $140 million per year to the US economy, while Visit Scotland states that visitors in search of the Loch Ness Monster contribute more than £40 million to the Scottish economy annually.
So popular is cryptotourism that travel tech company HolidayPirates has developed curated travel deals to the homelands of cryptids around the world, offering financial reimbursement for anyone who returns with photographic proof of the existence of a cryptid. (At the time of writing, nobody had yet made such a claim.)
So what are the most popular cryptids, and what are the lesser-known ones? Where can you go to seek them out? And why do people continue to defy the wisdom of scientists and spend their hard-earned money searching for mythical creatures?
Here we delve into the mysterious world of cryptotourism.
Fantastic beasts (and where you probably won’t find them)
In 1933 the Inverness Courier published an article titled ‘Strange Spectacle in Loch Ness’. It reported that, while driving along the northern shore of Loch Ness, a businessman and his wife witnessed “a tremendous upheaval on the loch”, a creature that was “rolling and plunging for fully a minute, its body resembling that of a whale, and the water cascading and churning like a simmering cauldron”.
This marked the beginning of the modern era of the search for Nessie. In the eighty-five years since there have been countless sightings of a monster in the loch and dozens of scientific studies. In the Edward Mountain expedition of 1934, twenty men positioned around Loch Ness spent five weeks studying, photographing and filming the waters. Zoologists concluded that the film, now lost, showed a grey seal, but that hasn’t stopped further studies.
In 2003 the BBC commissioned a search of the loch using sonar beams and satellite tracking, capable of detecting a small buoy. Nothing was found and the scientists concluded that, judging by their results, the Loch Ness Monster was a myth.
But tourism to Loch Ness shows no signs of slowing. People continue to visit the Great Glen to visit ‘Nessieland’, the park that stakes its credibility on being ‘the only attraction that believes in the legend of the Loch Ness Monster’ or the nearby Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition. Other attractions in the vicinity of Loch Ness, such as Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness by Jacobite, which offers scenic cruises on the loch, have seen increases in visitor numbers of 23 per cent and 29 per cent respectively.
Across the Atlantic, the most popular cryptid is Bigfoot (or the Sasquatch), a man-like beast said to stand up to nine feet tall, covered in dark hair and leaving sizeable prints in its wake. Professor G.W. Gill – President of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology and expert in skeletal biology – doesn’t see Bigfoot as a joke: “Either the most complex and sophisticated hoax in the history of Anthropology has continued for centuries without being exposed or the most manlike and largest non human primate has managed to survive in parts of North America and remains undiscovered by modern science,” he said.
The scientific community generally avoids lending credence to the notion of Bigfoot by not entering debate about the beast, but this hasn’t stopped people travelling to catch sight of it. A number of tour companies operate trips to find a Sasquatch, including Sasquatch Country Adventures in Harrison Hot Springs, British Columbia, and the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, which has a number of tours running through 2019.
Across the planet, another ape-like beast has captured the imagination in the form of the Yeti (or Abominable Snowman), although – since it is thought to roam the inaccessible Himalayan and Siberian regions of East Asia – there isn’t quite the same tourism market surrounding this cryptid than Nessie or Bigfoot.
The lesser known cryptids
Beyond the A-lister cryptids of the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot and the Yeti, there are a number of lesser-known mythical beasts around the planet. In regions of Java, Vietnam and the Philippines, locals believe in giant bats known as Ahool. In Seram, Indonesia, some believe in the existence of a bat-monkey hybrid known as the ‘Orang-bati’.
In Central and Southern America, chupacabras (literally, ‘goat-suckers’) are said to be heavy creatures, the size of a small bear, with spines running down their neck. China has its own version of a hominoid beast, the Yeti-like ‘Yeren’ wildmen are frequently reported along rural roads.
One of the more fantastical beasts to roam imaginations is the Jersey Devil, a beast with the body of a kangaroo, head of a goat, wings of a bat, cloven hooves, clawed hands and forked tail. New Jersey folklore suggests the Jersey Devil has roamed the forests in the area for over 250 years.
In Africa, the Mngwa is a predatory, nocturnal big cat – purportedly as large as a donkey but with marks like a tabby cat – which are said to live in Tanzania. While in the Congo, giant water-dwelling sauropods known as Mokele-mbembe (“the one who stops the flow of rivers”) are said to roam deep in the Congo River Basin.
Why do we look for them?
While some (probably, most) cryptotourists are in it for a bit of fun, there is still a surprising number who genuinely hold out hope of catching a glimpse of a mythical beast. Why is this?
Daniel Taylor, author of Yeti: The Ecology of a Mystery, said in an interview with National Geographic: “What is this human hunger for these humanoid apparitions? I’m convinced it evolved out of the Victorian age when people were circling the world looking for the missing link.
“The deep mystery at our core is that we want to be connected to the great beyond. And we need symbols to help us understand the connection. That’s why we believe in God or angels or the Loch Ness Monster. Throughout human history, and across human cultures, we have developed messengers from the great beyond. Ultimately, that’s what the Yeti is.”
So how can we explain the sightings? American geologist and paleontologist Donald R Prothero points to the fallibility of our senses. “People are fooled by their senses, especially sight, because we are notoriously bad witnesses. One of the sightings of the Yeti, or the abominable snowman, turns out to be a rock outcrop. The guy saw it move the first time and then he had to leave. He came back finally a year later – after his sighting had been all over the media – and it turns out that it was just a rock he was shooting pictures of,” he told National Geographic.
George Monbiot argues that there are psychological reasons as to why we might want to believe in the existence of cryptids, such as the big cats that are frequently sighted around the UK. In his book, Feral, he points out that every age has had its paranormal phenomena. In the Victorian era, a time when epidemics killed children and young adults, there was a widespread belief in ghosts. Following the second world war, in a time of fast technological development, it was the boom in UFO sightings.
Today, as we become more detached from the natural world, perhaps our hunt for cryptids is the fulfilment of a deep-rooted need for wildness in our increasingly tame lives.
Would you spend a holiday going in search of a cryptid? Or should it remain the stuff of fantasy? Leave a comment below to join the conversation.