Friday, April 15, 2011

Introduction: Tourism, anthropology, and the eternal search for a proper subject of study

I think I'll introduce this issue with a short story about one of my experiences with tourism.  About a decade ago I was hiking around in a place called Joshua Tree National Park.  One of those austere California desert destinations that I happen to be drawn to, for some reason or another.  I was checking out a spot called "Skull Rock", which does in fact look like a human skull in heat-warped sort of way.  Anyway.  Here is where things got interesting on that broiling, dry day: Skull Rock happens to be located alongside a nicely paved asphalt road.  Convenient, all things considered.  As I was wandering around, climbing upon those piles of rocks, this massive bus pulled up.  Seemingly out of nowhere.  A small legion of older folks (tourists?  retirees?)  rambled out of its doors.  

Cameras in hand, they flooded the solitude of Skull Rock for a pre-planned amount of time.  About 15 minutes, no longer.  They joked, they wandered (not far), and they snapped pictures that were destined for albums, wallets, and maybe the internet.  Proof, of course, that the bus had indeed pulled over and they had been to SKULL ROCK.  It makes you wonder whether we go to places to see the actual place, or to get the photo of the place (a point that Don Delillo makes in one of my favorite scenes in the book White Noise).  I watched, irritated by what I was seeing.  It was all wrong according to my moral and aesthetic compass.  You can't just drive out here in a bus, I thought to myself.  That's not the way things work.  I know how it all works--and that's not the way to experience this place.  I took pictures of the picture-takers (see image below) to gather evidence of the egregious social violation. 

The tourists snapped a few more photos, and then they were corralled back into the bus.  I stood by the rock, alongside that deep black, freshly paved road, somewhat incredulous.  Kind of funny, looking back.  Apparently, I had it in my mind that I knew the proper etiquette for acceptable behavior in that location.  But what gave me the idea that I "had it right"?  It was about 107 degress, mind you.  I never really wondered what those "tourists" (since that's what they were, not like me) thought about the sweaty, grubby guy out there in the middle of the midday heat.  To them, I could have looked like a lunatic.  Or, at best, completely misguided.  Perspective--as far too many social scientists like to tell us--really does matter.  Tourism, it seems, is about the confluence of desires in particular places, spaces, and situations.  And in many cases, those desires don't exactly speak to the same truths or even the same end goals.  Overlapping, yet not necessarily interacting--fields of experience.  Despite the geographical commonalities.  

When it comes to tourism--at Joshua Tree and elsewhere--there are a multiplicity of motivations.  Some people travel to experience difference, solitude, adventure, or what they imagine to be exotic.  Some have a deep inner drive to go where (they imagine) nobody has ever been before.  Others, however, just want to see the main sites that the guidebooks recommend and move on.  Stop at the site, get out, take pictures, move on.  Why not?  Still others seek escape and luxurious comfort that they don't necessarily get in their everyday lives.  And then there are the people who are in it for the money--whether we're talking about mega-international tourism businesses or small communities who want their cut of the tourism dollar.

So tell me this: what's the difference between the person that I was out there in the California desert 10 years ago (with all of my indignation about tourism etiquette and such), and the person I am today (phd student, studier of tourism and politics)?  Am I still making assessments and judgments based upon accepted norms and frameworks?  Am I just another tourist--perhaps an information/ethnographic tourist?  Am I simply approaching particular places from a different set of epistemologies (Bruner and MacCannell vs Fodor's and Lonely Planet)?

You tell me.  The first time I ever heard about the anthropological study of tourism I think I might have almost fallen out of my chair.  What?  Who studies tourism?  What does that mean, anyway--the comparative study of trendy martinis in Acapulco, or what?  It seemed like a hilarious affair, and I wondered how such a research agenda could be taken seriously.  Then, I started to listen.  I started paying attention to what all of the books, articles, and texts were talking about--globalization, international politics, power, conflict, identity.  And the more I read about the critical study of tourism the more serious it all became.  The more I realized that it has all of the elements that good, critical anthropology needs to explore.  It is, after all, one of the biggest international markets.  People pay billions of dollars each year to experience other places, cultures, events, ideas, and, literally, bodies (see Denise Brennan's work, for starters).  Other people, on different end of the bargain, simply want their fair share of the "benefits" of tourism (which are rarely as egalitarian as many claim).  Tourism, despite its seemingly lighthearted nature, is laden with power dynamics, social conflict, and tremendously serious consequences.  In short: tourism matters.  

While places like Cancún seem like pleasure-infused touristic utopias, a multiplicity of "other" histories and realities simmer just below the surface.  Tourism matters because of the millions of people who are affected by the reach of its markets--in positive, negative, and horrendously ambiguous ways.  It matters because many still see tourism as an easy solution to socio-economic development--despite the pervasive problems.  Tourism sounds like it's all about leisure and relaxation.  If you only pay attention to ads in airline magazines and other (pervasive) media discourses, you might actually believe the romanticized, simplified hype.  But if you look a bit deeper, there's a lot more to the story.  Maybe, just maybe, that's where the anthropologists come in.  Maybe anthropologists--despite sometimes being mistaken for (or even sometimes being) tourists--have an important contribution to make to encouraging a broad (and critical) understanding of this international phenomena we call tourism.  Considering the global, political, and economic effects of tourism, this is a pretty relevant task, if you ask me.

Anyway, on to this issue.  This issue features the work of John Hutnyk, Sarah Taylor, Michael A. Di Giovine, Tamás Régi, Conor Muirhead, and Sergi Yanes. Just like the first issue, this one also features a Visual Anthropology piece--this time by Conor Muirhead.  Lastly, there is the Open Thread, and I encourage any and all readers to use this as a space to express opinions, reactions, and thoughts about the meanings of tourism, anthropology, and travel.  Don't be shy, folks.  The whole point is to move beyond one-way communication to create a space for dialog, debate, cross-fertilization of ideas, and flat-out intellectual brawls.  Ok, you don't have to brawl about tourism if you don't want to--but if you're even thinking about thinking of posting something--do it.  Regardless, I hope you enjoy this issue.  Over and out.



Jake said...

Poet Andrei Codrescu once wrote a piece in which he compared tourists to an occupying army, but with cameras instead of guns. The analogy doesn't entirely work, but I thought it was an interesting concept.

Ryan Anderson said...

Thanks for the comment, Jake. I have definitely been to some places/events where the throngs of camera-wielding tourists seemed a lot like an occupying army, that's for sure...

Camilo Lozano said...

It is clear that tourism is a kind of "product", but is a product that guides social practices (for example, take pictures: all skull rock's pictures are, in certain way, the same picture). Sometimes I wonder, from my own experience, how many pics of Buenos Aires obelisk are taken in one day. Bourdieu wrote about sociological relevance of pictures: the camera lens is guided by the rules of social taste. And I think is a fact that people in tourist class read books about business managment while travel. And those who travel in business class, read tourism magazines.

Anonymous said...

In a series on my blog I posted, "Cultural Studies focus largely on the habits of popular culture, that is, the social meaning of mass-produced consumer and leisure goods.Researchers concentrate on how a particular medium or message relates to matters of ideology, social class, nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, and/or gender. Being extremely holistic, it combines feminist theory, social and political theory, history, philosophy, literary theory, media theory, film/video, communication, and translation studies, museum studies and art, history and criticism. All in an effort to study cultural phenomena in various societies, and therefore make capitalistic decisions based on that data."

I had a friend that rented housing to Asian students who came here to San Diego so they could internship at SDSU for their Tourism major. Since America is the capitalism capital of the world, they come here to get tips and to see just how the wealthy get it done.

Since anthro is all about who and what people are, cultural studies fit right in. I don't do it, but some do.